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.