Representatives of the Greek diaspora and the international business community sent a clear message calling for economic reform as they inaugurated the first annual Greek Power Summit on June 14. The two-day event, organized by international consulting firm IAC and by Honeystone Limited, publishers of the Greek Rich List, was held at the Hotel Grande Bretagne in central Athens.
At a news conference that kicked off the summit, participants called for change to make Greece a more desirable destination for investors and recommended dramatic and sweeping proposals to help Greece emerge from the crisis. Despite their sharp criticism of many of the economic reforms undertaken by the Greek government, many of the panel’s members expressed optimism that Greece, with the right kind of vision, would be able to overcome the current crisis.
“There has to be something promoted as the New Deal,” said John Calamos, chairman and CEO of Calamos Investments, during the press conference at the outset of the summit. “You can’t just fix the debt problem. You have to fix the real problems: the taxation, the ability to start a business, the transparency. You have to be able to attract investments into Greece.”
The press conference on June 14 was the summit’s opening event. Participants also included Konstantinos Boukis, Vice-Chairman and CEO of Helicon Technology Corp. (Philippines); Stephen J. Cucchiaro, CIO of Windhaven Investment Management (USA); Nikos Gitsis, founder & CEO of SEAir (Philippines); Nick Gouletas and Natel Matschulat Gouletas of American Invesco (USA); George Koukis, founder and Chairman of the Temenos Group (Switzerland); and Nick Lazares, CEO of Admirals Bank (USA). Publisher and former U.S. presidential candidate Steve Forbes, who was the summit’s keynote speaker, was not present at the press session.
For over an hour, the participants fielded questions from a contingent of Greek and international journalists, primarily regarding the economic crisis plaguing Greece, their proposals for how the country can reemerge from the crisis, and their willingness to invest in Greece.
“What I think we’re seeing on the panel here is the secret weapon that doesn’t appear in any of the Standard & Poor’s or Moody’s ratings, which is that the diaspora stands ready to invest in Greece,” Admirals Bank CEO Lazares told reporters.
According to Vasilis Dovas, joint organizer of the Greek Power Summit, the goal of the summit, which was conceived during the summer of 2010, was twofold: to create a platform that would bring together the business community in Greece and abroad and to create a global network of individuals who would then advocate in favor of a new economic agenda for Greece.
At the press conference, the participants said that reforms were needed to expand beyond those undertaken to tackle Greece’s extensive debt problem. Windhaven Investment’s Cucchiaro called for a “radical restructuring” of tax and regulatory policies, which he argued would lead to the development of a “vibrant private economy.”
The current economic policies undertaken by the Greek government, which have included increases in tax rates and cuts to public sector salaries and to pensions, were the target of criticism by some of the attendees. Temenos Group’s Koukis argued that the government “cannot take such punitive measures,” while Nick Gouletas of American Invesco argued that it is not possible to “straighten out Greece with the political positions that the politicians have taken” and without “major, major change.” Calamos and Cucchiera both specifically criticized efforts to raise revenue through increased taxation, referring to past failed efforts in the United States.
“What has happened in the past in the United States, they’ve raised taxes, they get less revenue, not more revenue,” said Calamos. “That’s been proven over and over and over again.”
Other participants criticized the government for not developing a clear strategy for the country to recover from the present crisis.
“What Greece is missing is a vision for how to step out of this situation,” said the CEO of SEAir Nikos Gitsis. “There’s no vision. You have the same people that got us into this mess trying to tell us how to get out of the mess.”
While the economic policies of the present government largely drew criticism from the panel, plans to privatize state-owned entities and lands received some support. Admiral Bank’s Lazares, for example, described privatization as a “must” in order to attract foreign investors to Greece, while American Invesco’s Gouletas advocated in favor of leasing such entities instead of selling them. Gouletas argued that the Greek state would eventually reap the benefits of the improvements made by the companies that would lease state-owned assets.
Greece can overcome the crisis
Despite the criticism expressed by many of the participants at the summit, a general sentiment of optimism regarding Greece’s ability to overcome its current crisis also emerged. Natel Gouletas of American Invesco highlighted Greece’s potential for growth in the tourism sector, while Lazares characterized Greece’s geography as “desirable” and its “single greatest asset.” The potential of Greece’s youth and the Greek diaspora to contribute to Greece’s growth and recovery were also emphasized.
“One of your greatest products in Greece is your youth,” said Nick Gouletas. “They are well-educated, they have the energy, and I think if you look around the whole world, Greeks are great entrepreneurs.”
The general consensus of the participants of the summit was that while Greece did have the potential to recover and to prosper, this would not happen if the government did not first construct a new framework within which investors and businesses could operate.
“You have to provide incentives for people to innovate, to create businesses, to create jobs,” said Calamos, who suggested that Greece had to streamline the red tape that is prevalent here to help entrepreneurs and businesses. According to Calamos, the success of many Greeks abroad could be attributed to the lack of bureaucratic hurdles they have to face.
Specific proposals offered
Proposals were put forth by some of the participants at the summit as to how Greece could begin to recover economically and become an attractive destination for investors from the diaspora and from the international business community.
Gitsis outlined a six-step proposal, which included an increase in accountability for those responsible for leading Greece into its economic crisis, the restructuring of the country’s loans, the development of a new economic structure which would specialize in sectors where Greece enjoys a competitive advantage, an invitation to investors from around the world with offers of special incentives and tax holidays, the issuing of diaspora bonds to the expatriate Greek community, and the development of a more efficient system of tax collection. Dovas emphasized five potential sectors in which Greece could enjoy a competitive advantage and attract investment, including tourism (with a focus on niche tourism), technology and innovation, agriculture, shipping and finance. Several of the participants also openly expressed their interest in investing in Greece.
“There’s only one constant in this world, it’s change, and I think its time has come,” stated Nick Gouletas. “The gentlemen that are here are here for a reason, and I’m here for a reason. Everybody knows something is wrong and it’s time for change. And I think you can attract anything you want into Greece if you’re willing to change.”
“Situations like the current situation in Greece are not something that would scare us as investors,” added Lazares. “They would create an opportunity for investment at a particularly unique and opportune time, provided that the appropriate predictability in clarity and transparency exists.”
“[I’ve been] here looking for investments for the past three to four years,” said Gitsis. “Greece is my next target.”
Notably, though the press session was well-attended by members of the Greek and international press, coverage of the press session and the Greek Power Summit as a whole was limited in the Greek media, with Athens-based television station Channel Nine, which focuses on financial news, providing the most extensive coverage. More striking, however, was the absence of any government representatives at the press session, or throughout the entirety of the summit, which did not go unnoticed by the participants at the summit.
“I’m here with a genuine desire to help,” stated Koukis. “There are a lot of solutions available, but I think Greece is lacking in leadership, and when you don’t want to be helped, nobody can help you.”
By Michael Nevradakis — Athens, July 6, 2011