A lot about Greece right now is obscured by the fog of financial diplomacy, but here’s something we do know: The snow will fall again on the high peaks of Crete next winter, and in the spring, people will sit on the beaches with their toes in the sand and their eyes on the white mountains, and they will say that this is the gods’ own country. What will matter for Greece once this crisis ends isn’t balance-sheet entries but real stuff—like Crete; Kozani, the region that produces some of the world’s finest saffron; Piraeus, the excellent deep-water port that Themistocles fortified in better days; and the vineyards thriving on the volcanic soil of Santorini.
Greece has underperformed since 146 B.C.E., when Corinth—and eventually the rest of Hellas—fell to the Romans. It’s been in default on its sovereign debt for half the years since winning independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1832. Its economy is stultified by statism and corruption. But it remains blessed with breathtaking scenery, treasures of antiquity, and a creative, industrious people who have enjoyed great success—albeit more often outside Greece. Its potential is vast. If Greece can get its act together even a bit, this drama doesn’t have to end in tragedy.
Scratch a glum Greek, and you’ll find a bull. “I am optimistic that the forces that want to work and create things and develop things, in the end they will find a way,” says Kostas Maltezos, chief commercial officer of Coco-Mat, an Athens-based retailer of Greek-made bedding and furniture with stores in the U.S. and Europe. “You see the beauty, and there is no way that this country can continue to exist like this,” says Stelios Taketzis, a ship broker.
To be sure, it’s hard to summon up positive thinking or a long-term focus when the immediate outlook is so dire. (“Greece will likely become a failed state” if it leaves the European Union, wrote former U.S. Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers in the Washington Post.) The 26 percent decline in Greek output from its peak in 2007 is the equivalent of the U.S. losing the economies of California, Florida, and New York. Greece cannot pay back all €324 billion ($362 billion) it owes on schedule. Depositors pulled funds from already debilitated Greek banks ahead of a June 30 debt-payment deadline. Greece and its creditors may be heading toward a “dirty compromise, what Americans would call kicking the can down the road,” says Nikhil Srinivasan, chief investment officer of Assicurazioni Generali, the big Italian insurance company. That’s better than immediate failure but worse than resolution.
Given how bad things are, it’s almost unfathomable that only last September there was a sense Greece was turning the corner. Ten-year government bonds yielded less than 6 percent (vs. 11 percent on June 24), a vote of confidence by the world’s investors. That month, Standard & Poor’s upgraded the sovereign credit rating from B- to B (it’s now slipped to CCC). “The first tender shoots of success are visible,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel said at a press conference in Berlin with Greece’s then prime minister, Antonis Samaras.
Things were going in the right direction. Under pressure, Greece was ratcheting back pensions that gave retirees 96 percent of their salaries on average and provided extra benefits for “arduous” jobs such as steam-bath attendant and radio technician. As red tape unraveled, Greece shot up from 108th in the world in 2008 to 61st this year in the World Bank’s ease-of-doing-business ranking. Xenophon Lourantos, general manager of Vassiliou Trofinko, a frozen seafood producer, says bureaucrats used to levy frivolous fines on companies even when no rules were violated. Now, he says, “they can accept leaving the company alone without imposing a penalty.”
That progress was undermined by negotiators on both sides. The European creditors formerly known as the troika—made up of the European Central Bank, the European Commission, and the International Monetary Fund—balked at Samaras’s budget, seeking deeper cuts. Their austerity demands backfired by fueling support for the left-wing Syriza Party, which won snap elections in January on a pledge to reject cuts, roll back reforms, and stop privatization. Syriza has behaved amateurishly. By frightening away investors and antagonizing official creditors, it has brought Greece to the brink of default and a chaotic exit from the euro zone.
Greece would have to make deep and painful changes even if creditors gave the country everything it’s asking for, which isn’t happening. The point remains, though: Improvement is within reach. “Nothing has changed in the fundamentals since last year,” says Vicky Pryce, a Greek-born economist who is author of Greekonomics: The Euro Crisis and Why Politicians Don’t Get It. No matter what transpires, Greece will have to rebuild. It may take 10 to 15 years, but the country has the resources to help save itself.
There’s no shortage of free advice for how Greece can get its act together. McKinsey’s Athens office produced a 2012 study called Greece 10 Years Ahead that emphasized increasing export income. PricewaterhouseCoopers issued a similar report in 2013 called Directions for Economic Recovery in Greece, advising a shift from government spending to private investment. The World Bank, the IMF, and the EU have also pressed their favorite ideas on the Greeks.
Tourism is mentioned in nearly every pitch. It can grow even when the rest of the economy is floundering: Last year was a record for visitors. Astoundingly, many choice locations have been occupied by decrepit government-owned hotels. The Xenia chain is now being privatized. Still, going upscale isn’t easy, says Miltos Kambourides, co-founder of Dolphin Capital Partners, whose Amanzoe resort on the Peloponnese peninsula has rooms starting at €1,600 a night. One problem: Greek banks aren’t lending for hotel projects—or much of anything else.
Greece also remains short on amenities. Crete has one golf course while Spain’s Mallorca has 25, despite being one-third Crete’s size, says Axel Werner, owner of Luxury Properties, a Greek real estate company. McKinsey’s study urged Greece to develop better air connections, build cruise embarkation points, streamline hotel licensing procedures, and turn itself into a year-round destination.
Greek shipowners control cargo vessels worth $106 billion, more than any other country. So the industry seems a natural source of more money. However, a lot of the employees in Greek shipping aren’t Greek, and under the constitution, the industry pays no tax on international earnings brought into the country. Last year the Union of Greek Shipowners agreed to pay a higher tonnage tax in the three years from 2014. The Syriza government has tried to extract more taxes, but shipowners are threatening to move to lower-tax locales.
Ports and logistics are a better opportunity. Proving the point is China Ocean Shipping Group, known as Cosco. With Cosco as a major new tenant in the port of Piraeus, cargo volume has grown at a 13 percent annual rate since 2007. It’s the first big deep-water port that ships can reach when sailing west from the Suez Canal. Yet before Cosco, Piraeus wasn’t even served by a freight railroad. With more investment in rail and other infrastructure, it could easily become a main gateway to the Balkans and central Europe, competing with Rotterdam and Hamburg, says Dirk Reinermann, program manager for Southern Europe at the World Bank, citing Cosco estimates.
Greece’s state-run universities could do more to promote growth. Its graduates lack skills for careers in growing industries such as technology and pharmaceuticals; Greeks who go abroad to study those fields don’t always come back. The schools could also collaborate with companies to develop a startup community.
There’s much more, of course. McKinsey highlights opportunities in generic drugs, aquaculture, medical tourism, elder care, and specialized foods. (Greece could bottle more of its own olive oil, instead of shipping olives to Italy.) But nothing can happen without structural change. Labor reforms are essential. Greeks work longer hours than Germans on average, but they quit young. Even before the crisis, only 43 percent of 55- to 64-year-olds were working, vs. 51 percent in Germany and 62 percent in the U.S.
The justice system remains an obstacle to foreigners and Greeks interested in doing business. “There is almost zero legal protection for investors,” says Elias Papaioannou, associate professor of economics at the London Business School. Routine disputes can take five years to resolve; a civil case brought today might not be heard before 2019. Public administration also needs to be updated and computerized, not just to collect data to help with governing but also to monitor officials and hold them accountable.
The crisis may force change on toxic Greek politics and the governments that emerge from the feuding. Membership in the euro zone has clearly tempted Greek administrations to live beyond their means, but it doesn’t follow that leaving the euro and the EU would be beneficial. Greece will need official lending from Europe for as long as private investors stay away. It also needs foreign know-how. Most of all, it needs non-Greeks—that is, foreign bankers and EU officials—to blame for painful but necessary measures like pension reform.
In the worst case, Greece could spiral down like Venezuela, where gross domestic product per capita is 15 percent lower than in 1980. But Greece has rebounded in the past: Its economy recovered strongly after the Nazi occupation of World War II, even though it was in default from the Great Depression until 1964. “We find it plausible that, once the crushing economic impact of the ongoing crisis is removed, Greece will enjoy a period of growth well above trend,” wrote Gabriel Sterne, head of global macro research for Oxford Economics in London, in a June 15 report.
Someone asked Adam Smith if Britain was ruined after losing a key battle with its rebellious American colonies in 1777. “There is a great deal of ruin in a nation,” he calmly replied. Greece’s golden age is ancient history, and it has witnessed much ruin. But if creditors help, the country can fix itself—and find a way to pay its bills.
—With reporting from Maria Petrakis