On Saturday, I sat with an old friend at a secluded restaurant on a grassy river bank North of Bangkok. We are both actively engaged in the banking industry as observers, speakers, and peripheral participants. My friend has a more direct engagement with a Thai Bank but still as an adopted outsider. Lunch was excellent, and we sat on a wooden pier just feet from the river's edge as barges, trawlers, and all manner of ships slowly passed by with and against the current. A pair of large floor fans blew hot air our way and an umbrella shaded us from the searing sun playing tag with the clouds above. The heat in Thailand is soft, enveloping, pervasive, and quietly oppressive. You have no hope of resisting its dictatorship. Somehow the Thais have developed a sweating immunity to their own condition, whereas this Western visitor is deficient in that regard.
During lunch we compared current events in both Thailand, where the Red Shirts have barricaded themselves behind sharpened bamboo poles and tires doused with gasoline. Their encampment was many miles from our lunch spot, and indeed encompasses but a small corner of the entire city of Bangkok. Yet their determination to resist the current government, who themselves are only in power due to a similar incident involving a Yellow Shirt protest two years ago, has driven away western tourists and continues to cause confusion and insecurity in the highest elements of Thai society. And we discussed the Credit Crisis, Greek Debt, US Politics, and Regulatory Reform.
On Greek Debt, we discussed how the former Greek government hid the massive debt it had accumulated from EU Regulators (reporting a deficit of only 3.5% each year instead of the 12% it actually was accumulating), and how this massive amount came to light only with a change in government - when one group had an interest in reporting the bad data another group had an interest in hiding. Most today call this an act of Fraud, but it also has to be admitted that it was not just the former Greek government who had an interest in hiding their debt. The Germans, French, Belgians, and perhaps even the European Central Bank had an interest in ignoring the reality of Greek economic underdevelopment and overextension.
The data about Greek debt was available. Greece can't borrow on the black market. Their debt has to be issued in
bond markets, and the amounts, yield, and maturity dates are all public
record. Bond markets are largely transparent. But Transparency creates its own information asymmetries. First, the availability of information doesn't mean everyone collects the same amounts, has the power to use it, or knows what it means. Second, there is a private sector deference to public sector data aggregation, analysis, and reporting, and the public sector relies on static information reporting programs that limit source authentication, audit, and repudiation. These two behaviors allowed the Greek Government to report fraudulent deficit figures to the EU and the EU didn't bother to verify that information against publicly available market data.
One could argue that the construction and expansion of the EU Common Currency without adequate audit powers created an environment rife for fraud, but this is too easy. EU regulators could have at any time used data from bond markets to verify Greek debt. Why the EU didn't monitor the discrepancy between public reports and private market data has more to do with EU politics than Data Governance.
Every government is comprised of politicians who owe their hold on power to public perception. Everyone in Europe played See No Evil, Hear No Evil, Speak No Evil on the subject of emerging market debt in the EU. The information was available. Net inflows of financing and debt accumulation can be gained by studying the bond markets. Public obligations in Greece are also no secret. Everyone in Europe knew that pension guarantees starting at age 50 in Greece were a ridiculous luxury in a country with such low productivity and wages.
Transparency and Reporting do not, in themselves, guarantee that anyone is using or validating information sources correctly. Every report needs to be validated with external sources, because Transparency is not the same as the Truth. If the EU wants to fix this structural problem in its own multi-nation confederation, it will need to create an independent auditor, like the US Government Accountability Office, whose role it is to audit member programs and reports, to discover waste and abuse.
All reported data must be verified. If we didn't learn this in the Mortgage Credit Crisis, now is the time to take it home in the Sovereign Credit Crisis.
Banks, Hedge Funds, and other investment institutions should not wait for the EU and other governments worldwide to get the audit role right. They should build their own Information Analytics programs to validate the assertions of governments as well as listed companies because what Greece did is not new. Fraud is a part of business.
Data Validation should be seen as an important part of Market and Credit Risk Measurement and Mitigation programs. This is where Data Governance and Risk Management intersect, and new technologies will be needed to make reporting aggregation and analysis easier and faster.
On the river, in Bangkok, I asked my friend if his bank monitored the market and credit activities of their Thai competitors. They do not. They expect the government to collect data from every bank, aggregate and report that to the banking community. And his bank reads those reports. I would argue that the events of the last three years clearly demonstrate that governments are not well equipped to be doing primary market data analysis on behalf of themselves or any industry. They lack the technology infrastructure and the analytical skill to make intelligent use of the data the market already provides and their political dependencies create natural conflicts of interest.
Businesses must perform their own due diligence to verify government reports and conduct primary market data analysis of every potential investment opportunity.
Unverified data should not be trusted. This is Data Governance Rule #1.