Germany admits accounting blunder but no scapegoats

Wed Nov 2, 2011 4:56pm EDT

Related Topics

* Finance Minister won't sack bankers, accountants

* Schaeuble admits 'annoying mistake' made

* Opposition accuses government of cover-up

By Erik Kirschbaum

BERLIN, Nov 2 (Reuters) - The German government has no plans to sack the bankers or accountants who made a 55-billion euro ($75 million) bookkeeping blunder that exposed it to ridicule across Europe, the finance minister said on Wednesday.

Wolfgang Schaeuble said it was "an extremely annoying mistake" for the nationalised mortgage bank Hypo Real Estate (HRE) and the PwC accountancy firm to have let such an error slip through undetected.

The Berlin government has been scathing about Greece's bookkeeping practices during the euro zone crisis.

"I don't believe in looking for scapegoats," Schaeuble told a news conference after summoning executives from HRE and the accountancy firm to his office.

"Everyone promised improvements."

The blunder briefly raised Germany's total debt by more than 55 billion euros, and Schaeuble and the government were lampooned by cartoonists and pilloried in editorials.

The minister conceded the blunder did shake public confidence but called it a "communications problem" which never really put Germany's fiscal interests at risk.

Schaeuble said the Bundesbank (German central bank) would take a deeper look into the accounting mistakes made.

"It was all about statistical problems and different methods of accounting," Schaeuble said. "It's an extremely annoying mistake. The sum involved of 55 billion euros could contribute to deeply shaking the public's faith."

The German public has long grumbled about the growing size of the euro zone rescue measures, especially after state spending cuts over the last decade led to deep cuts in Germany's comparatively comfortable levels of state support.

In an era of austerity when their government has squabbled for two years over a mooted 6-billion euro tax cut, Germans found it hard to understand how their government was now unexpectedly 55 billion euros better off.

"Schaeuble hasn't shed any light on the matter," said Thomas Opperman, finance policy expert of the opposition Social Democrats (SPD). "This was just a continuation of the cover-up. It's not on that someone makes a 55-billion euro mistake and no one is held responsible for it."

Schaeuble's conservative Christian Democrats (CDU) often campaign on the slogan that the SPD cannot be trusted with public money.

"Schaeuble has a lot of explaining to do," Oppermann said.

The HRE-linked "bad bank" FMS Wertmanagement was set up after HRE was nationalised in 2009, so that HRE could transfer the worst non-performing assets to an off-balance sheet bank guaranteed by the German state.

As a result of the corrected debt, Germany now expects its ratio of debt to gross domestic product to be 81.1 percent for 2011, 2.6 percentage points less than previously forecast. ($1 = 0.725 Euros) (Reporting by Erik Kirschbaum; Editing by Robert Woodward)

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