ATHENS – Despite a crushing economic crisis, runaway debt, a deep recession with 21.7 percent unemployment, the closing of 1,000 stores a week, a labyrinthine bureaucracy, one of the highest levels of corruption and lowest levels of competitiveness in the world, and political uncertainty ahead of critical June 17 elections that could determine whether Greece leaves the Eurozone, there are plenty of opportunities for businesses and foreign investors. That’s what an audience heard at the 2012 Global Summit of Women, bringing together top female executives from scores of countries. The message came from Niovi Christopoulou, an Assistant General Counsel with Libra Capital in New York, although she said she was speaking for herself and not her company.
Still, with Greece on the rocks and the growing prospect of more instability and even social unrest worsening, Christopoulou said Greece has some still untapped and underutilized sectors that offer hope, including information technology (IT,) computer software, research and development, shipping, engineering, renewable energy and solar power and tourism.
“Greece has a very well-educated, multi-lingual workforce with specialties and math and science,” she said, speaking of the country’s intellectual power, although many young people are fleeing the country in droves, creating a deepening brain drain. “The strength of the IT sector is its talent,” she said. “Crises offer opportunities and smart investors move in,” she said, before adding, “although this crisis is scary indeed.”
She added that with the drastic reduction in wages under the pay cuts that came with big tax hikes for workers and slashed pensions, that the country also has the ironic opportunity to provide skilled people being paid far less than they were, another incentive for companies to invest. But, she cautioned that Greece needs to do more in the age of austerity as international lenders are essentially keeping the country alive with $325 billion in rescue packages.
“Structural reforms are the key to spur growth,” she said, hours before Coalition of the Radical Left (SYRIZA) leader Alexis Tsipras, whose anti-austerity party is rising in the polls, said he would cancel the bailout deals and try to renegotiate the loan terms, which could push Greece back to the drachma. “These are tough times, trying to balance fiscal restraints and growth measures,” she said, adding that Greece needs also to concentrate on “employment and protecting the most vulnerable,” who have been bearing the brunt of austerity while politicians, the rich and tax evaders have largely escaped sacrifice.
American-Hellenic Chamber of Commerce (AMCHAM) President Yanos Gramatidis, who headed the panel, said in answer to a question, that the tax structure in Greece is still too confusing. “It has been absurd, very unstable and creating surprises for the business community,” he said, adding that the tax laws changed 10 times in 2011 alone.
Christopoulou earlier said despite her homeland’s grim future that she is optimistic. “This country has given a lot to the world and has a lot more to offer,” she noted.