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Italian and European public derivatives: time to go public

Several foreign journalist are calling me to ask for an interview, on the issue of the use of derivatives by the Italian government.

I have nothing to tell them.

For a basic simple reason. That I don’t know what to tell them, because I have no idea of where Italy stands in its management of its derivative book. Nor, for that matter, do I know what does the ECB know about the infamous Greek derivative transaction with Goldman Sachs in its possession, since, starting with Trichet and continuing with Draghi, it has resisted a fierce and commendable battle for the freedom of information by press agency Bloomberg News.

The European authorities are to be blamed for this lack of information to the public that has been going on for more than a decade now and is responsible not only for contributing decisevely to the Greek crisis, but at least also for many crises in municipalities and for the reckless behavior of some banks (Monte dei Paschi being one) that felt that since the ECB hides its knowledge of derivatives so could it do the same, destroying in the process shareholders’ value.

It would take a simple European decree that would make transparency on derivatives mandatory and everything would fall into place.

Italy has nothing to hide: its operations before murky off-market rate swaps were forbidden, at the end of the first decade of this century, were by definition legal. Mr. Letta and Mr. Saccomanni should announce worldwide that all the Republic’s derivative contracts are to be found on the Treasury’s website and that from now new contracts will be posted on the same web after 1 month of their signing.

Yes, maybe (but we are yet to discover them, so forgive the vagueness of this) for a few days the Italian government’s boat will rock over high waves of European indignation. But that will not last. First because Italy’s powerful Prime Minister’s office will remind everyone  that France and Germany have done some creative accounting too over these euro years. Secondly, because the transactions were cleared by Eurostat at the time.

The advantage of coming … clean?  Oh, peanuts. Mr. Letta will end up not being hampered anymore, when negotiating in Brussels to kill austerity, by the accusation of sitting over an explosive bomb that is instead only the fruit of some public debt mismanagement of the past. And markets may learn that after all the big mistery of the Italian derivatives was way overstated.

At that point, it might well be that even the enlightened ECB may find it useful to reveal its own secrets on the Greek deal and, in so doing, end up helping euro financial markets regain the credibility that they lost with investors worldwide by making lack of transparency an overriding principle of European financial affairs.

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