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Michael Lewis – Vanity Article On Greece, Debt and A Culture of Corruption

September 12, 2010 | About:

Michael Lewis the author of Moneyball and The Big Short has an article in Vanity Fair that is a fascinating account of the problems that Greece is currently facing.

As per usual Lewis does a great job in telling the story.

The link is at the bottom. When you consider some of the following, “austerity measures” seem long overdue:

“The average government job pays almost three times the average private-sector job. The national railroad has annual revenues of 100 million euros against an annual wage bill of 400 million, plus 300 million euros in other expenses. The average state railroad employee earns 65,000 euros a year. Twenty years ago a successful businessman turned minister of finance named Stefanos Manos pointed out that it would be cheaper to put all Greece’s rail passengers into taxicabs: it’s still true. “We have a railroad company which is bankrupt beyond comprehension,” Manos put it to me. “And yet there isn’t a single private company in Greece with that kind of average pay.” The Greek public-school system is the site of breathtaking inefficiency: one of the lowest-ranked systems in Europe, it nonetheless employs four times as many teachers per pupil as the highest-ranked, Finland’s. Greeks who send their children to public schools simply assume that they will need to hire private tutors to make sure they actually learn something. There are three government-owned defense companies: together they have billions of euros in debts, and mounting losses. The retirement age for Greek jobs classified as “arduous” is as early as 55 for men and 50 for women. As this is also the moment when the state begins to shovel out generous pensions, more than 600 Greek professions somehow managed to get themselves classified as arduous: hairdressers, radio announcers, waiters, musicians, and on and on and on. The Greek public health-care system spends far more on supplies than the European average—and it is not uncommon, several Greeks tell me, to see nurses and doctors leaving the job with their arms filled with paper towels and diapers and whatever else they can plunder from the supply closets.”

And the problems in the banking system can’t even be blamed on U.S. subprime !:

“Oddly enough, the financiers in Greece remain more or less beyond reproach. They never ceased to be anything but sleepy old commercial bankers. Virtually alone among Europe’s bankers, they did not buy U.S. subprime-backed bonds, or leverage themselves to the hilt, or pay themselves huge sums of money. The biggest problem the banks had was that they had lent roughly 30 billion euros to the Greek government—where it was stolen or squandered. In Greece the banks didn’t sink the country. The country sank the banks”

Apparently Greece is a great place to be a doctor:

The scale of Greek tax cheating was at least as incredible as its scope: an estimated two-thirds of Greek doctors reported incomes under 12,000 euros a year—which meant, because incomes below that amount weren’t taxable, that even plastic surgeons making millions a year paid no tax at all. The problem wasn’t the law—there was a law on the books that made it a jailable offense to cheat the government out of more than 150,000 euros—but its enforcement. “If the law was enforced,” the tax collector said, “every doctor in Greece would be in jail.” I laughed, and he gave me a stare. “I am completely serious.” One reason no one is ever prosecuted—apart from the fact that prosecution would seem arbitrary, as everyone is doing it—is that the Greek courts take up to 15 years to resolve tax cases.

How the problems finally came to light:

“After the new party (the supposedly socialist Pasok) replaced the old party (the supposedly conservative New Democracy), it found so much less money in the government’s coffers than it had expected that it decided there was no choice but to come clean. The prime minister announced that Greece’s budget deficits had been badly understated—and that it was going to take some time to nail down the numbers. Pension funds and global bond funds and other sorts who buy Greek bonds, having seen several big American and British banks go belly-up, and knowing the fragile state of a lot of European banks, panicked. The new, higher interest rates Greece was forced to pay left the country—which needed to borrow vast sums to fund its operations—more or less bankrupt. In came the I.M.F. to examine the Greek books more closely; out went whatever tiny shred of credibility the Greeks had left. “How in the hell is it possible for a member of the euro area to say the deficit was 3 percent of G.D.P. when it was really 15 percent?” a senior I.M.F. official asks. “How could you possibly do something like that?””

Enjoy the full article:

http://www.vanityfair.com/business/features/2010/10/greeks-bearing-bonds-201010?printable=true

About the author:

CanadianValue
http://valueinvestorcanada.blogspot.com/

Rating: 4.5/5 (12 votes)

Comments

djamelh
Djamelh - 9 years ago    Report SPAM
Thanks, great article!
Sivaram
Sivaram - 9 years ago    Report SPAM


Thanks... as usual, great article...
becomingbuffett
Becomingbuffett - 9 years ago    Report SPAM
Ditto. Great read. Thanks CanadianValue!
clemo69
Clemo69 premium member - 9 years ago
Very good. Learnt a lot from that

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