The causes behind Greece’s ever-worsening debt crisis have been attributed to different factors, including widespread tax evasion, harsh austerity measures, an underground economy, and predatory investment banks and hedge funds, but according to one expert, the main culprit is bad accounting.
Alisa Hunt, academic program manager for the master of science in accounting at Post University in Waterbury, Conn., points to the comparatively short history of certified public accounting and training in Greece. “They’re relatively new to the game,” she told me Wednesday. “If you were to take a look at Greece their Institute for Certified Public Accountants has only been around since the 1950s. In the U.S. they’ve been around since the 1800s. Greece only started doing education for accountants in the mid-1970s.”
Hunt also noted cultural differences in terms of transparency. “Because of the culture it’s not as transparent,” she said. “Corruption has been going on for a long time. When you look at their political environment, you can’t blame them.”
Hunt recently wrote about the Greek debt crisis on a Post University blog. “Greece is fairly new to having its own government and systems, and they have not yet worked out all the bugs,” she wrote.
“They’ve been taken over by different people at different times,” Hunt told me. “They’re also a very small country, and they have more coming in as imports than as exports. When the government comes in and wants to tax you, people tend to be very reluctant, especially when people got into the habit of not reporting it because it wasn’t their government at one time.”
Greece has periodically been dominated by foreign powers, as when it was occupied by the Axis Powers from 1941 to 1944. After World War II, the country suffered through two civil wars between 1945 and 1949, followed by an era of sharp political division, and then a military dictatorship from 1967 to 1974.
Even though political stability and freedom emerged when the military junta ended in the late 1970s, the country still has not been able to enjoy the economic stability of many of its neighbors. Greece joined the European Union in 1981 and was among the first group of countries to begin circulating euros in 2002. But by then tax evasion had become engrained as part of the culture to keep money out of the hands of the former dictatorship.
“You have to look at their tradition of accounting and transparency and their tradition of hiding things because of the prior government,” Hunt explained. “There are a lot of bribes going on. People will bribe the tax collector. It’s easy to get away with it because accounting hasn’t been a big profession.”
Hunt pointed out that while Greece has a population of roughly 11 million people, there are only 558 registered CPAs. Overall Greece only has approximately 1,000 accountants, including auditors and other classifications of accountants. In contrast, Ireland has a population of around 4.5 million people, including about 5,000 accountants. And those who do become accountants in Greece may not always stay accountants in Greece.
“A lot of people who go into accounting end up leaving the country, going to places like London and Dubai,” said Hunt. “It’s hard to be a good accountant in an environment of distrust and dishonesty. A lot of them are trained abroad so they’re trained in transparency and ethics, but then they go back into their home country and it’s not exactly embraced.”
Other countries can learn from the example set by more stable economies and their accounting norms. “The lesson you can learn from any of these countries is the more open and transparent you are with information, the more stable your economy will be,” said Hunt. “You can hide things for a while, but it doesn’t last. If you look at things that happened in our country with Enron and WorldCom, it’s just a matter of time. If you want to look at it on an individual basis with practitioners, when doing books for a client the ones who are the most upfront and honest are those who end up being the most successful in time. Nobody likes to pay taxes, but when I’m paying a million dollars in taxes, that also means I’m making a lot of money. The ones who are honest are the ones who ultimately do the best.”