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August 14, 2015

Greece’s debt measurement still unresolved despite bailout approval by national parliament

The Greek parliament approved today a bailout deal worth about €85bn ($95bn) to avoid defaulting on its debts to international creditors, hours before the Eurogroup held and extraordinary meeting on Greece — yet a number of voices from within the accountancy industry have raised concerns about the inaccuracy of Greece’s real debt figures.

The issue of measuring adequately Greece’s debt was the subject of a conference that took place in Munich last month organised by CESifo, a German economic research group, with international experts in the field of sovereign debt and public finances in attendance.

The conference was sponsored by Japonica Partners, an investment firm and one of the largest private holders of Greek government bonds. Its founder and CEO, Paul Kazarian, has publicly dismissed the figures that show Greece’s debt as 180% of GDP.

Before speaking at the Munich conference, he was a panellist at the London annual conference of the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accounting (CIPFA).

Kazarian explained the audience that during the last five years since the first bailout Greece has received debt relief that has never been accounted for, and therefore the size of the debt should be significantly lower than 180% of GDP.

According to Kazarian, however, the Greek government lacks the adequate technical capability to get the numbers of its debt burden right, which would involve the implementation of International Public Sector Accounting Standards (IPSAS).

Kazarian has highlighted the critical importance of having solid accounting skills at the top level of public finance management, including the finance minister.

In a TV interview with Bloomberg on the back of the Munich conference, he said Japonica Partners would also invest in Greek companies and businesses only if an internationally respected finance minister who understands finance and accounting is in place.

Asked whether Euclid Tsakalotos (appointed in July to replace Yanis Varoufakis) was that man, Kazarian responded with another question: "Does he have any finance, accounting and turnaround management experience? The answer [to that question] says it itself without me having to comment."

However it’s worth noting that last May, as CIPFA chairman Ian Ball highlighted in an article, Greece’s deputy finance minister announced in a speech that steps had been taken to adopt IPSAS.

On Tuesday this week CIPFA urged the Greek government to use IPSAS. In a letter to Financial Times, Ian Ball observed that in light of the new rescue package Greece’s real debt burden should be accurately reported.

According to Ball, who was also a speaker at the Munich conference, the debt burden calculated on an IPSAS basis is lower: 68% of GDP at the end of 2013. "If this is not an appropriate method of measuring debt, then every company on major stock exchanges around the world has got its debt measurement wrong. In neither accounting standards nor economic principle is debt measured at face value."

For Ball the widespread misunderstanding of Greek finances has resulted in policies and agreements that may only exacerbate Greece’s fiscal position, which "has seen agreements, reached with its creditors that do not address the real problem and instead may actually intensify it".

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