LONDON (Reuters) - Some hedge funds are eyeing investments in Greek stocks and debt they see as cheap, predicting a recovery after seven years of crisis even while politicians continue to wrangle over reforms needed to secure more aid.
They say last year’s recapitalization of Greek banks and new bankruptcy rules that should make it easier for lenders to sell their non-performing loans, plus a fall in stock prices to historic lows, create opportunities for risk-taking investors.
“Timing-wise, a few things play together,” said Rudolf Bohli, founder and chief investment officer at RBR Capital, which launched a fund for Greece in May and has already started buying shares in local companies.
RBR made a return of almost 30 percent in 2012 after betting on a Spanish economic recovery.
Fears that Greece will tumble out of the euro have receded from a year ago, although Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras’s promise that Greece’s May 1 Orthodox Easter marked the country’s “resurrection” was met with derision at home.
Other hedge funds looking to tap into a Greek recovery include Worldview Capital Management, which is set to launch a “special situations” fund to invest in distressed companies.
Greece's main stock index .ATG sank to an all-time low in February, 85 percent below a 2007 peak, before the start of a debt crisis that led to three international bailouts and wiped out a quarter of economic output.
Bad loans, which account for roughly 40 percent of outstanding lending in Greece, present another opportunity for investors if sold at the right price -- typically as little as 20 percent of the original value.
PVE Capital has bought risky loans in Italy and is preparing to do the same in Greece later this year.
“I think the last bailout will be very important because it will clean up bank balance sheets and give respect to the country,” said PVE Capital founder and Chief Investment Officer Gennaro Pucci.
Despite the growing optimism, Greece remains a risky bet and more than one fund manager’s optimism has proved misplaced in the past -- not least John Paulson, who incorrectly said the country’s recession would bottom out in 2013.
Paulson owned 4.87 percent of Greek bank Piraeus, according to filings from March 11.
He was not the only one to fall foul of Greece’s deterioration as Athens clashed with its international lenders -- other euro zone countries and the International Monetary Fund -- over reforms demanded in return for aid.
The political situation remains fragile. Tsipras, elected last year on an anti-austerity pledge but who was later forced to sign up to Greece’s third bailout since 2010, has only a thin majority of lawmakers in parliament.
Greece needs a 5 billion euro aid tranche ($5.7 billion) to pay off loans in July and meet growing state arrears, but must first sign off on tax and pension reforms that Greeks are protesting against with a 48-hour nationwide strike.
Greece is also still grappling with controls on the withdrawal of cash and the massive influx of migrants who arrive on its shores fleeing war and poverty in the Middle East and beyond for the European Union.
Investors nevertheless contrast the situation with that a year ago, when it appeared that Greece could leave the 19-country euro currency bloc. Earlier this week, German finance minister Wolfgang Schaeuble said he did not expect a “big crisis” to erupt in Greece this year.
“It doesn’t surprise me that there is more potential interest in Greece because from the height of the crisis last summer it does feel like things are more stable,” said Zoeb Sachee, head of European government bond trading at Citi.
“The really bullish story around Greece is probably not reflected in current prices yet.”
Greek 10-year bond yields DE10YT=TWEB, an indicator of government borrowing costs, have fallen to around 9 percent from over 40 percent at the height of the 2012 euro zone crisis and around 20 percent last summer.
VR Capital Group’s Richard Dietz is buying Greek bank stocks while Jabre Capital, which recently announced the launch of its European Credit Opportunities Fund, also sees hope in Greece.
“Many Greek assets are still priced at stressed levels and could offer significant upside,” said Farid Gargour, a lead manager of the fund.
Mainstream investors generally remain cautious, however, remembering the prolonged economic turmoil that left Greece isolated within the euro zone.
“Even though the upside can be really big there, we have been still concerned about some of the downside possibilities,” said the chief investment officer at a European pension fund.
“We have found other places to invest.”
($1 = 0.8751 euros)
Additional reporting by George Georgiopoulos in Athens; Editing by John O’Donnell and Catherine Evans
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