| ATHENS, March 28
ATHENS, March 28 On a cold day in January, car
dealer Dimitris Antonopoulos handed over the keys of a brand
new, white Jaguar worth 122,000 euros ($167,600), the first one
sold in Greece in more than a year amid signs that a brutal
recession might be easing.
Businesses say they have started to see a few, still tender
green shoots rising out of the economy's ruins - raising hopes
that Greece's freefall has finally hit bottom, though few are
willing to bet on a full recovery.
A raft of positive economic data in recent weeks has lent
credence to Prime Minister Antonis Samaras's declaration that
Greece has turned a corner, and evidence on the ground suggests
Europe's most troubled economy might be enjoying more than a
As Athens gears up to host an informal meeting of EU finance
ministers next week, the mood in Antonopoulos's Tzortzis SA
Jaguar-Land Rover showroom is brightening.
"It has been psychologically tough, going to work to face a
sales drought. The phones started ringing again, but it's too
early to say we have turned the corner," Antonopoulos said.
"Much will depend on whether growth returns. Our clients are
mostly business people and they are still quite reserved."
Elsewhere in Athens, cranes are busy building a new opera
house and national library centre near the capital's coast, a
regeneration project funded by the foundation of late shipping
tycoon Stavros Niarchos and designed by Italian architect Renzo
Some stalled motorway projects have resumed, helped by the
unblocking of EU funds.
Drilling machines are also working on a new subway line that
will link the city's centre with the main port Piraeus.
On the corporate front, the country's biggest cement maker
Titan, last month said resuming such state-funded
projects would boost demand for cement in Greece this year for
the first time since 2006.
OTE, Greece's biggest phone company, saw sales
rise for the first time in five years in the fourth quarter of
2013. Hellenic Petroleum said domestic fuel demand
rose in the same period for the first time in 18 quarters.
"JURY STILL OUT"
The government, which predicts that the 182 billion euro
economy will finally grow - albeit a mild 0.6 percent - this
year, has already spoken of a "Greek success story" and is
mulling a return to the bond markets in the coming weeks.
Economists remain cautious, given the fragility of the
ruling coalition backing Greece's EU/IMF bailout and a jobless
rate stuck near 28 percent.
"The jury is still out on whether Greece will see a
meaningful pick up in exports and households remain pessimistic
about their personal finances, meaning little prospect of a big
spending rise," said Ben May at Capital Economics.
Back in Greece's car showrooms, sales began a five-year
slide in 2008 but turned positive in September last year, albeit
from depressed levels.
Antonopoulos's January transaction - the first Greek sale of
a Jaguar in more than a year according to registration data
collected by statistics service ELSTAT - can only have helped.
February was the sixth month in a row of rising sales,
thanks in part to higher demand for used cars and corporate
sales as rental firms expand fleets on strong tourism bookings.
New and used cars registrations remain a fraction of their
pre-crisis levels. There were 78,630 of them last year compared
to 347,354 in 2008 when the recession started, as cuts and taxes
to shore up public finances squeezed household budgets.
But the premium car segment - which tends to be the first to
signal an oncoming slump and the first to show signs of recovery
- has given some grounds for muted optimism after six years of a
brutal recession that shrank overall output by a quarter.
Some of the higher-end lines from premium brands like BMW
and Mercedes showed higher numbers this
year, even though figures remain volatile and a far cry from
pre-crisis levels. Only eight luxury Porsche cars
were sold in Greece last year, down from 457 in 2008.
Where things are booming is the used car segment - in years
past, one new car was sold for every two used ones but the
crisis has turned the ratio to about one-to-eight.
"Greeks are opting for cheaper solutions. There is more
activity in used cars," said Stelios Syristatidis, sales manager
at Karenta, a VW-Audi dealer.
For now, it is all enough to hearten potential customers
like plumber Costas Vihos.
"I have been spending money to keep my 13-year old clunker
running but it's time to part. I'm in the market for a new car
with a bit of financing," he said as he checked out new models
at a VW showroom. "How much worse can things get?"
($1 = 0.7278 euros)
(Editing by Deepa Babington and Andrew Heavens)