Derivatives are often disguised debt transactions
Felix Salmon points us to this new Der Spiegel article:
Now, though, it looks like the Greek figure jugglers have been even more brazen than was previously thought. "Around 2002 in particular, various investment banks offered complex financial products with which governments could push part of their liabilities into the future," one insider recalled, adding that Mediterranean countries had snapped up such products.
Greece's debt managers agreed a huge deal with the savvy bankers of US investment bank Goldman Sachs at the start of 2002. The deal involved so-called cross-currency swaps in which government debt issued in dollars and yen was swapped for euro debt for a certain period — to be exchanged back into the original currencies at a later date.
Fictional Exchange Rates
Such transactions are part of normal government refinancing. Europe's governments obtain funds from investors around the world by issuing bonds in yen, dollar or Swiss francs. But they need euros to pay their daily bills. Years later the bonds are repaid in the original foreign denominations.
But in the Greek case the US bankers devised a special kind of swap with fictional exchange rates. That enabled Greece to receive a far higher sum than the actual euro market value of 10 billion dollars or yen. In that way Goldman Sachs secretly arranged additional credit of up to $1 billion for the Greeks.
This credit disguised as a swap didn't show up in the Greek debt statistics. Eurostat's reporting rules don't comprehensively record transactions involving financial derivatives. "The Maastricht rules can be circumvented quite legally through swaps," says a German derivatives dealer.
From what I understand of the Maastricht standards, they are far less stringent than banking regulation, even in places where banking regulation is relatively lax. Is the premise that governments are more trustworthy and more transparent? Or is the premise that governments should be allowed to do what banks cannot?
Here is gloss on the Sophoclean chorus on debt; you may need to scroll down to the paragraph on lines 151-58.