Being Greek is bad business for some. Just ask yogurt maker Fage.
By Michael Birnbaum,
In ATHENS — For 23 years, Marios Vrachnakis has worked to make the thick Greek yogurt that has become almost as much a symbol of his country as feta cheese and olives. But these days, being Greek is a bad business model.
The company where Vrachnakis works, Fage, was threatened this year with a ratings downgrade simply because its headquarters were in Greece, which is in the middle of a depression-
level crisis. So in October, the yogurt company took a drastic step. Fage, which was founded in Athens in 1926, is now based in Luxembourg. The threat of a downgrade from one ratings agency evaporated within days.
Many healthy Greek companies are being penalized because of the chaotic conditions surrounding them — and some are starting to move to richer, more-stable climes. Observers say the trend could mark the start of a more permanent shift that would exacerbate the inequalities that the euro was supposed to bridge. And with each such departure, Greece moves a bit further away from getting its economic problems in order.
European leaders decided last week, after months of uncertainty, that Greece would receive a bailout payment that will enable it to stay on the euro for the time being. But no one expects the solution to last long, and for many businesses the rescue has come too late.
Days after Fage’s move, Coca-Cola Hellenic, the second-largest bottler of Coke in the world and the largest company on the Athens Stock Exchange, said it would shift its top offices to Switzerland. It was immediately able to borrow more cheaply. Both companies said they will leave their production plants in Greece. But the sheer symbolism of healthy Greek companies switching their allegiances could be the first sign of a broader stampede, analysts say, and other companies are considering similar moves.
The movements of investment, tax revenue and even educated workers have given rich countries a boost, while struggling countries have lost out. Now nations such as Germany and Switzerland are pulling in the very businesses that could be drivers of recoveries in their former homes.
For workers on the production line such as Vrachnakis, 52, these movements are yet another sign that their futures are crumbling. Fage, which makes the yogurt labeled as Total in the United States, benefited from Greece’s good years, he said, but it’s escaping the rough ones, because it will avoid the rapidly shifting tax situation and the instability of the grinding austerity measures that seem to bring new pain every month.
“We must all be patriotic,” companies included, he said. “All Greeks must contribute to save the country.”
But Greece’s biggest, healthiest businesses have the most to gain by moving their headquarters elsewhere. Many economists say the prospect of a Greek revival remains in doubt, partly because of the churning cycle that is driving companies away. So long as the threat of Greece being pushed out of the 17-nation euro zone remains real, few investors can be secure about getting payouts in euros, not drachmas. And as companies pull back, the country becomes even more difficult to save.
“You cannot attract investment when you have so much uncertainty,” said Aggelos Tsakanikas, the head of research at the Foundation for Economic and Industrial Research, an influential Athens think tank.
With the biggest, most diversified companies moving from weak countries to strongholds such as Germany, some Greek politicians have focused on standbys, including tourism and agriculture. But nearby Turkey is a cheaper tourist destination, bordering Bulgaria is far cheaper for farm labor, and red tape remains a formidable barrier to starting new businesses in Greece.
For big companies such as Fage and Coca-Cola Hellenic that do most of their business outside Greece, the legal ties to their home country of 11 million became too onerous, leaders of the companies say. Fage was threatened with a downgrade and
was destabilized by frequently changing tax laws, according to analysts. Coca-Cola Hellenic, which does 95 percent of its business outside Greece, had been given a negative rating outlook because of the crisis.
Fage’s chief executive said that his Greek yogurt would stay Greek, that there are no plans to move production outside the country and that Luxembourg’s gain was not Greece’s loss.
But “if you have a financial entity that is 70 percent outside of Greece, having it headquartered in Greece simply penalizes it, in terms of access to financial markets, in terms of ratings agencies viewing the company,” Athanassios Filippou said. “It was a natural thing to do. The unnatural thing to do was to keep the headquarters in Greece.”
The departures have dealt a symbolic blow to recovery attempts, analysts said, because the country’s attractiveness to new investment depends on signs of confidence.
“Psychologically, for Greece, it was devastating,” said Nick Skrekas, an Athens-based corporate lawyer and business analyst. “It sends a message of no confidence.”
Despite the outflow, Greece’s neighbors are still squabbling about how best to help the country, making it ever more difficult for companies to make plans.
Last week, European leaders finally committed to giving Greece a $57 billion portion of its bailout, but they put off tough questions about how to make the country’s economy more stable and refused to talk about cutting the debt Greece owes them. Some officials said that instability was part of the strategy, because it forced Greece to keep instituting painful measures to overhaul its finances.
Without definitive intercession, unemployment — and desperation — has continued to rise in Greece. More than a quarter of the Greek workforce is jobless, and the economy has contracted by nearly a quarter since the crisis began in 2009. Empty storefronts are creeping over Athens like a vine. The most popular politicians reject the bailout, and a neo-Nazi political party that clashes with immigrants is rapidly winning support.
Measures approved by Parliament last month will further stress the economy, with pensions and public-sector wages cut yet again and the threat of public-sector layoffs looming. The more unstable Greece appears, the less appealing it may seem to investors who are already nervous about the stability of Europe’s broader economy.
Greece is forecast to return to a primary surplus next year, meaning that once interest payments on debt are factored out, the government will be taking in more money than it spends. Economists say that is a healthy signal. And some new investments are being made. Last month, Unilever announced that it would expand production in Greece, and Hewlett-Packard announced that it would use the country’s largest port as a shipping hub.
Even bank deposits, which flowed out of ATMs so fast over the summer that the Greek central bank had to race to resupply the machines, have slowly started to rebuild in recent months. Still, they remain far below their pre-crisis levels.
A vicious cycle
But so long as Greece’s future remains an open question, its companies will continue to struggle, experts say. That may feed a vicious cycle that could drive other businesses out of the country in the path of Fage and Coca-Cola.
“Greek companies are asked to become competitive right now,” said Anthony Kefalas, an adviser to the president of the Hellenic Federation of Industries, a major Greek business lobby. Greece’s state-owned power company is “borrowing at 12 percent. The equivalent corporation in Germany is borrowing at 3 percent. You can’t become competitive under these conditions.”
Greek workers, meanwhile, say they have their own plans.
Although experts say that Coca-Cola Hellenic’s departure will have relatively little direct economic impact, many Greeks have concluded otherwise.
“The government should stop them,” said Malvina Samothraki, 56, who works at the Finance Ministry and took part in a pan-European work stoppage last month. “Coca-Cola left. We’re not going to buy it. I’ll drink orange juice instead.”
Elinda Labropoulou contributed to this report.