Money edges back to Greece as euro exit fear wanes
LONDON (Reuters) - After scrambling to get their money out of Greece as the economy collapsed, Greeks abroad are regaining an appetite for shares and property at home, spurred on by bargain prices and a bet that their country will stay in the euro zone after all.
Property investors and agents say interest in real estate has jumped since the summer and there are tentative signs the financial exodus is slowing, according to central bank, stock market and investment flow data.
"There are deals that didn't make sense but do now as the outside world takes the government more seriously," said Kostas Kazolides, a London-based investor who has been investing in and advising on property deals in Greece and Cyprus for 35 years.
"People are talking about going back in and buying. There are villas in Mykonos going at 30 percent of their value because sellers are feeling the pinch," he said. A 30 percent fall in construction costs was another attraction.
Fears that investments and bank deposits would be redenominated in a rapidly devaluing new Greek currency if Greece left the euro had put the brakes on international investors buying assets like property and shares on the cheap in recent years.
But a coalition government led by conservative Prime Minister Antonis Samaras that came to power in June has made a positive initial impression on some investors by pledging to do everything needed to keep bailout funds flowing, easing fears of bankruptcy and euro zone exit.
There are signs European policymakers are becoming more conciliatory towards Greece, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel ruling out letting the country default on its debt, making the country's exit from the single currency look less likely for now.
Analysts at U.S. bank Citigroup changed their view earlier this month that Greece would almost certainly leave the euro, lowering its probability of such an event to 60 percent from 90 percent, mainly due to a change of attitude by other euro zone governments.
Data from Lipper, a Thomson Reuters company that tracks the funds industry, shows the amount of money flowing out of Greek equity funds is slower in 2012 than previous years and turned positive in August.
The net outflow from funds investing in Greek equities during 2012 was 17 million euros at the end of August, out of a total asset base of 690 million euros, which indicates a slowdown in investors running for the exit from the 50 million euros of 2011 and 42 million euros lost in 2010.
"You might see more inflows (in future) because the rhetoric changed from the German side," said Georgios Tsapouris, an investment strategist at British private bank Coutts. "At some point you have to move before the market so there is going to have to be some opportunity," he said.
Investors dabbling in the Greek stock market have reaped rewards for their bravado in recent months, with the Athex equity index up nearly 30 percent since early May, outperforming other asset classes such as gold, emerging market equities, oil and some government bonds.
Central bank data suggests sentiment is stabilizing after the country's banking system spent years suffering the severe strain from capital flight as savers moved money abroad to protect it from bank failures and possible currency devaluation.
Deposits held by businesses and households climbed slightly during the summer from a five-year low of 150.58 billion euros in June to 153.89 billion euros a month later, the biggest monthly jump in more than three years, before slipping by 0.33 percent in August.
Despite some grounds for optimism, there is still much to deter jittery investors, including a decision by the country's biggest company, Coca Cola Hellenic, to relocate its headquarters to Switzerland and its shares to London this month, citing better access to capital markets.
While Greeks abroad are more prepared than others to invest in their country now, many pulled their money out as the economy turned bad and their willingness to put it back in again still depends on the circumstances being favorable.
"It's important not to underestimate the emotional pull," said Chris Groves, a London-based partner at law firm Withers who advises private clients.
He defended the motivation of expatriate Greek investors.
"There's a sense of duty and it's not right to say rich Greeks are purely motivated by greed. There are much more complex motives," he said.
Property investors will become more confident of paying a fair price as the Greek government begins selling state assets including real estate as a condition of its bailout over the next several months, said Dimitris Manoussakis, head of the Athens office of real estate consultant Savills.
"After the August holidays there was a change," he said, noting Greek investors had become more interested in commercial property like hotels and retail schemes than before and that demand was coming from countries including the US, South Africa and Australia.
"We are now taking emails and calls to request information for property that's on the market. Six months ago it was frozen and we weren't taking those calls."
(Reporting by Tom Bill; Editing by Giles Elgood)