There’s nothing like a good controversy to kick-start the weekend. This morning (Saturday) whistle-blowing crusaders Wikileaks released what they purport to be a transcript of an internal conference call by the International Monetary Fund on March 19, assessing the status of the ongoing review of the Greek bailout programme. In the transcript, IMF officials discuss their concerns that the EU is too distracted by the refugee crisis and the Brexit referendum to focus on negotiations with Greece, and that without intervention this may lead to another cliffhanger negotiation, or even risk of default in July, when Greece reaches its next repayment deadline. Sensational interpretations have not been far behind (e.g. Paul Mason’s typically sanguine “IMF plots new ‘credit event’ for Greece – Neoliberalism does not give a shit – part II” – presumably part of a series), but what struck us about this document?
Regular readers will know we love a good leak. We wade tirelessly through turgid audio files to decipher conspiratorial Grexit plots; when duty calls, are not afraid to release (possibly unverified) explosive transcripts ourselves. Once again, we have done the hard work to extract the key “takeaways” (as we say in the boardroom) of the Wikileaks transcript.
1. The sense of corporate ennui and frustration that suffuses this transcript makes it seem all too genuine. Doubt has been cast over its authenticity (Wikileaks do not reveal how it was obtained or from what source, and it has some oddities that make it slightly suspect); however, anyone who has done time on a major project will recognise the slow death of the soul that comes from spending hours in beige conference rooms having the same meeting over and over in bureaucratese, wishing you were somewhere else and wondering when you’re going to see your family again. Stakeholders who can’t agree on the project objectives, let alone metrics and KPIs (“if you go out and say for this year for instance you say they will end up with what you say, -0.5, -1 or something like that”… “-0.5 lets say, if they do all the measures”… “Ok, let’s say -0.5 and the Commission will say that they end with zero or +0.25 or whatever they have”… “+0.5″…); senior management who won’t intervene for fear of losing face (“We should have another meeting like had in Brussels and agree how to proceed”); targets that are fudged (“But can we do what you suggested? Have two programmes with two targets?”); deadlines that drift; missions that creep. “This is going to be a disaster,” says the IMF’s chief negotiator in Athens. Sigh. I know where you’re coming from, my dear. The glamour of international diplomacy isn’t what it’s cracked up to be. All of a sudden, the IMF seems human.
2. What makes it slightly less familiar and therefore (maybe) less convincing? It’s all business. There is no smalltalk. Plenty of dithering about business but no deviating from it. No “going anywhere nice on holiday?” (the call took place just before the Easter break, after all). No internal politics, no bitching about absent colleagues or negotiating counterparties. No quibbling over expense forms. No swearing, not a single tiny F-bomb (this must be how the international institutions differ from investment banking, cf. “Wolf of Wall Street”, “The Big Short”). I suspect the IMF must fish in the same recruiting pool as the FBI. I admire their ruthless efficiency but I’m not sure I would fit in (sound of cv being balled up and tossed in the general direction of the bin).
3. Aren’t we forgetting someone? There is no mention of former Greek Finance Minister and self-appointed centre of the universe Yianis Varoufakis. Which may explain why he went ballistic within mili-seconds:
(= For anyone who doubted that Troika = shadow state battalion of ineffective pseudo-technocrats who undermine Europe).
4. The Troika never went away. Participants refer to the creditor institutions by the T-word throughout, despite a ban on the term issued at behest of the current Greek government after it took office in 2015. Naming disputes seem to be flavour of the month in Athens.
5. Move along now, there’s nothing to see… There are bigger experts out there than me, having their weekend ruined picking this apart, so no doubt you will get a more informed analysis in time. But from where I’m standing, the transcript mostly reaffirms what we already know or have suspected about the positions of the various parties in the negotiations: that the IMF and the EU disagree on the necessity and desirability of debt relief for Greece; the IMF has been suggesting lightening the medium-term fiscal targets in order to move to a restructuring of Greek debt (i.e. what the Greek government has been asking for, indeed supposedly Alexis Tsipras’s own private Ithaca); the IMF does not trust the Greek government, and trusts the Europeans even less; that the reforms being negotiated in the ongoing review are politically difficult for Athens (duh!); that there is the looming deadline of a debt repayment in July, so a successful bailout review and the contingent loan instalment has to precede it. The IMF officials even sound a sympathetic note on how it might affect the Greek people if agreement is not reached by July (“I hope for the sake of the Greeks that we are going to find a solution soon…”). The leak is compromising for the IMF in that it reveals their internal doubts about their own negotiating strategy and shows their hand in the negotiation more generally. It is slightly embarrassing for the Greek government in that it highlights what concession they have made so far on reforms, and also reveals the IMF’s hunch that the Greek side are more focussed on avoiding short-term political pain than attaining the Ithaca of debt relief. But to act like any of this comes as a shock is disingenuous.
6. Unless you are the Greek government. In which case it is clearly a conspiracy by the IMF, meriting this spirited but barely legible statement and an official demand for explanations:
… clearly intended for the home crowd in the hope that no one would bother to try reading the original transcript (very conveniently, since the IMF team is due to return to Athens on Monday to continue the troubled bailout review)…
… to which the robots manning the IMF emergency response line in the wee hours of Saturday (EST) responded thus:
And eventually this (Sunday evening) from Christine Lagarde, Managing Director of the IMF:
7. Finally… Wikileaks gets its intel from the Greek press. Well, some of it…
… enough to undermine Mr Asantz’s* credibility somewhat – for future reference.
And the blustering and language confusion continues – from the deputy leader of Greece’s main opposition party:
*We have also decided to follow Greeklish naming conventions for the purposes of this post.