February 22, 2010 / 6:43 PM / 10 years ago

Greece trades should have been less opaque: Goldman

LONDON (Reuters) - Past deals by Greece and others to massage public deficits lacked transparency, a senior Goldman Sachs banker said, the first time it talked openly about financial instruments it and other banks sold.

Currency swaps entered into by his bank and Greece helped reduce that country’s budget deficit, but the instruments were not uncommon at the time and there was nothing inappropriate about them, the banker told British lawmakers on Monday.

“With the benefit of hindsight ... in the particular cases going back to the late 1990s and early 2000s ... the standards of transparency could have been and probably should have been higher,” Goldman Sachs managing director Gerald Corrigan told a parliamentary committee in a public hearing.

Separately on Monday, Goldman detailed cross-currency derivatives it conducted for Greece in 2001, which reduced the country’s debt at a time it was keen to meet criteria for entering the euro.

The nine-year old swaps have re-emerged after several months of concern about Greece’s budget and debt levels. But financial market participants have always known about them, and several publications reported about them at the time.

“Those transactions were very much consistent with and comparable with the standard of behavior and measures used by the European Community. There was nothing inappropriate,” he said, adding many other banks provided similar other instruments to other countries.

The deal with Greece did “produce a rather small but nevertheless not insignificant reduction in Greece’s debt to GDP ratios at that time,” said Corrigan, a former president of the U.S. Federal Reserve Bank of New York.

Goldman has borne the brunt of public anger over gold-plated banker pay packages, not helped by comment such as chief executive Lloyd Blankfein’s assertion the bank was doing “God’s work” in an interview in November.

“Goldman Sachs has been disproportionately singled out,” Corrigan said. “I don’t think it’s unfair ... It’s perfectly understandable that people are angry.”

Corrigan is a member of the Group of Thirty, a non-profit organization of bankers, financial regulators and academics chaired by Paul Volcker, the former Fed chairman who is now a top economic advisor to President Barack Obama.

Obama shocked markets in January with a crackdown on banks’ risk taking, proposing to limit proprietary trading — or buying and selling of investments for their own accounts — and exposure to hedge funds and private equity business.

The risks of new market upheavel remained, Corrigan said, despite the fact banks were now much safer than before the crisis, when looking at metrics such as capital, leverage ratios, and excess liquidity.

“I do have some concerns that if we are not very careful at some point we could see animal spirits beginning to pop up here and there again. We have to be much more aggressive and vigilant in the future than in the past,” he said.

Editing by Dan Lalor

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