World on red alert for Greek vote
NEW YORK/SINGAPORE (Reuters) - Urgent messages flashed on cellphones, email alerts popped up and telephones rang for a team at asset manager Legg Mason on Friday. Dial in to a conference now, the 30-strong enterprise risk management team was told. A major event is underway.
This time it was a drill, but what Legg Mason, based in Baltimore, Maryland, wants to be prepared for is any fallout if Greece leaves the euro.
Companies around the globe will be on similar high alert this weekend as Greeks prepare to vote in an election on Sunday that could decide the future of the European single currency.
Fathers' Day celebrations have been canceled for some, and the head of a $1 billion hedge fund based in Hong Kong is among those abandoning holiday plans to prepare for any disruption.
"We really do not think anything is going to happen, but we would rather be over prepared than under prepared," said Joe Carrier, director of enterprise risk management at Legg Mason, which has $627 billion of assets under management.
Such war gaming has become routine for companies that have been watching the euro zone crisis intensify, but the Greek vote gives it greater significance.
Victory for leftist SYRIZA, which opposes terms for an international bailout, could make an exit from the euro zone more likely. SYRIZA is neck-and-neck with conservatives.
One financial adviser with a Greek background and client base said he would be calling relatives in Greece late on Sunday to get a sense of the situation. If it sounds bad, he is ready to cut client allocations in Europe to zero on Monday.
"The loyalty only goes so far," said Michael Bapis, managing director of the Bapis Group at wealth managers HighTower Advisors in New York.
In Asia, where markets will be first to react to the election results, banks are calling in extra staff, some much earlier than usual.
"We're on code red. Asia is the first out of the blocks so across the region we've got IT and solutions staff in early," said Toby Lawson, Asia-Pacific Head of Financial Futures and Options and Cash Equities for broker Newedge.
In Hong Kong and Kuala Lumpur, traders plan to show up as early as 2 a.m. - that is 9 p.m. in Athens (1900 BST) - to be at their screens when the news comes in.
Central banks have signaled their readiness to respond in the event of any turmoil from Greece's election.
The European Central Bank has hinted at an interest-rate cut and Britain has said it is ready to open its coffers to supply funds. Japan and Switzerland have said they will defend their currencies against unwelcome moves in the event of a flight from the euro.
"From the first trading hour in Asia we're ready for action," said Walter Meier, a Swiss National Bank spokesman.
Phil Orlando still expects to be sitting in the audience of his daughter Nina's graduation from Horace Greeley High School in Chappaqua, New York, on Sunday when the election results come in. The chief equity strategist at investment management company Federated Investors will be clutching his Blackberry and attempting to direct his team and plot strategies.
"For the next two weeks it's all hands on deck," he said.
The tale is similar for Bill Stone, chief investment strategist at PNC Asset Management Group, whose team held a scenario planning meeting this week. No one on his team is taking a vacation because of the Greek elections.
Privately held international insurer FM Global is taking the "keep an eye out" approach, at least for the weekend.
"I would expect that over the weekend I'll be checking my emails 4 to 5 times a day," vice president and treasurer Bill Mekrut said. Mekrut is a board member of the National Association of Corporate Treasurers, which convened members last week to discuss best practices related to Greece.
While others are not planning to be in their offices on Sunday, they are braced for any market turbulence.
"Our positions are decidedly risk-off already," said Troy Buckner, managing partner at NuWave Investment Management. "We anticipate a bumpy path, and we're buckled in for the ride."
Major brokerages are taking a similarly calm approach. Morgan Stanley Smith Barney and Bank of America's Merrill Lynch said on Friday that their advisers were on call and available, but noted that people had been preparing for months for worst case scenarios such as if Greece were to exit the euro. "This is not coming out of the blue," a Morgan Stanley spokesman said.
One European bank was especially sanguine. "(It's) Fathers' Day on Sunday ... Will we be cancelling that? Categorically not. At this stage, we all know there are two outcomes: in or out (of the euro). But are we expecting the whole world to crash on Sunday? Not really," said a source at the bank, who asked not to be named.
Others see opportunity. Investors Bancorp said on Thursday that it would acquire Marathon Banking Corp from Greek parent Piraeus Bank for $135 million in cash. Marathon serves Greek-American communities in the greater New York City area.
"Marathon Bank was started 23 years ago by a number of Greek businessmen, and I can tell you that in working with them over the last few weeks, we found them to be conservative, good managers of their franchise," Investors Bancorp Chief Operating Officer Domenick Cama said on Friday.
"If it were not for the fact that the parent was based in Greece, and we know the problems going on in Greece, this franchise probably would not have been sold."
COMPANIES ON ALERT
Outside the world of finance, businesses are closely watching Greece. Drug companies such as Roche and Novo Nordisk have started asking for cash-on-delivery from some Greek hospitals as supplies run short and payment squabbles arise.
Under moral pressure to avert a health catastrophe, drugmakers are weighing emergency plans to keep medicines flowing if Greece exits the euro.
Corporate leaders like Xerox Corp Chief Executive Ursula Burns are watching out for staff and how the financial infrastructure would look if Greece were to leave the euro.
Burns, who said she would not be glued to her TV on Sunday, said she does not expect a European Armageddon and thinks other chief executives would agree.
"I'll read about it in the paper the next morning," she said. "There is nothing that needs to be done that urgently."
In Greece, bankers told Reuters that preparations were being made to avoid any shortage of cash at branches and ATMs. Needs would be closely monitored, and the central bank would be ready to dispatch armored cars with cash.
Credit card and payments companies are making contingency plans, and Visa Europe said it was working with authorities to put systems in place in case any country left the euro.
"Visa would work with all relevant parties to help ensure a swift transition to a new currency with the minimum possible disruption to consumers and retailers," it said in a statement.
Many companies said that even if Greece's election result does point toward a likely exit from the euro, this would not happen immediately, and there would be time to prepare.
(Additional reporting by Katya Wachtel, Sam Forgione, Herb Lash, Caroline Valetkevitch, Nick Olivari, Ed Krudy, Nicola Leske, Nick Zieminski, Jennifer Cummings, Joe Giannone, Ben Berkowitz, Catherine Bosley, Rachel Armstrong, Chris Vellacott, Steve Slater, Sarah White, Ben Hirschler, David Randall; Writing by Alexander Smith in London and Ben Berkowitz in Boston; Editing by Matthew Tostevin and Toni Reinhold)