March 7, 2011 / 10:07 AM / 9 years ago

Greek exports surge but don't pop the champagne

ATHENS (Reuters) - A surge in exports has given Greece a glimmer of hope in the grim aftermath of its debt crisis, but underlying figures show a lack of competitiveness that is at the root of its problems is not going away.

Exports surged 35 percent in the last quarter of 2010, chiefly on the back of booming global commodity prices, which drove sales of Greece’s iron bars, aluminium and copper up by as much as 75 percent in the January to November period.

That has done little to stem the overall slide in growth due to public sector cutbacks that are Athens’ contribution to last year’s international bailout package, but it has allowed the government to claim it is making progress with reforms.

“Greece is having a veritable export explosion,” Prime Minister George Papandreou said last month. “This is due to continuous structural reform and the sacrifices the Greek people made last year.”

Analysts, however, say the commodities boom only masks the country’s lack of successful manufacturing and services sectors that can compete for market share in the world’s fastest-growing emerging markets.

“The exports surge is nothing revolutionary, Greece is benefiting from the commodities cycle,” said Nikos Magginas, an analyst at the National Bank of Greece.

The conclusion of most is that Greece faces the harsh reality of simply having to reduce wages at home to make business more competitive in the short term — and there is as yet little sign of that happening.

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Graphics on risk premium: r.reuters.com/dyb77r

Europe's debt crisis: r.reuters.com/hyb65p

Bank of Greece press release: here

Bank of Greece press release: here

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ONLY PRICES RISING

With years of EU- and IMF-imposed austerity still ahead, export performance will be key to whether Greece can create enough economic growth to service its huge debt, expected to hit about 160 percent of GDP after the bailout expires in 2013.

Foreign sales of petroleum products also rose 97 percent year-on-year in the fourth quarter, but that was also chiefly due to higher world oil prices.

Exports of non-oil products, by contrast, rose just 1.9 percent, according to central bank data, and the metals sales also hold little hope of a grand expansion.

“Metal sales are rising but there is no significant increase in volumes,” said Victor Labate, an analyst at National Securities.

The export performance also pales next to that of its EU partners. Total EU exports rose at an annual pace of 18 percent in January to November of last year, according to Eurostat figures, three times faster than Greece’s.

“Greece is benefiting less from the strength of global demand,” said Ben May of Capital Economics. “Greek firms’ export orders remain far weaker than the equivalent euro zone index.”

The boom has lifted the shares of metals firms and refiners such as Viohalco VIO.AT and Hellenic Petroleum (HEPr.AT), which have outperformed the Athens benchmark index .ATG. But it did not stop GDP from shrinking at a record annual pace of 6.6 percent in Q4, its fastest decline since the 1970s.

NO WAGE CUTS

Private sector wages were frozen last year and they may need to fall to boost exports’ competitiveness in the short term.

This was the model adopted by EU members Latvia and Lithuania to get their economies going again without devaluing their currencies and Greece is similarly locked into the euro.

But Greece is a much bigger economy with years of relative prosperity behind it and policymakers and the public reject the idea that wage cuts will solve the problem.

“We can’t compete on the logic of granting Chinese or Indian salaries,” Papandreou, who has axed civil servants’ pay to slash the country’s budget gap, said last month.

Irking the EU and the IMF, Papandreou’s Socialist government has watered down a law which would theoretically allow companies to cut wages over the objections of labour unions.

Neogal, a small dairy producer which was the first to try to apply the law, quickly gave up after being confronted with a wave of bad press and consumers’ protests.

About two thirds of Greek exports are low-tech, low-profit wares such as foodstuffs and building materials, compared with just one third in the euro area. This needs to change and the government is using EU funds to subsidize research.

The small size of Greek companies — about 85 percent of them employ less than 10 people — leaves them struggling to make inroads into the roaring but distant markets of China and India. Goods sold there account for just 1.2 percent of the total, offering little hope for any quick gains.

Greek exports of manufactured goods account for about 10 percent of GDP, according to central bank figures. Unless this gets closer to the euro zone average of about 30 percent, any hopes for an export-led recovery are remote.

“The currently small size of exports implies that very dynamic growth rates will be necessary for this demand component to pull the whole economy back to growth,” said the European Commission in a report last month.

Despite an estimated export rise of 5 percent in 2011, the Commission expects the Greek economy to shrink by about 3 percent this year, its third consecutive year of recession.

Analysts say that if Greece bets on a turnaround in 2011, it would do better to rely on more traditional foreign currency earners, such as tourism and shipping. They too would benefit from lower wages and lower prices.

“These remain the best hopes for a recovery,” said National Bank’s Magginas. (Editing by Patrick Graham)

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