Monday, 23 July 2018

Traveller, if you come to … Athens

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SwissInvest strategist Anthony Peters is subjected to a Greek haircut on his trip to Athens

Anthony Peters, SwissInvest Strategist

I DON’T KNOW how many words I have written on Greece and its travails over the past two years, but I have to admit that it has been 43 years since I last actually went there. That was until last weekend – Orthodox Easter – when I finally took up a long-standing invitation to visit family friends.

This was not a Grand Tour of banks and ministries but a weekend among people who live and work in the midst of the ever-increasing political and fiscal mess that is modern-day Greece.

There was certainly plenty of talk of haircuts – mainly because I needed one and I duly visited my friends’ favourite barbershop where I got a very neat trim for the princely sum of €10, a vast improvement on the £27 I pay for the same thing here in London.

The barber spoke absolutely fluent English and so we chatted about life, the universe and everything as he clipped away. However, he proved to be far more interested in talking about fast cars than about slow economies. Research value: nil. Ability to say that I’d been to Greece for a haircut: priceless.

The dissolution of parliament and the setting of the date for new elections on May 6 has truly put the cat amongst the pigeons. Interim Prime Minister Lucas Papademos has made it clear that he has no desire to be involved in whatever follows the elections and the polls tell us that the two formerly dominant political parties – New Democracy and Pasok – are unlikely to garner more than 35% of the votes between them. Weimar Republic all over again?

For those wondering, the chances of the military taking over again are small, as successive governments – especially those led by Pasok, the Papandreou’s family-owned political party – have gently emasculated the armed forces.

EVERYONE HAS TALES of corruption, be it on a small or grand scale. Top story is of a former minister of defence caught with accounts full of bribes amounting to an amazing €150m. He is now sitting in jail and the great hope is that he plea-bargains and in the process blows a few whistles. He may not, because, or so they say, his life won’t be worth a toot if he slips into canary mode.

To coin a phrase, they want to have their moussaka and eat it

I took time to visit the pride of Greece, the splendid new Acropolis Museum, a brilliant piece of work (partly funded by the EU) which according to the signboard outside cost €129m. You know what? You can’t even get a minister for that these days.

A survey published in the press while I was there confirmed that a large majority of those polled are in favour of not complying with the Troika Rules but that a larger majority still want to stay in the euro. In other words, to coin a phrase, they want to have their moussaka and eat it.

There is so far no immediately obvious evidence of the depth of the crisis other than an increasing number of empty shop fronts, most notably on Leoforos Vouliagmenis in Glyfada where all the interior designers, bathroom and kitchen shops and the like are situated, and where at least half the shop-fronts are empty.

In between are patches of wasteland that formerly housed second-hand car dealers, now defunct. Apparently, Athens is the place to buy cheap second-hand luxury cars – no need to explain why – where, I am told, you can pick up a Porsche Cayenne, once the car to be seen in, for as little as €15,000. Restaurants are still full, albeit apparently not as full as they were a few years ago.

REAL ESTATE IS much more tricky. Athens houses 4.5m people, half the population of Greece. They came in their droves from the villages to get jobs in the civil service. The jobs are going and very gradually the incomers are beginning to drift back to whence they came. That leaves the city with a large surplus of useless new and newish buildings as the population begins to decline.

The son-in-law of my hosts owns a small house in a cheaper part of town. The tenants have lost their jobs and haven’t paid rent for several months. They can’t. He could sling them out but he’ll find nobody to replace them so he leaves them where they are. At least then he can hope that one day they will pay something and that’s better than having the place empty with no chance of ever getting anything at all.  

To be honest, I still can’t see an alternative for the country other than to go into full default. I can’t imagine any other way out. However, the rest of Europe and its banking system needed to prepare for such an event and create the provisions in order to deal with the shock. They should be ready now.

As far as the majority of Greeks are concerned, as long as there is sunshine and plenty of octopus and nobody enforces the ban on smoking in the tavernas, life will go on … and let the Devil deal with the Germans.

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