THE CDS PLANET

Διαβάσαμε εδω & εδω

PART A

A banker’s perspective of the Greece derivatives debt dodge

By Edward Harrison of Credit Writedowns.

Last week, Yves wrote her perspective on the Goldman-Greece cross currency swaps. Here’s a slightly different take. Comments are appreciated.
By now, you know about the much-discussed swaps that Greece used to conceal it’s debt load. While the amount of debt concealed is low relative to the total, the mere fact that Greece attempted to conceal its true fiscal position is damning in light of revelations in October that the government’s fiscal hole for 2009 is three times the original April estimate.
The problem is, in a word, credibility. Greece now has none – and this is why its bond yields have skyrocketed.
But what about the investment bankers like Goldman Sachs who helped Greece in its machinations – aren’t they to be vilified as well. What do we do about them? I was thinking about that after an interview I did this morning on Canada’s Business News Network (see clip here).
Last week, we got some pretty pointed views on this subject. Felix Salmon says “Goldman is a scapegoat.” Yves Smith takes a more negative view of Goldman’s culpability. So I decided to take a different tack and share some thoughts with you on how investment bankers think – and how it may have led to this. I am using this term ‘Investment Banker’ generically to refer to financial staff at broker-dealers whether they work in a sales & trading or an advisory role. This distinguishes the I-Banker from a commercial banker where incentives are somewhat different.
The first thing you have to realize about investment bankers is that it’s all about the money. Now I’m not talking about a greed is good mentality here. I’m referring to money as validation for achievement, success and self-worth.
Corporate hierarchies
In a normal corporate environment, there is a strict hierarchy in which those at the top earn more than those at the bottom. In order to rise to the top (and earn the salary and huge bonus – I might add), one needs to be considered successful. And that means putting in years of effort for which one receives performance reviews.
If you do well on these reviews, you might even receive accolades, awards and so on – the point being you are a rising star with talent. So you get promoted. “The way you’re going, you might even rise to CEO one day!” That’s the kind of praise you might hear. So the whole hierarchical apparatus is designed to align high achievement with other external signs of success: good evaluations, promotions, more money, more responsibility, more underlings, larger budgets, awards, and accolades and so on. All you need to do is look at an org chart and you get a pretty good sense of who’s supposed to be the stars. And by the way, this is how it works in commercial banking as well.
Investment banking hierarchies
But, that’s not how it works in investment banking at all. When one deal or a series of trades can mean billions in profit, even a relatively junior person can have influence on the bottom line far beyond what her title suggests. This is certainly true in the advisory business, but it is even more true in trading – especially proprietary trading, a major reason that proprietary trading is inherently risky and would be restricted under the Volcker Rule. By the way, this is also a major reason that investment banks that are public companies and not partnerships are risky companies with notoriously poor managers.
A slovenly 32-year old junior trader with terrible social skills, zero management ability and no one reporting to him can make millions of dollars a year. He’s the guy you read about in the newspaper making three times the CEO’s salary. He’s the guy that all the other firms are trying to poach. And he’s the guy that used to be referred to admiringly as a “big swinging dick.” You don’t see that at Acme Incorporated. That’s what I mean when I say it’s all about the money. You learn very quickly in investment banking that status is not all about the titles, it’s more about the money.
Read any account from investment banking like Predator’s Ball or Liar’s Poker you will quickly notice that even the higher level guys are driven to earn a lot of money, not only for the money itself but for what that money says about their status and value relative to their peers.
Advisory business
So, with that in mind, let’s think about the advisory business, Goldman Sachs and the infamous cross-currency swaps. The advisory business is more hierarchical than the sales & trading side of things. But, you can still make a shed load of cash by doing the right deals and being on the right team. Most people in the advisory business work in product or industry groups like Technology or Industrials or Structured Products. In those groups you have some professionals who are product experts while others are relationship managers.
Now, as an individual, your ostensible goal is to serve your clients by giving them the best advice on financial products and transactions to fit their short- and long-term goals. The payoff comes in the form a fee for capital raised, a merger completed or a financial transaction completed. The reality is you as an individual make more money – and hence have higher status – the more transactions you do, the more complex and bigger the deals you do.
So, as an individual there are two major conflicts you might have with your client.

  • If your client wants to do a deal that you don’t think is advisable or ethical; or if you uncover damaging information about your client that makes you believe the terms of a deal need to be altered.
  • If you can arrange a deal that you believe is not in your client’s best interests but which earns your company more money.
Greece wanted these deals

In the case of the cross currency swaps, all available evidence says that the Greeks were actively looking for ways to reduce their apparent fiscal debt levels and deficit numbers without having to reduce spending or raise taxes. It’s called having your cake and eating it too.
So, I imagine Goldman and other banks each had conversations with the Greek government about the government’s financial advisory needs. The Greeks probably said they wanted to have their cake and eat it too and asked if the investment bankers could help them. Now Goldman had a very good relationship manager in the form of Antigone Loudiadis, who had done valuable service for Greece before and had good contacts with the client (exactly what you want in a relationship manager). According to the Wall Street Journal:

Guided by Ms. Loudiadis in the 1990s, Goldman set up a series of currency “swap” trades for Greece, enabling the country to use favorable exchange rates to record some of its debts. By 2001, when those rates had become unattractive, Ms. Loudiadis helped Greece structure a different trade that enabled the government to continue using advantageous rates for accounting purposes.

So, there’s the basis of what occurred. All of this is well within the norm.
An alternate view of the deals
But, here’s the problem. There’s another way to look at these deals. Here is the definitive take from a 2003 article in Risk magazine, pointed out by Felix Salmon. I have bolded parts I want to stress:

Ever since the deficit and debt rules for eurozone member states were drawn up in the early 1990s, there have been persistent rumours and allegations that governments have used derivatives to get around them. For some time, economists have argued that the combination of strict external targets with considerable local autonomy in sovereign debt management almost inevitably leads high-deficit countries towards derivatives.
It is now widely known that since 1996, Italy’s Treasury has regularly used swaps transactions to optically reduce its publicly reported debt and deficit ratios. Such trades remain controversial, and were the subject of fierce debate in late 2001, when Italian academic Gustavo Piga published a paper accusing eurozone countries of ‘window dressing’ their public accounts using derivatives (Risk January 2002, page 17).
Now, Italy has been joined by the Hellenic Republic of Greece, as evidence emerges of a remarkable deal between the public debt division of Greece’s finance ministry and the investment bank Goldman Sachs. The deal is not only likely to reopen an old debate on public accounting for derivatives, but also sheds light on the way banks charge clients for taking credit and market risk exposure.

So, Italy played this game as far back as 1996. And, that’s the crux of the matter. As a banker, you never re-invent the wheel. If a deal works and makes lots of money, you shop that deal around to everyone you can until it doesn’t. If you don’t, your competitors will. I reckon bankers at Goldman were very excited that Greece wanted to do these deals – and I wouldn’t be surprised if other bankers did the deals or other countries still.
The deal structure
Risk does an excellent job of outlining the structure of the actual swaps.

The transactions agreed between the Greek public debt division and Goldman Sachs involved cross-currency swaps linked to Greece’s outstanding yen and dollar debt. Cross-currency swaps were among the earliest over-the-counter derivatives contracts to be traded, and have a perfectly routine purpose in debt management, namely to transform the currency of an obligation.
For example, an issuer with foreign fixed-rate debt might choose to lock in a favourable exchange rate move. To do this, it could swap a stream of fixed domestic currency payments for a stream of foreign currency ones, referenced to the notional of the debt using the prevailing spot foreign exchange rate, with an exchange of the two notionals at maturity. Because they are transacted at spot exchange rates, cross-currency swaps of this type have zero present value at inception, although the net value (and credit exposure of either counterparty) may subsequently fluctuate.[emphasis added]

Here’s the thing though. As an individual you will always come to a point where a client is you begging you to do something that is legal, makes lots of money for your company, but that you feel is unethical. There had to be a moment in this transaction here.

However, according to sources, the cross-currency swaps transacted by Goldman for Greece’s public debt division were ‘off-market’ – the spot exchange rate was not used for re-denominating the notional of the foreign currency debt. Instead, a weaker level of euro versus dollar or yen was used in the contracts, resulting in a mismatch between the domestic and foreign currency swap notionals. The effect of this was to create an upfront payment by Goldman to Greece at inception, and an increased stream of interest payments to Greece during the lifetime of the swap. Goldman would recoup these non-standard cashflows at maturity, receiving a large ‘balloon’ cash payment from Greece. [emphasis added]

You get that? Goldman had been doing swaps with Greece in anticipation of Euro entry. These transactions allowed them to take U.S. Dollar and Yen-denominated debt and transfer them into Euros at exchange rates which made the level of Yen/Dollar debt look lower until the swap transaction came due and Greece was forced to make a balloon payment to Goldman.
The morality of all this
What other purpose can these transactions serve other than to mask the true indebtedness of Greece? Did anyone actually break the law? If these are legal transactions, does Goldman Sachs have any responsibility inform the EU of the deals? Should Goldman’s bankers have refused Greece’s wishes, knowing that some other banker would collect the fees? Why does this matter now other than in regards to Greece’s credibility in future sovereign debt deals?
These are all good questions. But, the Wall Street Journal article gets to the heart of things and why the deals happened.

Even though the transaction occurred nearly a decade ago, it has come under scrutiny by European Union officials as they examine how Greece fell into such dire economic straits.
Ms. Loudiadis became a Goldman partner in 2000. A cerebral Oxford University graduate, she was eventually named co-head of the company’s investment-banking group in Europe, making as much as $12 million in annual compensation, according to someone familiar with the matter. She lives an exclusive neighborhood in West London known for its white stucco homes.

From a banker’s perspective, that’s what this is all about – money, and the status that goes with it….

PART B (This headline is from July 1, 2003…)
…with the help of Goldman Sachs, Greece has been using giant swaps deals to ensure its national debt ratios meet EU targets. But these deals are likely to prove controversial. By Nicholas DunbarGustavo Piga warned against it but the Greek chick, Antigone Loudiadis, highly respected of course, did it anyway…

With the help of Goldman Sachs, Greece has been using giant swaps deals to ensure its national debt ratios meet EU targets. But these deals are likely to prove controversial. By Nicholas DunbarGustavo Piga warned against it but the Greek chick, Antigone Loudiadis, highly respected of course, did it anyway…With the help of Goldman Sachs, Greece has been using giant swaps deals to ensure its national debt ratios meet EU targets. But these deals are likely to prove controversial. By Nicholas DunbarEver since the deficit and debt rules for eurozone member states were drawn up in the early 1990s, there have been persistent rumours and allegations that governments have used derivatives to get around them. For some time, economists have argued that the combination of strict external targets with considerable local autonomy in sovereign debt management almost inevitably leads high-deficit countries towards derivatives.It is now widely known that since 1996, Italy’s Treasury has regularly used swaps transactions to optically reduce its publicly reported debt and deficit ratios. Such trades remain controversial, and were the subject of fierce debate in late 2001, when Italian academic Gustavo Piga published a paper accusing eurozone countries of ‘window dressing’ their public accounts using derivatives (Risk January 2002, page 17). Now, Italy has been joined by the Hellenic Republic of Greece, as evidence emerges of a remarkable deal between the public debt division of Greece’s finance ministry and the investment bank Goldman Sachs. The deal is not only likely to reopen an old debate on public accounting for derivatives, but also sheds light on the way banks charge clients for taking credit and market risk exposure.Intended to rein in fiscal profligacy among aspiring eurozone entrants, the Stability and Growth Pact (SGP) – established in 1996 – sets two important targets for member states: a debt/GDP ratio of less than 60% and a deficit/GDP ratio of less than 3%. Of the two, the second is considered more important. Countries that show persistent breaches of the 3% target are liable to pay heavy fines to Brussels of up to 0.5% of GDP under the so-called Excessive Deficit Programme (EDP). Performing the key regulatory role of determining whether the targets have been met is the European Statistical Office (Eurostat). Greece, which joined the single currency in early 2001, resembles mid-1990s Italy in certain respects. Until recently it was a country of high deficits and high inflation, and for this reason did not bother joining the first wave of eurozone countries in 1998. In the run-up to joining the eurozone, Greek inflation and budget deficits fell sharply, and GDP grew as the incumbent socialist government pursued a policy of UK-style public-sector reform. However, like Italy, Greece’s debt/GDP ratio has remained high, at over 100%, and as a result its interest costs are the highest in the eurozone. In November 2001, the Greek finance ministry’s public debt division made a public statement about its debt management strategy. It acknowledged that its debt was a ‘critical macroeconomic parameter’, and pledged to reduce debt servicing costs by means that included ‘the extensive use of derivatives’. Apparently, this was not enough for Brussels. In February 2002, the European Commission pointed out future deficit forecasts by Greece relied ‘primarily’ on achieving reductions in interest costs. It called for Greece to reduce its ‘very high’ debt ratio, and to provide ‘more detailed information on financial operations’. Although Greece’s public debt division points out that it uses 18 derivatives counterparties, there is no doubt that the division, which is headed by Christopher Sardelis, has a particularly close relationship with Goldman Sachs. Indeed, the account has been handled personally at Goldman Sachs by Antigone Loudiadis, the London-based European head of sales for the firm’s fixed-income, currencies and commodities unit. Highly respected by other dealers, Loudiadis has enjoyed a successful career at Goldman, joining the firm’s partnership committee and attaining her present position in 2000. According to sources, by early 2002, Loudiadis and her team put together a deal aimed at alleviating Greece’s problem of debt ratios and high interest costs.The transactions agreed between the Greek public debt division and Goldman Sachs involved cross-currency swaps linked to Greece’s outstanding yen and dollar debt. Cross-currency swaps were among the earliest over-the-counter derivatives contracts to be traded, and have a perfectly routine purpose in debt management, namely to transform the currency of an obligation. For example, an issuer with foreign fixed-rate debt might choose to lock in a favourable exchange rate move. To do this, it could swap a stream of fixed domestic currency payments for a stream of foreign currency ones, referenced to the notional of the debt using the prevailing spot foreign exchange rate, with an exchange of the two notionals at maturity. Because they are transacted at spot exchange rates, cross-currency swaps of this type have zero present value at inception, although the net value (and credit exposure of either counterparty) may subsequently fluctuate. However, according to sources, the cross-currency swaps transacted by Goldman for Greece’s public debt division were ‘off-market’ – the spot exchange rate was not used for re-denominating the notional of the foreign currency debt. Instead, a weaker level of euro versus dollar or yen was used in the contracts, resulting in a mismatch between the domestic and foreign currency swap notionals. The effect of this was to create an upfront payment by Goldman to Greece at inception, and an increased stream of interest payments to Greece during the lifetime of the swap. Goldman would recoup these non-standard cashflows at maturity, receiving a large ‘balloon’ cash payment from Greece. Since neither Goldman nor Greece will comment on the deal, much of the details remain vague. It is not clear which exchange rates were used in the actual contracts. Under the terms of a similar ‘off-market’ deal transacted by Italy in 1997, the exchange rates prevailing at the time of the underlying bond issue were used, which would have made sense in the case of Greece since the deal happened after a period of euro strengthening against the yen and dollar. Although the overall deal is believed to have consisted of three or four individual transactions or tranches, according to sources, the total cross-currency swap notional was approximately $10 billion, with tenors ranging from 15 to 20 years. While the size of upfront payment to Greece’s public debt division is not clear, it seems the total credit risk incurred by Goldman Sachs was roughly $1 billion. Effectively, Goldman Sachs was extending a long-dated illiquid loan to its client. Goldman Sachs is known for its conservative approach to credit risk, and chose to hedge its exposure to Greece by immediately placing the risk with a well-known investor in sovereign credit: Frankfurt-based Deutsche Pfandbriefe Bank (Depfa). According to sources, Depfa entered into a credit default swap with Goldman Sachs, selling $1 billion of protection on Greece for up to 20 years. Depfa declined to comment. Total charge Details have also emerged of the way Greece’s public debt division was charged for the transaction. According to market sources, the total charge was approximately $200 million. This charge can be broken down into several components. First, Greece was charged for the credit risk in the transaction. Long-dated Greek government bonds were trading at a spread of 30 basis points in 2002. A billion-dollar investment in such bonds, purchased in asset swap form and held for 20 years, would yield about $60 million. According to Risk’s sources, Depfa demanded a substantial premium for taking on what was in effect an illiquid, privately placed loan. Second, Greece paid a principal risk charge to Goldman Sachs for its market risk exposure. Although standard euro/dollar and euro/yen cross-currency swaps are highly liquid instruments that trade at tight bid-offer spreads in the interbank market, such large, off-market transactions cannot be hedged in this market without significantly moving the price against the dealer. Goldman Sachs may have hedged some of the risk using futures, forwards and interest rate swaps, while retaining substantial cross-currency and interest rate basis risks in its portfolio. Of course, the ultimate profit and loss experienced by Goldman Sachs on the transactions remains unknown. Equally murky is the exact effect of Goldman Sachs’ transactions on Greece’s publicly reported national accounts. Since the deficit was a comfortable 1.2% of GDP in 2002, it is more likely that the cashflows were either used to help lower the debt/GDP ratio from 107% in 2001, to 104.9% in 2002 (by funding buybacks) or to lower interest payments from 7.4% in 2001 to 6.4% in 2002. But why did the large negative market value of the swaps not appear on the liability side of Greece’s balance sheet? The answer can be found in ESA95, a 243-page manual on government deficit and debt accounting, published by the European Commission and Eurostat in 2002. As revealed by Piga, the drafting of ESA95’s section on derivatives was the subject of fierce arguments between the government statisticians and debt managers of certain eurozone countries. The statisticians wanted derivatives-related cashflows to be treated as financial transactions, with no effect on deficit or interest costs, and with the derivatives’ current market value stated as an asset or liability. The debt managers opposed this, insisting on having the freedom to use derivatives to adjust deficit ratios. The published version of ESA95 reflects the victory of the debt managers in this argument with a series of last-minute amendments.In particular, ESA95 states in a page-long ‘clarification’ that ‘streams of interest payments under swaps agreements will continue… having an impact on general government net borrowing/net lending’. In other words, upfront swap payments – which Eurostat classifies as interest – can reduce debt, without the corresponding negative market value of the swap increasing it. According to ESA95, the clarification only covers ‘currency swaps based on existing liabilities’. There is no doubt that Goldman Sachs’ deal with Greece was a completely legitimate transaction under Eurostat rules. Moreover, both Goldman Sachs and Greece’s public debt division are following a path well trodden by other European sovereigns and derivatives dealers. However, like many accounting-driven derivatives transactions, such deals are bound to create discomfort among those who like accounts to reflect economic reality. For example, the Greece-Goldman deal may be of interest to credit rating agency Standard & Poor’s, which upgraded Greece’s long-term debt from A to A+ in June 2003. Among other derivatives dealers, the deal is bound to create envy at Goldman Sachs’ skill in solving the risk management needs of such an important client. As long as the current Eurostat rules do not change, the use of derivatives in deficit and debt management by eurozone sovereigns is likely to flourish. The planned expansion of the eurozone to include 15 east European countries may lead to especially rich pickings for dealers able to seize such opportunities.http://www.risk.net/risk-magazine/feature/1498135/revealed-goldman-sachs-mega-deal-greece
Sources
Revealed: Goldman Sachs’ mega-deal for Greece – Risk magazine
Also see Tim Iacono’s piece “Playing up to the edge of the line.”
More on this topic

Greece: Trojan Horse or Triple Crown Winner?
Unfolding Sovereign Debt Story
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