January 20, 2022

Memo From Europe: A Continent Mired in Crisis Coins a Language of Economic Pain

The Italians, who now track the spread between German and Italian bond yields with a passion once reserved for soccer, toss around words like “spreaddite,” wryly defined by La Repubblica, a daily newspaper in Rome, as the “intensification of the suffering caused by the high spread.”

In Greece, crisis-born phrases pepper conversations in cafes and offices and on subway trains, particularly the ironic use of expressions or slogans uttered by political leaders, like a claim in 2009 by George A. Papandreou, then the prime minister, that there was money, when clearly there was not. “Don’t worry, I’ll get it,” a Greek man celebrating his birthday at an Athens taverna told his friends recently when they reached for their wallets. “Hey, there is money. Remember?”

The long economic crisis in Europe has ushered in record unemployment and boisterous protests, but there are also many subtler ways to gauge its effect. In country after country, the crisis has also spawned a language of its own, brought once exotic financial terms into popular use and generated a slang that reflects the dark humor used by many to cope with their enduring troubles.

Crisis slang has even been embraced by those at the top layers of government and society. Seeking to allay concerns that Spain, like Greece, would need an international bailout, Cristóbal Montoro, Spain’s budget minister, promised nervous Spaniards last year that “los hombres de negro” — or the men in black, as the European Union officials have become known — would not be arriving.

The changes in language are numerous enough that in June the Spanish Royal Academy, guardian of the Spanish language, put the finishing touches on an updated dictionary with 200 words that have been added or given new meanings. They include the worrying “prima de riesgo” (risk premium), with a common sentence to illustrate: “The risk premium of our sovereign debt rose several points.”

Spaniards, many of whom had never heard such terms before the start of the financial crisis in 2008, now use them with such regularity that they are just as likely to come up in conversation with a taxi driver as to be heard on the evening news. When it comes to language there is “poukou,” which the Greeks use to refer to the pre-crisis era, and there is now.

“The crisis is having a huge impact on society and its usage of the language, making people speak about the economy in a way that had no relevance to them just a few years ago,” said Darío Villanueva, the secretary general of the 46-member Spanish Royal Academy, which includes mostly writers but also scientists, historians, economists and lawyers.

To update the Spanish dictionary, the academy relied on a computerized data system to measure the frequency of millions of words used on television and radio and in newspapers as well as other writings. It also agreed to the changes with sister academies, mostly in Latin America, to harmonize linguistic developments across the Spanish-speaking world.

Among the words durable enough to make the cut was “bonus,” which had not been commonly used in Spanish until the spotlight shifted to Spain’s troubled bankers and the money they made. There was also “burbuja,” or bubble, like the one that burst in the housing market, and “población activa,” or the population old enough to work, which came into use because a sizable share of it is not working.

Similarly, several terms rooted in the economic crisis were among the 5,000 words added to the updated version of the Duden, the definitive work of the German language, which came out in July. They include “schuldenbremse,” literally “debt brake,” and “eurobond,” a reference to proposals for the European Union to issue bonds to cover the debt of euro-using nations; Germans fear that such bonds would place onerous obligations on them. While the word may exist, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government has done its best to make sure the bond does not.

Reporting was contributed by Elisabetta Povoledo from Rome, Niki Kitsantonis from Athens, Marisa Moura from Lisbon, and Maïa de la Baume from Paris.

Article source: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/07/26/world/europe/a-continent-mired-in-crisis-coins-a-language-of-economic-pain.html?partner=rss&emc=rss

High & Low Finance: Deception by Derivative

But they are often weapons of mass deception.

For some derivatives, a desire for deception is the only reason they exist. That deception can allow those who own derivatives to evade taxes or accounting rules. It can allow activity that might otherwise be illegal, were it not called a derivative, or that would face regulation if it were labeled what it truly is.

Sometimes, banks use derivatives they create to help their clients deceive the public. Other times, they enable the banks to deceive those clients.

The latest revelation of deception by derivative came in Italian government documents leaked this week to two European newspapers, La Repubblica and The Financial Times. The Financial Times said it appeared that Italy had used derivatives in the 1990s to allow it to make its budget deficit seem smaller, thus enabling it to qualify for admission to the euro zone. The report said it appeared those derivatives, now restructured, might be exposing Italy to a loss of 8 billion euros ($10.4 billion).

La Repubblica noted that the director general of the Italian Treasury Department at the time, Mario Draghi, is now running the European Central Bank.

Italy’s economy minister, Fabrizio Saccomanni, said it was “absolutely baseless” to say that the country used derivatives to lie its way into the euro zone. It was simply hedging against market risks. As for the current situation, he said, “There’s been no material damage to our public finances.” He drew a distinction between realized losses and those based on market values that could change.

What seems to have happened in Italy is similar to something that we already know Greece did. Rather than borrow money — which would increase the reported budget deficit — the country entered into a derivatives contract that called for the banks to make large upfront payments in return for larger payments later from the government.

And how did that differ from a loan? Functionally, not very much, in all probability. But if you call something a derivative you can often get away with keeping it off your balance sheet — or putting it on the balance sheet in a misleading way. If the Financial Times report is right, the deal made Italy’s reported budget deficit smaller just when the country needed that to join the euro zone.

There is some evidence that Europe knew what was going on and chose to ignore it. Joining the euro was seen as more of a political event than an economic one, a symbol of European unity.

The effect of the funny accounting was similar to that of a student cheating on college entrance exams. The student may get into a university where he or she cannot compete, just as Italy and Greece find themselves in a currency bloc where their economies are at a significant disadvantage.

But while uncompetitive students can drop out, or be expelled, the euro zone rules provide that no country can leave. That fact, perhaps more than anything else, accounts for the persistence of the euro zone crisis.

Such deception by derivative is hardly new. Enron was a pioneer. It used derivatives called “prepaid forward” contracts to hide debt in a way that made corporate cash flow appear better, something the company thought was necessary to impress the bond rating agencies.

Responding to claims that his bank and Citibank had made “disguised loans” to Enron, a JPMorgan Chase executive told a Senate hearing in 2002 that “the prepaid forwards were undoubtedly financing, as all contracts are that involve prepayment features, but every financing is not a loan.” He said the bank had properly accounted for them, but “the manner in which Enron accounted for them” was of no concern to the bank. It was, instead, “a matter for Enron and its management and auditors.”

Article source: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/28/business/deception-by-derivative.html?partner=rss&emc=rss