Blog post

A needle in a haystack: key terms in official Troika documents

The term “poverty” is essentially absent from Commission documents, except for Greece, where conditionality became increasingly detailed with time and

Publishing date
19 March 2014

This blog provides an empirical account of evolving Troika conditionality based on the counting of certain key terms in more than 4000 pages of official financial assistance documents. Fiscal consolidation is clearly the focus of conditionality, but also structural reforms were (more or less) extensively discussed. Privatisations were widely discussed in the programme for Greece and Portugal and, in the former case, this was increasingly the case as the programme progressed. In Ireland, privatisations were not a focus of conditionality. The term “poverty” is essentially absent from Commission documents, except for Greece, where conditionality became increasingly detailed with time and Commission documents are by far the longest compared to those of other programme countries.

Following four months of inquiry, the European Parliament is set to discuss and vote on two resolutions: (i) regarding the Troika and its operations, and (ii) on Troika-inspired reforms and their impact on employment.

The report on the committee's inquiry into the workings of the Troika, drafted by Othmar Karas (EPP, AT) and Liem Hoang-Ngoc (S&D, FR), criticizes among other things how the Troika took a "one-size fits all" approach, without paying due consideration for differing circumstances in different programme countries. However, due to the detailed nature of conditionality and the copiousness of European Commission documents (without considering the parallel IMF reports), it is very hard to assess whether programmes were broadly framed in different ways, on what issues the attention of the Troika was directed, and how this attention shifted in time, as macroeconomic developments evolved. In Greece alone, the Commission staff produced over 1800 pages, in which it discussed the programme developments and its evolving conditionality.

Figure 1. Number of pages in the adjustment programme documents of the European Commission


Source: Sapir et al. (2014)

In a report we recently wrote for the European Parliament, together with André Sapir and Carlos De Sousa, we produced in-depth tables looking at the major measures requested by the Troika as part of financial assistance conditionality for Greece, Portugal, Ireland, and Cyprus. However, building on techniques extensively used by the political science literature (see for example, Laver, Benoit and Garry; 2003), we also took an innovative approach and looked at the frequency with which certain key words appeared in the programme documents produced and published by DG ECFIN of the Commission. Such a technique, although with severe limitations, allows to grasp trends and have a simplistic – and yet telling – overview of the different programmes’ articulation.

In order to get an idea of where the Troika was focusing its attention, we look at the recurrence of selected terms in Commission documents for the four programme countries. As can be seen in Table 1 below, the term “fiscal” was most used for Cyprus, followed by Portugal (mentioned once per page, on average), while in Greece and Ireland the frequency was almost the same (0.8 times per page). “Privatisation(s)”, on the other hand, received large attention in Greece and almost none in Ireland. Across the board, poverty went largely undiscussed, if not in Greece – where the problem recently became so acute it could not be avoided.

Table 1: Selected terms frequency in Commission programme documents


Note: The term “business” was chosen to cover such expressions as “creating new business opportunities”, “simplified set of business tax accounting rules”, “business environment”, and, creating favourable investment conditions.

Source: Sapir et al. (2014)

Table 2: Word count in Commission programme documents


Source: Sapir et al. (2014)

But how did the extent and focus of conditionality change?

In Pisani-Ferry, Sapir and Wolff (2013), it was reported based on stakeholder interviews that conditionality in Greece became increasingly detailed, as the Troika realised that implementation of conditionality was not working, in part because of the lack of specific guidance to a weak public administration. This is confirmed when taking the number of pages of the Commission programme documents as a proxy for level of detail of conditionality: among the four countries, Greece is the only one to display an unmatched explosion in the page count.

Figure 2: Normalised number of pages of Commission programme documents


Note : t corresponds to the first programme document, t+1 to the first review, and so on.

Source: Sapir et al. (2014)

In Greece a shift in tone between the first and the second adjustment programme, from “austerity”- to “growth”-related terms is visible and made tangible by our technique (see Figure 3). Moreover, increasing attention was devoted to privatisations, corroborating the findings of Pisani-Ferry et al. (2013).

Figure 3: Change in term frequency between the first and the second programme for Greece


Note: the comparison is between the First Adjustment Programme for Greece (European Economy, n61) and the Second Adjustment Programme for Greece (European Economy, n94). The vertical axis indicates how many times more (or less) the term is used per page count in the second programme in comparison with the first.

Source: Sapir et al. (2014)

These trends are confirmed when tracking selected terms across all official programme documents. As shown in Figure 4 (below), whereas the attention devoted to privatization(s) soared through time, and (un)employment was increasingly discussed – especially in the second programme – the focus of fiscal consolidation languished.

Figure 4: Term frequency in Commission programme documents for Greece


Note : Dotted lines represent documents belonging to the Second Adjustment Programme for Greece.

Source: Sapir et al. (2014)

A recent similar shift in tone can be observed in Portugal, where the terms “structural reform(s)” and “fiscal adjustment” took almost a specular path.

Figure 5. Term frequency in Commission programme documents for Portugal


Source: Sapir et al. (2014)

It goes without saying that our empirical approach has several caveats, as it does not account for the position of words within the text, for their exact use within a sentence, and does not test statistically the changes in conditionality focus. The devil, as they say, remains in the details – lost, in this case, in over 4000 pages of official documents.

Republishing and referencing

About the authors

  • Guntram B. Wolff

    Guntram Wolff is a Senior fellow at Bruegel. He is also a Professor of Public Policy and Economics at the Willy Brandt School of Public Policy. From 2022-2024, he was the Director and CEO of the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP) and from 2013-22 the director of Bruegel. Over his career, he has contributed to research on European political economy, climate policy, geoeconomics, macroeconomics and foreign affairs. His work was published in academic journals such as Nature, Science, Research Policy, Energy Policy, Climate Policy, Journal of European Public Policy, Journal of Banking and Finance. His co-authored book “The macroeconomics of decarbonization” is published in Cambridge University Press.

    An experienced public adviser, he has been testifying twice a year since 2013 to the informal European finance ministers’ and central bank governors’ ECOFIN Council meeting on a large variety of topics. He also regularly testifies to the European Parliament, the Bundestag and speaks to corporate boards. In 2020, Business Insider ranked him one of the 28 most influential “power players” in Europe. From 2012-16, he was a member of the French prime minister’s Conseil d’Analyse Economique. In 2018, then IMF managing director Christine Lagarde appointed him to the external advisory group on surveillance to review the Fund’s priorities. In 2021, he was appointed member and co-director to the G20 High level independent panel on pandemic prevention, preparedness and response under the co-chairs Tharman Shanmugaratnam, Lawrence H. Summers and Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala. From 2013-22, he was an advisor to the Mastercard Centre for Inclusive Growth. He is a member of the Bulgarian Council of Economic Analysis, the European Council on Foreign Affairs and  advisory board of Elcano.

    Guntram joined Bruegel from the European Commission, where he worked on the macroeconomics of the euro area and the reform of euro area governance. Prior to joining the Commission, he worked in the research department at the Bundesbank, which he joined after completing his PhD in economics at the University of Bonn. He also worked as an external adviser to the International Monetary Fund. He is fluent in German, English, and French. His work is regularly published and cited in leading media. 

  • Alessio Terzi

    Alessio Terzi, an Italian citizen, joined Bruegel in October 2013. Prior to this, Alessio was a Research Analyst in the EMU governance division of the European Central Bank. He has also worked for the macroeconomic forecasting unit of DG ECFIN (European Commission), the Scottish Parliament’s Financial Scrutiny Unit, and BMI Research (Fitch group), a country risk and forecasting firm in the City of London, where he was a Europe Analyst.

    He holds a Bachelor's degree in International Economics from Bocconi University and an MPA in European Economic Policy from the London School of Economics, where he specialised in public economics. During his studies, he spent a semester at Dartmouth College (USA). Alessio’s main research interests include structural reforms, competitiveness, EMU governance, and the G20.

    Between 2016-2018, Alessio was a Visiting Fulbright Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government of Harvard University. He completed a PhD in Political Economy at the Hertie School of Governance in Berlin, with a thesis on economic growth, written under the supervision of prof. Henrik Enderlein, Dani Rodrik, and Jean Pisani-Ferry.

    He is fluent in Italian and English, has a good knowledge of French, and an intermediate level of German and Spanish.

    Declaration of interests 2015

    Declaration of interests 2016

    Declaration of interests 2017

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