NEW YORK – One word explains why more than 1000 people registered and filled Manhattan’s Metropolitan Club on December 17 for the 15th Annual Capital Link Greek Investor Forum: Potential
While Greece may have turned a corner, it is not clear that structural reforms are proceeding quickly enough, but the country is filled with well-educated – especially in science and technology – cousins of the members of one of the most successful and enterprising ethnic groups in America.
The feeling that is shared by Greek and non-Greek investors and analysts is that if they get the reform formula right, what was an economic basket case heading for the Grexit in 2009 can turn into the world’s next economic miracle.
They want to be on the ground floor – but they are looking for stronger signs.
Of all the Forums of the past15 years, where the American business community has been updated on the outlook of the Greek economy, this year’s might be the most crucial.
A critical mass of new investments in existing and startup firms that can soak up the desperately high rates of youth unemployment could staunch the country’s brain drain, and signal to the Troika and German Chancellor Angela Merkel that abandoning Greece after the painful progress that has been made would be a grave mistake.
The well-attended panel discussions made for a dynamic time on a snowy day in December. After Bornozis welcomed the guests at 8 AM and Greece’s U.S. Ambassador Christos Panagopoulos offered opening remarks, the Forum began in earnest with a broad economic overview. Pym Fox, Bloomberg News anchor, moderated a talk on Greece Europe and the Global Economy.
The next segment presented the Greek Government’s Perspective beginning with a video message by Prime Minister Antonis Samaras.
New York Times reporter Landon Thomas introduced presenters who were part of the Opportunities and Challenges portion of the program which included a panel discussion and case studies.
The Sector Investing portion contained a panel on The International Investor Perspective moderated by Constantine Karides, a partner with Reed Smith, and Putting Greece Back on the Global Investment Agenda, moderated by the Publisher of The National Herald, Antonis Diamataris.
After a luncheon featuring remarks by John Catsimatidis and video keynote address by the Greek Minister of Finance, Yannis Stournaras, the afternoon session began with a panel titled Greek Banking Restructuring and Outlook, followed by presentations on the real estate sector, transportation, tourism and shipping.
Parallel sessions included a special presentation by John Calamos, who was given the 2013 Capital Link Leadership Award the night before at the Forum’s kickoff dinner.
One of the Forum’s signature elements is the series of dozens of one-on-one meetings between American investors and Greek commercial and political officials.
Although the non-Greek analysts spoke of five and 10 year horizons for recovery and renewed – even substantial – prosperity, the Hellenes focused on the immediate need for actions that will generate investment and stimulate the economy.
There was a consensus that political stability is vital to short and long term prospects, and that continued progress in implementing structural reforms and creating a more hospitable and rational environment for investment is critical.
The need for job growth was repeatedly emphasized, and some panelists emphasized that strengthening the safety net is not a luxury in a country where far left and far right forces threaten chaos.
Stephan Issaias, the CEO of Invest in Greece said that with general unemployment at 27 percent and youth unemployment at 60, the country is enduring “war like” conditions.
SOMETHING BETTER THAN HOPE, PLEASE
Although evidence of progress was presented, the word “hope” was used too frequently for comfort.
Issaias nevertheless sees more subtle but vital signs of paradigm shifts in Greece and it was noted that if the Greek people – who have been more patient than any analyst would have imagined – are presented with a coherent and credible vision, “Great things lie ahead”
The most frequently made point was that nothing will happen on the investment front if conditions for investment don’t improve.
When Diamataris asked Nicholas Lazares, Pres. And CEO of Admiral Bank, about investment prospect, he responded optimistically that the question is not whether to invest, but when. C. Dean Metropoulos, chairman of Metropoulos and Company, emphasized that tourism will lead the recovery and that there is tremendous young talent in Greece in areas like IT.
Sotirios Vahaviolos, Pres. And CEO of the Mistras Group, agreed about the ability of the youth, but noted that they need direction and said provided with that, “they will do as well as we do in America.”
Constantine Michalos, the president of the Athens Chamber of Commerce and Industry, concurred that Greece’s human capital is a very rich asset, but warned that countries like Italy are ready to snap up Greek youth.
Even small projects could be valuable catalysts and islands of excellence and creativity whose employees would spread the message that entrepreneurial paradigm, if implemented and nurtured in Greece, works – and creates work.
George Behrakis, Chairman of Gainsborough Investments, was asked by Diamataris about the minimum changes Greece must make to attract investments. Speaking from his experience in the pharmaceutical and biotech sector – he shared his frustrations over his projects being spurned in Greece while being welcomed with open arms elsewhere.
He first bemoaned the continued drag caused by the public sector and then expressed sympathy for brilliant Greek scientists who thrive in the United States but find nothing for them when they want to return to Greece.
“There is no flexibility there. Greece must change it way of thinks and emphasize innovation and creativity,” he said.
Metropoulos, perhaps with fewer bad experiences, flashed more optimism. “There are wonderful opportunities there, I believe the fragmented agricultural sector can be consolidated,” and he generally called for more accountability and transparency, the acceleration of the reform of the legal system.
Michalos cautioned that the agricultural sector’s potential is especially vulnerable to political rhetoric, and speaking very frankly, he admitted that as beautiful a tourist destination Greece is, it ranks very low as an investment destination.
What he wants to see more progress on it’s the simplification of the process of setting up and running businesses and hopes that if the numbers Greece soon submits on it budget hold up, by May Samaras will be able to implement a flat business tax of 15 percent.
He also admitted there is still a powerful and debilitating sentiment emanating from the far left but pervading the greater society that foreign investment undermines national sovereignty. But he added “we have made progress,” and he finds the recent harsh troika language disturbing. “Three years ago, when there was no progress, it would be appropriate, but now the troika language is unacceptable.”
Behrakis closed the panel with a plea for Greece to develop a long term strategic plan that transcends partisan politics and greater public-private sector partnership, and added his voice to the need for Greece to create conditions that will lead to productive industry to complement the shipping and tourism sector.
Diamataris expressed appreciation for the panelists “who are some of our best and brightest. I saw passion and I saw concern,” and Bornozis added thanks for “an emotional and spirited and insightful panel.”
So even though Greece’s political and economic scene is still a mess – do not shout the name ‘Tsipras’ in a crowded investors forum – the Greek-Americans and their non-Greek friends and colleagues feel there is still magic in the people whose ancestors filled the world’s museums and libraries.