Our big fat Greek privatisation scandals

Is Greece’s privatisation spree really a success story?

Greece's taxpayers will bear the burden of their government's controversial privatisation programme, writes Baboulias [AFP]

A mere three weeks after the European elections, the political climate in Greece could hardly be more polarised. The ruling New Democracy/PASOK coalition has accepted that its percentages are by now in permanent decline, but are yet to admit defeat in the hands of SYRIZA who came first with 26.6 percent of the vote over ND’s 22.7 percent. The dynamism of the far-right Golden Dawn rang alarm bells once again as 9.4 percent of Greeks voted for them in full knowledge they are under investigation for murder, forming a criminal organisation, money laundering, trafficking and much more.

In this climate, the coalition has rightly decided to emphasise its economic successes and its guarantees for stability in the press, in order to divert attention from its political failings. Part of the primary surplus the country is to see in 2014 is already being distributed in the form of solidarity handouts for the long-term unemployed and other groups, and Greece’s first successful bond sale since 2010 has been greeted by German Chancellor Angela Merkel herself as a definitive turning point for the ailing economy. 

The idea that Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras’ government has been successful has already been debunked. Part of this spin though, one of these supposed successes of the government, is its privatisations programme, a part of Greece’s bailout deal. A closer look reveals quite a different picture and might help explain why Greek voters are so angry at the political elites. 

A get-rich-quick scheme for the few 

The latest privatisation controversy in Greece concerns the control of Eurobank, the country’s third largest bank. After an announced capital increase in the volume of almost $4.1bn, 47 percent of the shares of the bailed-out bank were bought off by a Fairfax-led investment group which includes Capital Research and Management, Wilbur Ross, Fidelity, Mackenzie, Brookfield and other international investors. The investors were to pay $0.42 per share or 25 percent below its market price, investing a total of $1.7bn.

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The purchase, that took place between April 25 and 29, anchored the planned share capital increase. A further 20 percent was also sold to private investors at the same price, thus resulting in 66 percent of the bank going to the private sector for the amount of $3.7bn. Taking into account that the Greek state has paid $14bn to bail the bank out, $7.8bn to recapitalise Eurobank and $6.45bn for the Hellenic Post Bank and Proton Bank which were merged with it later, my calculations show that the damage for the Greek state, in accordance with the price the shares were bought in the first place, will be $10.3bn.

HFSF, the governmental agency which held the overwhelming majority of the shares of Eurobank (98 percent) according to government legislation was prohibited from participating in the capital increase. This makes it impossible for the state to ever recover the losses. This has led even pro-market/foreign investment voices to condemn the government’s actions. Among them, neoliberal Greek politician Stefanos Manos, who noted in an article for the prominent financial website Capital.gr:

“What should the investors expect who will invest 3 billion euros [$4bn] for the majority of Eurobank shares? They will have obtained the majority stake with a P/B [financial ratio used to compare a company’s current market price to its book value] of 0.5000 and the bank with the fresh 3 billion will be more than capitalised. The investor will therefore expect (rightly I believe) that in a short timeframe of a few months the P/B of the shares will reach the levels of the other banks. That is somewhere between 1.000 and 1.300 or more. In a few months the EUR3 billion will have become EUR6.7 plus billion [$9bn].”

Although expert sources on the matter dispute the high returns Manos speaks of, no one doubts that private investors can expect record profits in a very short amount of time and that the Greek taxpayer will be effectively losing almost billions of euros. If this amount was not lost for an almost fictional influx of foreign capital, which might well see “investors” pulling out as soon as they make profit, Greece wouldn’t be forced to borrow money from the markets in 2014, and citizens would be spared $3.4bn in cuts that will probably be required, in order to cover the financing gap for 2014. This same model was applied to the recapitalisation of the National Bank of Greece, which concluded on May 9. Its shares were sold at a 15 percent discount.

Land, water and gambling

Maybe things wouldn’t be so dire if it all ended there, in the already much-scrutinised world of high finance. The faulty privatisation story, however, continues.

Nearly 45 percent of Eurobank was controlled by the Latsis family. After dumping the bank which was bailed out with public money, the government saw fit to sell to the same family under Lamda Development the highly valuable Helliniko Park, valued at $6.8bn before the crisis, for just $1.2bn. In addition, according to Greek daily To Vima the state will spend some $3.4bn just to relocate administration services currently housed in Helliniko and to reconstruct infrastructure.

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Elsewhere, 28 buildings formerly owned by the state, have been sold off to the private sector for $355m. This deal too came with a catch: The buildings are then to be leased back to the state for 20 years, guaranteeing that buyers will get their money back. One of the two main buyers was Eurobank Properties, a Eurobank subsidiary, which will be receiving for its 14 buildings more than $19m per year for the next 20 years.

Recently, another case has attracted not only national but also international attention: In a move that would see the famously beautiful Greek beaches turn into a bad imitation of the overdeveloped Spanish ones, the Ministry of Finance announced they will be looking into privatising beaches even on small, remote islands like that of Elafonisos in the southern Peloponnese. With visitors obliged to pay a fee to enter and the beach mired with seats and umbrellas provided by the nearby beach bar blasting terrible music from its speakers, the move will surely “attract” record numbers of tourists.

To complete the picture of highly controversial sales, we should mention the Greek lottery company OPAP, a highly lucrative near-monopoly, to EMMA Delta group, a joint venture between the Czech EMMA Capital and Georgios Melissanidis, the son of controversial businessman Dimitris Melissanidis. In 2013, a private jet owned by Melissanidis the father flew Stelios Stavridis, the-now former boss of the Greek privatisation agency, to the island of Kefalonia hours after the deal. This resulted in Stavridis’ dismissal from the agency. 

OPAP and its advertisements are one of the main sources of income for the Greek media and one can’t help but wonder if that will do any good to the country’s faltering position in the press freedom index. Currently, an investigation is already underway, as many questions about the transparency and fairness of this deal have arisen.

Much more is coming down the pipeline for Greece. Merkel has hinted since 2012 that there is German interest in Greece’s healthcare industry; the lucrative waste disposal industryand the water supply system will also be up for grabs soon.

As more and more sensitive areas of the country’s infrastructure are put to the hammer, the need for absolute transparency and scrutiny is vital. Unfortunately, the consensus seems to be that Greece’s silverware must go, at any price. The situation is quickly turning into a carve-up, like the ones Britain and other countries witnessed in the 1980s. As it happened in Britain, once the dust settles, the bill will go to the people who have the least say and oversight on the situation: the Greek taxpayers.

Yiannis Baboulias is a Greek investigative journalist. His work on politics, economics and the far-right has been featured in The New Statesman, Vice UK, Open Democracy, LRB and The Guardian.

Follow him on Twitter: @YiannisBab