Lies, Crime and Greek Statistics
Last week, prosecutors brought felony charges against Andreas Georgiou, the head of the Greek statistics office, and two employees for allegedly falsifying Greece’s 2009 fiscal data. The prosecutors have made a curious choice of villain.
I sat next to Georgiou, who denies the charge, at a lunch in Athens in late 2010. Based on his title alone, I worried the meal might be dull (I know, economist pot calling the statistician kettle black). He was fascinating.
Georgiou's background as a Greek economist educated in the U.S. and working at the International Monetary Fund in Washington D.C. for nearly two decades allows him to view his home country through outsider’s eyes. That gave him a unique perspective on how things work (or don’t) in Greece, once he became an insider.
I asked Georgiou what it was like to be back in Greece, and he responded by offering examples of how difficult it was to get anything done.
Georgiou was appointed director of a newly formed statistics agency, Elstat, in June 2010 by the government of Prime Minister George Papandreou, which had been in power since the previous October. Within a month of taking office, Papandreou revealed to the world just how unreliable Greece’s statistics were, by nearly doubling the estimated budget deficit for that year to 12.7 percent of gross domestic product, from 6.7 percent of GDP.
The ensuing market panic pushed Greece into the bailout program that would eventually cripple the economy.
Georgiou took the helm at Elstat after all this had happened and was tasked with cleaning the Augean stables of Greek statistics. A few months later, in November, his agency retroactively revised the Greek budget deficit and debt levels for 2009 up again, increasing the deficit to 15.4 percent of GDP.
Both the European Union’s statistics agency, Eurostat, and the Greek finance ministry have spoken out in support of the reliability of statistics Elstat produced under Georgiou. They should have known, because Georgiou made a point of working with Eurostat from the beginning of his tenure, to ensure Greece was producing figures that complied with EU norms and regulations.
So it's odd, to say the least, that Georgiou has been prosecuted for falsifying statistics, while his predecessors in the central bank and treasury who manifestly falsified Greek data on a massive scale over a period of years were not.
The financial prosecutors bringing allegations against Georgiou are the same ones who recently launched a similarly contentious investigation into former Finance Minister George Papaconstantinou. Both cases focus on figures who aren't the most obvious culprits in Greece's undoubted economic malfeasance, but were connected to the previous unpopular Papandreou government.
This looks to me like politicians in power scapegoating their predecessors in a bid for popularity. If so, it's no way for Greece to break with its past. Greek governments have been searching out scapegoats rather than attacking actual corruption since the country threw off military rule in the 1970s, and the result is not pretty.