Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Greek court blocks Syriza plan to shut TV channels

by Kerin Hope

Financial Times

October 19, 2016

The Syriza-led government’s plan to exert greater control over local media by limiting the number of nationwide television licences suffered a setback when Greece’s highest court upheld an appeal by six private channels facing imminent closure.

The decision by the 25-member Council of State, made up of the country’s leading judges, came five days before the six channels were due to shut down with the loss of more than 2,000 jobs.

The private channels had argued in their appeal that the decision by the government to shut down their stations was unconstitutional.

The court’s ruling has now opened the way for the council to hold a full discussion on whether a new media law allowing only four nationwide channels to operate in Greece is at odds with the country’s constitution.

Tuesday night’s ruling, which was approved by a 16 to nine majority after hours of fractious argument, is also likely to derail a procedure in which four local bidders were awarded nationwide licences at a closed auction last month for a total price of €246m.


Saturday, October 15, 2016

‘We’re never getting out of here’: How refugees became stranded in Greece

by Anthony Faiola

Washington Post

October 14, 2016

When Europe abruptly closed its land borders last spring to refugees fleeing war, it made a much-heralded promise: Wealthy nations across the European Union would take in tens of thousands of desperate Syrians and Iraqis who had made it as far as near-bankrupt Greece only to find themselves trapped.

But one by one, those nations have reneged, turning primitive camps such as this one into dire symbols of Europe’s broken pledge.

Amid allegations of Greek mismanagement, this site on the grounds of an abandoned toilet-paper factory still lacks basic heat, even as nighttime temperatures dip into the low 50s.

Mosquitoes infest the white canvas tents of refugee families stranded here for months. A 14-year-old Syrian girl was recently raped. There are reports of stabbings, thefts, suicide attempts and drug dealing.

“I won’t go out alone anymore,” said Rama Wahed, a 16-year-old Syrian girl hugging herself in her family’s tent.

In the opposite corner, her 17-year-old brother, Kamal, stared blankly ahead. Since their father died in Syria, he is the “man of the family.” But he looks like a lost little boy. Like so many other families here, their family of five has been waiting for word to go somewhere, anywhere but here. Caught in a broken system, they are losing hope.


Friday, October 14, 2016

Syriza at odds with Orthodox clergy over religious teaching plans

by Kerin Hope

Financial Times

October 14, 2016

Damned as a “wretched man” and “religious racist” who should be excommunicated, Greece’s minister of education has ignited the anger of hardline Orthodox clerics with his plans to reduce their role in religious teaching.

Under the reforms, due to be introduced next year, the state will take control of religious education in schools, broadening it out to include other faiths.

“In our [party’s] opinion, religious studies are too confessional — they try to persuade pupils of the correctness of Orthodoxy, which is not the job of the educational system,” said Nikos Filis. “We’ve taken the decision to go ahead with changes [in the religious studies curriculum] to reflect the increasing diversity of faiths in our society, especially following the arrival in Greece of so many refugees.”

It is the latest salvo in a battle between Syriza — a hard left party which once campaigned for the separation of church and state — and a religious establishment that still holds huge political sway.


Thursday, October 13, 2016

Greek yogurt is no longer the trendiest yogurt

by Abha Bhattarai

Washington Post

October 13, 2016

Move over, Greek yogurt.

The protein-rich breakfast staple, which has enjoyed an astronomical ascent in recent years, is being replaced by a new form of dairy.

The latest fad: Yogurt drinks, according to a report by research firm Mintel.

Yogurt smoothies, kefir and other drinks are experiencing double-digit growth because, researchers say, they offer a more portable, spoon-less alternative to traditional forms of yogurt. As a result, sales of yogurt drinks have climbed 62 percent over the past five years and are projected to grow another 11 percent this year, according to Mintel. (Sales of “spoonable” yogurt, by comparison, grew 27 percent since 2011.)

Meanwhile, year-over-year sales of traditional forms of yogurt have been sliding since 2013.


Tuesday, October 11, 2016

The IMF should stay in the Greek rescue squad

Financial Times
October 11, 2016

Good news coming out of the dismal mess of the Greek economy and its international bailout has been a rare commodity over the past six years. So it is tempting to celebrate the decision of the eurogroup of finance ministers that Athens has done enough structural reform to receive the latest €2.8bn tranche of its bailout.

In practice, a quiet measure of relief would be more appropriate than unbridled joy. While Greece’s government has done better than many sceptics feared following the shambles of last year’s referendum and re-election of Alexis Tsipras as prime minister, the measures it has enacted are highly unlikely to make a material difference to growth in the short to medium run.

The repeated warnings from the International Monetary Fund that Greece needs more fiscal space — and, if necessary, debt relief — are more apposite in addressing the country’s immediate priorities. If the eurozone authorities want to translate Athens’ fragile recent achievements into growth, they will need to look at the demand side of the economy as well as its productive efficiency.

Despite some grumbling from the usual quarters (Berlin), the eurogroup ministers have decided that Greece has done enough to reform its expensive pension system, liberalise the energy sector and set up a new privatisation agency to warrant the release of the final part of a tranche of money originally due earlier this year.


Monday, October 10, 2016

Greek reforms on target for €2.8bn EU bailout

Jim Brunsden & Mehreen Khan

Financial Times

October 10, 2016

Eurozone ministers gave the go-ahead for Greece to receive €2.8bn in bailout money, as Athens met the deadline to implement reforms needed to unlock the funds.

Ministers meeting on Monday in Luxembourg confirmed that Greece has successfully met all the policy “milestones” in areas such as liberalising of the energy sector, pensions reform, bank governance and management of a new privatisation agency.

This marks a turnround compared with last month, when Greece’s finance minister, Euclid Tsakalotos, was chastised by eurozone counterparts for Athens’ slowness in implementing the measures needed to release the funds. At the time, Athens had completed only two of 15 reforms.

Speaking after the meeting, Pierre Moscovici, EU economic affairs commissioner, said “all remaining milestones have been completed”. Earlier he praised the “tremendous” work done by the government of Alexis Tsipras in implementing “difficult reforms for Greek society”.

The €2.8bn, which is a leftover from a larger tranche of money released earlier this year, had threatened to become a symbol of the euro area’s difficulties in getting Greece to comply with the conditions of its bailout programme.


Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Greece forecasts economic growth of 2.7% in 2017

by Helena Smith


October 2, 2016

After more than half a decade of gruelling, austerity-driven recession, Greece has forecast economic growth in 2017, in what would be its first annual rebound in seven years.

Europe’s most indebted country will see growth of 2.7% next year partly as a result of an upsurge in tourism, according to the draft budget that Athens’s leftist-led coalition will table in parliament on Monday.

“We are at a turning point at which we can say, with certainty, that we are leaving the recession behind us,” the national economy minister, Giorgos Stathakis, said last week.

The blueprint, which officials hope will form the basis of talks when lenders begin a second review of the economy later this month, is expected to highlight better-than-expected tax revenues and renewed interest in investments under the country’s privatisation programme.

Insiders said Greece would easily meet its bailout goal of achieving a surplus – excluding debt-servicing costs – of 0.5% GDP this year. Its draft budget is projecting a 1.75% surplus for next year in line with last summer’s €86bn (£74bn) rescue programme.


Monday, October 3, 2016

Greece’s 2017 Budget Plan Sticks With Robust Growth Forecast

by Stelios Bouras

Wall Street Journal

October 3, 2016

Greece’s budget plan for 2017 sees the economy rebounding strongly after a seven-year slump, but analysts say continued austerity and tight credit conditions are likely to weigh on its recovery prospects amid uncertainty over the country’s public debt.

Finance Minister Euclid Tsakalotos submitted a draft copy of the budget to parliament on Monday that is expected to be finalized in coming weeks after the country resumes talks with lenders on its reform program.

The 53-page budget sticks with Greece’s previous forecasts that the economy is expected to contract by 0.3% this year before growing by 2.7% in 2017. Many see these targets as too optimistic, saying the economy is now entering a period of stagnation, rather than growth, having shrunk by more than 25% since the debt crisis erupted in 2010.

“Although there are some indications pointing to some stabilization in the economy, tight fiscal policy, difficult credit conditions and muted external growth are expected to limit the recovery in 2017,” said Diego Iscaro, senior economist at consulting firm IHS Global Insight. Mr. Iscaro projects the Greek economy will grow by 0.7% next year.


What’s Derailing Greece’s Plan to Sell State Assets? Its Own Government

by Nektaria Stamouli

Wall Street Journal

October 3, 2016

The day that Christos Spirtzis became responsible for much of Greece’s ambitious privatization program, he vowed to ensure it failed.

Greece’s leftist infrastructure minister has resisted every sale of roads, airports and trains, even though he and his government have promised to raise €50 billion from privatizations as part of the country’s international bailout.

“I hope the deal will not bear fruit,” the combative, chain-smoking former labor unionist said after his government, under pressure from Greece’s creditors, confirmed the sale of 14 regional airports to a German investor. He backed calls for local referendums to scuttle the deal. When he finally had to sign the contract, he did so “with a great deal of pain,” he told Greek radio listeners in a trembling voice.

The Greek government is at war with itself, and that is threatening to derail a key plank of Greece’s bailout, which consists of selling state assets to pay down debt and bring in foreign investment. Leaders in the ruling left-wing Syriza party are touring the world, from New York to Shanghai, lobbying investors to come to Greece and help kick-start its depressed economy. But Syriza’s roots in the Marxist, anti-globalization left make privatization a bitter pill.


Friday, September 30, 2016

Greece’s Least Wanted Man Lives in Maryland

by Robert Schmidt


September 30, 2016

For 21 years, Andreas Georgiou worked in relative obscurity as an economist at the International Monetary Fund in Washington. When the European debt crisis hit and his home country of Greece began teetering toward bankruptcy, Georgiou felt a patriotic urge to help. In early 2010 he applied online to run a newly created office designed to clean up Greece’s much maligned economic statistics. He got the job, and in August 2010 he moved to Greece for a five-year term as president of the Hellenic Statistical Authority.

Six years later, rather than being seen as a hero who helped fix Greece’s broken finances, Georgiou is vilified there. His review of the country’s public accounting exposed years of bogus statistics and along the way made him a target for critics who blame him for the strict austerity measures Greece’s creditors imposed. Last year, Georgiou, 55, moved back to suburban Maryland and now faces a variety of civil and criminal charges in Greece, including one that could put him in prison for life. “This is beyond my wildest imagination,” says Georgiou, who says he feels at times as if he’s living in a Kafka novel. “This would be funny if it weren’t so tragic.”

After arriving in Greece, Georgiou quickly realized that entrenched forces were aligned against him. Within months he discovered his e-mail had been hacked after a member of the board that oversaw the statistics office, known by its acronym, Elstat, showed him a copy of a message he’d written. Although that board was later replaced, its members were especially upset, Georgiou says, that they didn’t get to vote on the stats before he released them. “I told the staff that we are going to draw a line in the sand,” he says. “I don’t care what you did before. We are going to go by the book.”


Thursday, September 29, 2016

4.1 Miles

by Daphne Matziaraki

New York Times

September 28, 2016

When I returned home to Greece last fall to make a film about the refugee crisis, I discovered a situation I had never imagined possible. The turquoise sea that surrounds the beautiful Greek island of Lesbos, just 4.1 miles from the Turkish coast, is these days a deadly gantlet, choked with terrified adults and small children on flimsy, dangerous boats. I had never seen people escaping war before, and neither had the island’s residents. I couldn’t believe there was no support for these families to safely escape whatever conflict had caused them to flee. The scene was haunting.

Regardless of the hardship Greeks have endured from the financial crisis, for a long time my home country has by and large been a peaceful, safe and easy place to live. But now Greece is facing a new crisis, one that threatens to undo years of stability, as we struggle to absorb the thousands of desperate migrants who pour across our borders every day. A peak of nearly 5,000 entered Greece each day last year, mainly fleeing conflicts in the Middle East.

The Greek Coast Guard, especially when I was there, has been completely unprepared to deal with the constant flow of rescues necessary to save refugees from drowning as they attempt to cross to Europe from Turkey. When I was there filming, Lesbos had about 40 local coast guard officers, who before the refugee crisis generally spent their time conducting routine border patrols. Most didn’t have CPR training. Their vessels didn’t have thermal cameras or any equipment necessary for tremendous emergencies.


Wednesday, September 28, 2016

A New Twist on Greece’s Old-Style Dysfunction

by Yannis Palaiologos

Wall Street Journal

September 28, 2016

There’s been a lot of hand-wringing in Europe about the rise of right-wing populism, about the clampdown on media freedom and judicial independence in places such as Hungary and Poland. But Greece’s populist government, led by the hard-left Syriza party, seems to share many of the same authoritarian instincts of its formerly communist partners, whose values Syriza claims to abhor.

On Sept. 15, corruption prosecutors in Athens raided the advertising business of Lina Nikolopoulou-Stournara, whose husband, Yannis Stournaras, is the governor of Greece’s central bank. The raid was ostensibly part of an investigation into funds allegedly misused by KEELPNO, Greece’s centre for disease control.

But this raid had been ordered by the corruption prosecutor, Eleni Raikou, and not the magistrate responsible for the case, which is highly irregular. It occurred merely a few hours after Mr. Stournaras had notified the government that he was vetoing its picks for key positions, including the CEO and chairman, of the board at Attica Bank. Attica is a troubled lender closely linked to the construction sector. Mr. Stournaras further declared that until the leadership question was resolved (as it since has been, on his terms), all lending by Attica Bank would be frozen.

Mr. Stournaras has long been the villain in Syriza’s version of the Greek crisis. Their first skirmishes came when, as minister of development in the country’s caretaker government from May to June 2012, Mr. Stournaras tried to push through a number of major investments. Syriza accused him of attempting a “political coup d’etat.”


Fatigued Investors Want Draghi to Buy Greece Before They Do

by Nikos Chrysoloras


September 28, 2016

Michel Danechi isn’t buying the Greek turnaround story just yet.

As Greek business leaders and government officials presented to investors last week in London a list of reasons why valuations of the country’s assets make them attractive, Danechi’s Duet Asset Management took note. But what he wants to see is for Greece to show it can make good on pledges made to euro-area creditors so it can be included in the European Central Bank President Mario Draghi’s quantitative easing program.

“Valuation is there, but few believe that this government can deliver,” said Danechi, who helps oversee $1.5 billion in emerging-market assets at Duet. “If Greece goes into the QE program then the mood would turn automatically.”

Investors are in no rush to pour money into a market where the value of stock and bond holdings has been repeatedly crushed. In dozens of meetings at the annual Athens Stock Exchange roadshow, Greek executives were bombarded with well-worn questions about political risk, delayed reforms, lack of liquidity, excessive corporate taxes and an unfavorable business climate.


Athens approves fund to speed up privatisation programme

by Kerin Hope

Financial Times

September 27, 2016

The Greek parliament has approved a fresh package of structural measures required to unlock another €2.8bn slice of bailout funding, including the establishment of a controversial fund to accelerate the country’s lagging privatisation programme.

The ruling leftwing Syriza party and its rightwing coalition partner, the Independent Greeks, won Tuesday night’s vote by a comfortable margin, with hard-left MPs backing the government even though some had decried the sale of public utilities and transport companies as a “crime”.

Among the other measures legislated were additional pension system reforms and further liberalisation of the electricity market. Several other reforms, including sweeping board changes at Greek banks, will be enacted by decree.

Privatisation is an especially sensitive issue for the Syriza-led government, which has been reluctant to complete a series of sales agreed by the previous centre-right government, despite having endorsed them last year as part of Greece’s €86bn third rescue package.

Several extreme-left Syriza cabinet ministers attempted to delay specific deals, among them a €1.2bn concession agreement with Germany’s Fraport to operate 14 regional airports and the €370m sale of a controlling stake in Athens’ port of Piraeus to the China Cosco Shipping group.


Monday, September 26, 2016

EU's Dombrovskis: Greece government populism made adjustment worse

September 26, 2016

Greece has had to go through tougher austerity than it would have otherwise been necessary, because of the populist stance of the left-wing government of Alexis Tsipras in 2015, European Commission Vice-President Valdis Dombrovskis said on Monday.

Tsipras, who took power in January 2015, rejected belt-tightening in public finances requested by lenders in exchange for emergency loans and reversed some of the reforms introduced by the previous Greek governments.

As new loans were frozen, Greece defaulted on the International Monetary Fund in July 2015 and had to introduce capital controls to prevent its banking system from collapse.

"Populism doesn't solve problems. Populism creates problems," Dombrovskis told a round-table in Riga in a discussion on the growing support for populist parties in many EU countries.


Plan to Let Migrant Children Attend School Enrages Many Greeks

by Niki Kitsantoni

New York Times

September 25, 2016

Mariya bint Loqman Abdlkarim is 9. She arrived in Greece in February after fleeing Syria with her family and crossing from Turkey in a rickety boat. Since then, she has been living in a shabby state-run camp, her future uncertain, her present reduced to the bare necessities.

Not long ago, the Greek government decided to give her a shot at something closer to a normal life: Along with 22,000 other refugee children, she would be allowed to attend public school starting in October.

But as with many aspects of Europe’s effort to cope with the huge numbers of migrants who have come to its shores, the plan quickly ran into intense opposition, in this case from parents in a number of communities near camps in northern Greece. The refugee children, the parents said, might have contagious diseases. Cultural differences, they said, might disrupt learning.

Last week, an association representing the parents of schoolchildren in the small town of Filippiada in western Greece sent a letter to local officials and the Education Ministry, saying “explicitly and categorically that we will not accept, under any circumstance and without any compromise, that the children of so-called irregular immigrants” attend local schools, referring to migrants entering the country illegally.

“They come from another continent with completely different diseases and health conditions,” the letter said, adding that the refugees have a “different outlook regarding the role of the family, of women, of religion.” Their presence would “alter the Greek character of the schools,” the letter said, adding, “We will not allow religious fanaticism.”


Friday, September 23, 2016

Greece: Staff Concluding Statement of the 2016 Article IV Mission

International Monetary Fund
September 23, 2016

A Concluding Statement describes the preliminary findings of IMF staff at the end of an official staff visit (or ‘mission’), in most cases to a member country. Missions are undertaken as part of regular (usually annual) consultations under Article IV of the IMF's Articles of Agreement, in the context of a request to use IMF resources (borrow from the IMF), as part of discussions of staff monitored programs, or as part of other staff monitoring of economic developments.

The authorities have consented to the publication of this statement. The views expressed in this statement are those of the IMF staff and do not necessarily represent the views of the IMF’s Executive Board. Based on the preliminary findings of this mission, staff will prepare a report that, subject to management approval, will be presented to the IMF Executive Board for discussion and decision.

1. Greece has made significant progress in unwinding its macroeconomic imbalances, but growth has remained elusive and risks are high. Greece has managed to reduce its fiscal primary and current account deficits from double digits to around zero over the last six years. This is an impressive adjustment for a country belonging to a currency union, where policy levers are limited. The initial fiscal adjustment was based on important reforms. However, it has become increasingly reliant on one-off and ad-hoc adjustments that could not be sustained, denting policy credibility. Recurrent political crises and confidence shocks associated with the inability to sustain the reform effort resulted in a high cost for society, with output having declined by 25 percent and still stagnating, and unemployment and poverty rates remaining much higher than before the crisis. Looking forward, growth prospects remain weak and subject to high downside risks, and unemployment is expected to stay in the double digits until the middle of the century.


The Firefighter’s Lament

by Marcus Walker

Wall Street Journal

September 22, 2016

The Greek debt crisis is one of the great economic debacles of modern times. A country’s sins caught up with it in 2009. A continent dithered and fluffed its response. A spreading panic threatened the euro and the world’s recovery from the Great Recession.

Seven years on, the effects linger. Greece is stuck in the deepest depression in a developed economy since the 1930s. Southern Europe is suffering a lost decade. The European Union has become a byword for economic pain, making it an easy target for both the anti-capitalist left and the nationalist right. The euro has survived, but as an unhappy marriage with prohibitive divorce costs. How many European countries would choose it again?

What went wrong is still hotly disputed. Clashing popular narratives stress the laxity of Mediterranean debtors or the coldness of German-led creditors. Experts variously blame the euro’s inherent flaws or avoidable policy errors.

Getting the story right matters for finding a better ending, not least in Greece. For years leading up to 2009, Greece’s governments burned through money and hid the fact. Today much of the country has forgotten the arsonists who laid the fire and blames instead the firefighters who tried, albeit haplessly, to put it out.

Game Over: The Inside Story of the Greek Crisis tells the tragedy of a firefighter overwhelmed by the scale of the blaze. George Papaconstantinou, a British-educated economist whose career in politics proved short, will forever be remembered as the finance minister who signed “the memorandum” in May 2010: Greece’s €110 billion bailout deal, worth $144 billion at the time, with the German-led eurozone and the International Monetary Fund. The deal was German tough love: It saved Greece from bankruptcy but at the cost of drastic austerity that deepened its slump and broke its morale. The economy lost a quarter of its jobs and output.


Thursday, September 22, 2016

Syriza lifts block on €8bn tourist project at old Athens airport

by Kerin Hope

Financial Times

September 22, 2016

Construction on an €8bn private project to redevelop a sprawling coastal site south of Athens as a tourism and leisure hub has been cleared to begin this year after Greece’s parliament gave its backing on Thursday.

The leftwing Syriza-led government dropped its opposition to the scheme after the privatisation agency, Taiped, tightened the terms of a sale-and-lease agreement that the previous centre-right led administration had signed with an international investor consortium.

Alecos Flambouraris, minister for co-ordination and a senior Syriza member, told parliament before Wednesday’s vote to ratify the project: “We are [still] against privatisation but we are in favour of the development of publicly owned real estate.”

It would be the most ambitious development project ever undertaken in Greece. Few in Athens believed it would go ahead even with pressure from bailout creditors, given the snail-paced progress of privatisation under successive governments.


In interview, Tsipras sketches out path for Greece to exit crisis

by Arshad Mohammed & Lesley Wroughton


September 23, 2016

Greece's prime minister on Tuesday sketched out a path he hopes will finally allow his country to exit its seven-year-old economic crisis, holding out the possibility of positive growth this year and a partial return to the bond markets in 2017.

Alexis Tsipras told Reuters in a rare interview that government revenues and tourist flows have been strong and that Greece could grow by 0.2 to 0.4 percent this year, well above Eurostat's forecast for a 0.3 percent contraction.

Asked if he thought Greece could meet or exceed Eurostat’s forecast of 2.7 percent growth for next year, Tsipras noted that it had exceeded the predictions so far this year and said that he expected "the same" for 2017. However, he said this would depend on the messages sent to the financial markets and whether there is a return of foreign investment.

He also said he hoped Greece could within the next six months be included in the European Central Bank's quantitative easing (QE) programme from which it has so far been excluded because of its low credit rating.

If that happens, it could then test markets’ appetite for Greek debt next year. "I think that will be a strong message we will be ready to prepare the procedure to issue bonds," he said.


Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Tsipras Defeat in Attica Battle Bolsters Bank of Greece Governor

by Marcus Bensasson


September 21, 2016

Advantage Yannis Stournaras.

In the battle of wits between Greece’s central bank governor and Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, the former seems to have won the latest round, giving him a leg up should he harbor any ambitions of a return to politics.

Stournaras, a former finance minister, threatened to put Attica Bank under administration if it didn’t appoint his nominee as chief executive officer. The move ruffled feathers in the government, which sees Attica -- majority owned by state-backed pension funds -- as a vehicle of influence over the financial sector as the only lender falling outside the European Central Bank’s direct regulatory purview. Faced with Stournaras’s threat, Attica shareholders backed his nominee on Tuesday, bolstering the Bank of Greece governor who has questioned Tsipras on everything from his tax-heavy fiscal policies to his dealings with creditors.

“There’s a cold war going on between the two that occasionally flares into skirmishes,” said Aristides Hatzis, a professor of law and economics at the University of Athens. “In Syriza and the government there are a lot of voices that want to see Stournaras’s head roll, but the leadership understands it can’t do that because he has the ECB’s backing.”