ShippingWatch

How the crisis could impact the Greek shipping industry

Greek shipowners can presumably expect higher taxes in the future if the reform proposals from the government are passed. Shipping consultant, Marina Tzoutzouraki from consulting firm Dagmar Navigation, explains the crisis consequences in an interview with ShippingWatch.

Photo: Petros Karadjias/AP/POLFOTO

At the office in Athens, Marina Tzoutzouraki follows the negotiations between the Greek government and the EU countries closely. Together with her partner and former head of DVB's shipping division, Dagfinn Lunde, she advises the shipping industry about investments and financing through consulting firm Dagmar Navigation.

Greek Marina Tzoutzouraki herself has always worked with ship finance. She spent the past twenty years at Greece's third-largest bank EFG Eurobank, where she worked with the Greek shipping market and prior to that at Credit Lyonnais. There is widespread uncertainty about what will happen in the coming days, also among the owners of the world's largest fleet, she tells ShippingWatch.

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"I've talked to several of the shipowners, and they are of course not particularly pleased with the current situation. It has absolutely made their lives difficult, as they depend on the Greek banks, not just for financing but also for their operations and especially euro dominated transactions," she says, referring to the fact that the Greek banks have been shut down while Greece is negotiating with the other European nations.

"The owners miss this service. They have to go to foreign banks, and not all of them are able to do business as before. It's difficult for them. The Greek shipowners are worried, and they've also been worried in recent years and especially since the new government took office," she says.

Higher taxes?

Before left wing party Syriza seized power earlier this year, the party had heralded a showdown with the Greek maritime cluster and the beneficial tax scheme enjoyed by the country's shipowners. However, this has yet to happen, but the scenario is now back on the agenda and is used actively in the efforts to find a rescue plan for the Greek economy.

Shipping should contribute more than it does today, say the EU member states, and in the negotiations between the international creditors and the Greek government there is a strong pressure on the government to change the tax scheme for the Greek shipowners, said chairman of the EU Commission Jean-Claude Juncker last week.

Late Thursday evening, the Greek government sent its proposal for reforms in the country to the creditors. From this, it is evident that the government will increase the taxes for the country's shipping industry. In the proposal, it says that the government will pass legislation which will:

"Increase the rate of the tonnage tax and phase out special tax treatments of the shipping industry."

Other sectors as well such as pension systems and the privatization of ports are mentioned in the plan.

In return for the reforms, the Greek government want a total loan of EUR 53.5 billion over a three year period. The money will go to pay off some of the Greek debt, so the country can live up to its commitments.

Who will move out?

With this in mind, and with the capital control, which has resulted in closed banks and strict monitoring of cash in the country, several of Greece's biggest shipowners are seriously weighing the possibilities of moving their businesses abroad. According to several media, these companies include Diana Shipping, Navios, Star Bulk and Delta. And this is not the first time, explains Marina Tzoutzouraki:

"The 10-20 biggest companies have their representational offices located abroad, and they have been pondering such a move for years in case their businesses were disrupted in Greece. Disruption in this case would be a shortage of liquidity, which prevents them from paying their employees and covering their opex (operating costs) in the country. So they've thought about this in the past, and I've heard from some of them that they're sticking to this plan," she says.

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The possibilities include Cyprus, London, Singapore and Dubai, where the companies already have a presence and which offer low taxes. The crucial step is to convince senior executives to tag along, and this is a crucial factor, says Marina Tzoutzouraki.

"In Greek shipping in general, people represent the most crucial factor. This is part of their success in running this business. They don't believe in third party management. They have their own executives, engineers and their own IT divisions. They've done this successfully throughout the years, and they've had sufficient liquidity to overcome the sometimes very difficult market conditions," she says, pointing to dry bulk as an example, a sector currently at a historical low.

Lack of financing

The scenario looks different for Greece's small and medium-sized shipowners, the ones who own around three or four ships, and whose business consists of trade and maintaining ships until they are scrapped. These companies represent the typical Greek shipping company, and they make up a significant portion of the country's maritime cluster:

"They run their business in an entirely different way and with a different mentality. They are family-run businesses that largely depend on the people who have worked for them for many years. So moving an office also means moving the personnel. For a major company, which has offices abroad or is, for instance, listed in the US or Oslo, it's easier to pick up and move."

Marina Tzoutzouraki explains that these small and medium-sized companies are currently facing the biggest difficulties. They are having trouble finding financing, as the remaining foreign shipping banks are mainly looking toward carriers in the Top 20. Small and medium carriers have always been highly dependent on the Greek financial market, but when foreign banks such as DVB and HSBC started limiting their financing, the Greek banks came under pressure.

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"It's very difficult for the small and medium-sized carriers to locate financing, so how will they continue to invest?" asks Tzoutzouraki:

"It's a fact that they've continued to invest, and that the Greek fleet has grown in both second hand and newbuildings. So there is liquidity. Again, this stems from their success in management and operations, which they've achieved with their employees," she says, and she thus deems it unlikely that the small and minor carriers will choose to uproot their business and move.

A deal with the other EU member states must be settled by Sunday, at the latest, if the country wants to avoid a bankruptcy and an exit from the euro - and if shipping companies end up leaving Greece, the biggest consequence will be a loss of jobs, says Marina Tzoutzouraki.

The controversial tax scheme

Greek shipping currently employs around 200,000 people, corresponding to 3.5 percent of the country's workforce.

"It would be a massive blow to the industry, as many people would lose their jobs, even if a majority of the companies don't leave the country. But the ones who do move won't bring all their employees," she says, referring to the biggest companies.

The smaller family-owned companies have a more compact business model and far fewer employees. Another potential scenario concerns the transition from the euro to Greek drachma.

"Shipping is an international industry, where earnings today are in dollars and costs are paid in euros. If Greece exits the euro and returns to the drachma, that would be good for shipowners, as the costs become even lower. But as a Greek, who lives in Greece, has family and employees here, it would be difficult from a social point of view," she says.

The Greek ship-management companies and shipowners have been subject to criticism in recent years from the Greek population for contributing too little to society. But even if the government ultimately decides to change the tax conditions for the industry, it won't have the desired effect for the Greek coffers, according to Tony Foster, CEO of Marine Capital, a fund management firm in shipping, this week:

"The Greek ship owner could have his ship ownership in Switzerland, the company of the ship owned in Panama and all he has in Greece are the technical guys doing the operational work," he said in an interview with CNBC, describing it as a misunderstanding of the industry to think that one can just raise taxes.

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Marina Tzoutzouraki stresses that the Greek tax scheme does not differ from those of other shipping nations, referring to Germany as an example. She does not feel that the Greek shipowners' support of Greek society has been given sufficient attention. In 2013, for instance, the industry decided to voluntarily double the tonnage tax for three following years.

"They did that to show that, in addition to philanthropic support for the society, the carriers also contribute taxes. The result for 2014 was that about EUR 100 million was collected from tonnage tax and the Greek economy is expected to have received EUR 400 million by 2016 from this tonnage tax," she says.

Serious proposal

Several industry observers note that the new proposals from Greece are very reminiscent of the demands which creditors have previously made. These are precisely the demands that the Greek population voted no to in a referendum on the 5th of July.

There is still no official reaction from the international creditors, which include the EU, The European Central Bank (ECB) and The International Monetary Fund (IMF). The president of France, François Hollande, called the Greek proposals for reforms on Friday morning: "serious and crdible", but nothing is decided yet, writes the news agency AFP according to Ritzau Finans.

Saturday morning, the minsters of finance in the euro zone will meet to discuss the Greek situation and make a decision about whether the Greek proposals are good enough to commission new financial support.

The following day - Sunday - is characterized as the final deadline for a solution. First the euro countries' head sof state and government will meet, before they are joined by the remaining EU members at an evening meeting in Brussels.

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