Greek statistician unluckily in limelight

 ATHENS, Greece — As the head of a once obscure Greek agency churning out government data, Manolis Kontopirakis never sought the limelight that has suddenly come his way, after his country’s financial woes touched off a global storm that threatens to tear the euro zone apart.
         But the limelight found him because he has been accused of being the source of faulty figures that more than tripled the country’s budget deficit overnight. He said he was quickly tiring of the whole thing, the accusations and the jokes. There is a line making the rounds in Europe: There are lies, damned lies and Greek statistics.
         “I am being targeted for the current economic problems that were generated by this country’s Finance Ministry,” Kontopirakis said by phone from New York, where he said he had gone to escape from Greece. “I left my job and took a big salary cut to serve my country, and they have tried to throw things up on me with which I had nothing to do.”
         Kontopirakis, a political appointee of the former conservative government who resigned as head of the National Statistical Service shortly after a Socialist government took power in October, insisted that his agency was blameless for the financial turbulence engulfing the country. And he accused the Finance Ministry of seeking to exert undue political influence over the statistics office.
         The Finance Ministry did not respond to e-mail and telephone requests for comment on Kontopirakis’ accusations.
         Greece shocked its European Union partners and stirred up financial markets in late December when it revealed that its 2009 deficit would be 12.7 percent of gross domestic product, not the 3.7 percent the previous government had forecast.
         The discovery that the statistics could not be relied upon has undermined efforts to convince jittery markets of the credibility of the Greek government’s deficit-cutting plans. Establishing that credibility is critical if the country is to manage to borrow the $74 billion it will need this year to cover its budget shortfall and ward off a potential default.
         The Greek government has called for an inquiry and has vowed to overhaul the statistics agency to ensure its full independence.
         Yannis Stournaras, a prominent economist who was a top economic adviser to a previous Socialist government, agreed with Kontopirakis that he had been made a “fall guy,” but suggested he could have been more vigilant.
         “It’s fair to say that he was used as a scapegoat because the figures were given to him by the General Accounting Office,” he said.
         But Stournaras added, “On the other hand, he could have challenged those figures if he had doubts” and noted that Kontopirakis was known for his independent streak.
         Others were less charitable.
         Kontopirakis “alone is not guilty, but he should have spotted the discrepancy and spoken up at the time,” said Simon Tilford, chief economist at the London-based Center for European Reform.
         He continued: “No doubt, there was political interference at the statistics office, but his argument is indefensible. This is the most egregious example of budgetary data that we have ever seen in the EU, and his position is extremely weak.”
         Kontopirakis placed blame squarely on the Finance Ministry, insisting that the deficit projection that his office had submitted to Eurostat, the European Union statistics agency based in Luxembourg, was made by the Finance Ministry, not the statistics office.
         Greece has been criticized repeatedly for its statistics since it joined the euro zone in 2001, but never more so than this year. A scathing report from the European Commission in January accused Greece’s National Statistical Service, its General Accounting Office and the Finance Ministry of having “significant weaknesses” related to data gathering. It noted “severe irregularities in deficit notifications by the Greek government in April and October 2009” and singled out “the submission of incorrect data, nonrespect of accounting rules and of the timing of notification.”
         Kontopirakis said that soon after the government came to power in early October he was shocked when senior members of the Finance Ministry — including the finance minister himself — sat in on meetings between the statistics service and the General Accounting Office.
         “It is essential in any country for the statistics office to be independent of any political interference,” he said. “Ministers should not have been present at these meetings.”
         Kontopirakis said that in mid-October, he was informed that the new Socialist government planned to revise the final 2008 deficit figure as well as the projected deficit figure for 2009. “It seemed they wanted to discredit the previous government,” he said.
         Kontopirakis said the huge discrepancy between the initial forecast of 3.7 percent of gross domestic product for the 2009 deficit and the final figure of 12.7 percent was the product of two factors: the excessive optimism of the previous conservative government and the new Socialist government’s desire to put the blame on its predecessor and make any economic rebound seem more impressive.
         But the officials failed to anticipate the impact the new figure would have on world financial markets. “The new government completely underestimated the market reaction,” he said. “They just didn’t expect the turmoil.”

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