Greece economy: Economic outlook: all eyes on tourism
* The Greek economy was already in technical recession when the coronavirus (Covid-19) crisis hit, but strict measures to contain the pandemic and the catastrophic impact on tourism have dealt the economy a further heavy blow.
* The lowpoint in terms of economic activity has already passed: high-frequency hard and sentiment data point to an easing of the downturn from May onwards.
* Tourism-which directly and indirectly accounts for around one-fifth of the economy-was largely wiped out in the second quarter. Latest data show an increase in arrivals from abroad, but these are down dramatically compared with 2019.
* The economy will partly recover in the second half of the year, but the likelihood of further restrictive public health measures means that the recovery will be weak and uneven in coming quarters.
* Extremely favourable external financing conditions give the government space to support workers and firms, and Greece will benefit significantly from EU fiscal support, boosting growth rates in 2021-24.
Aug. 11 (Economist Intelligence Unit) — Greece’s reliance on tourism means that it will probably experience a contraction in real GDP that is worse than the EU average this year. Moreover, unless an effective vaccine is rolled out in the first half of 2021, next year’s tourism season will also suffer compared with recent years.
Greece was already in technical recession when the coronavirus crisis hit-recording negative quarterly growth in the fourth quarter of 2019 and the first quarter of 2020-but the scale of the fallout from the coronavirus pandemic is an additional, large negative factor for economic activity.
Greece has so far managed the public health crisis very well, but the imposition of strict measures to limit social contact, and the country’s over-reliance on tourism, mean that the damage to economic activity is already worse than for many other EU countries.
Latest data reveal extent of the second-quarter downturn
The high-frequency data released by Greek and EU sources give some idea of the scale of the downturn in the first few months of the pandemic. Hard data, which is released with a significant lag, indicate that the peak of the downturn was in April. As of May (latest available), data mostly indicate an easing of the downturn, but in all key branches of the economy activity was still firmly in negative territory. Working-day-adjusted retail trade turnover, for example, fell by 5.3% year on year in May, compared with a 24.5% decline in April. Industrial output declined by 7.5% year on year in May, after a 10.2% decline in April.
Labour market data indicate a less dramatic decline in April-May than retail trade and industrial output figures, but the negative trend is visible. As of May the seasonally adjusted unemployment rate was 17%, up from 14.5% in March. This rate is likely to rise substantially in the coming months. Economic weakness, a poor labour market outlook and and a consequent plunge in demand have contributed to much lower price pressures, with the harmonised index of consumer prices (HICP) falling by 1.9% year on year in June. A recent report by the Hellenic Confederation of Commerce and Entrepreneurship (ESEE) revealed that more than three-quarters of retailers were already engaged in discounting amid fragile consumer demand.
The most up-to-date sentiment data suggest an improvement in recent months, albeit from extremely low levels and with big differences by sector. The Economic Sentiment Indicator improved to 90.8 in July, from 87.6 in the previous month, according to the European Commission. Business optimism was higher in services, construction and industry. However, retail trade sentiment was particularly weak, falling to 70.4, from 84.4 in June. Consumer confidence also fell further in July. According to Eurostat, Greek consumers are the most pessimistic in the EU.
The July manufacturing purchasing managers’ index (PMI) was 48.6 in July, down from 49.4 in June, and below the 50 level separating expansion from contraction. It has, however, recovered significantly from a trough below 30 in the second quarter. Firms reported weaker demand from tourism-related industries, according to IHS Markit. The survey also registered the fifth consecutive cut in workforce numbers.
Tourism is the key
The Greek economy is particularly exposed to the coronavirus crisis owing to its dependence on international tourism, one of the hardest-hit sectors globally. Directly and indirectly, tourism accounts for about one-fifth of the Greek economy, and has contributed about half of all growth in recent years.
The second quarter was a disaster for tourism, coinciding with major restrictions on international travel and the peak of domestic and foreign restrictive measures. In June the number of air passengers arriving in Greece was 93% lower than a year earlier. A report by the Hellenic Association of Professional Conference Organisers (HAPCO), the Athens Convention and Visitors Bureau (ACVB) and the Thessaloniki Convention Bureau found cancellation rates for international conferences in Greece were running at 95%.
In mid-June Greece started to open up to international arrivals. The cruise sector opened again on August 1st and in early August the tourism minister, Haris Theocharis, reported that almost 80% of hotels were open. That Greece is seen as a success story in public health terms has had a positive impact on foreign tourists’ willingness to travel there. However, there is widespread risk aversion to travel in general, reflecting concerns about the increased risk of contracting the virus while travelling and uncertainty regarding changes in border controls and whether or not quarantine is mandatory when arriving or returning. Available data for tourism in Greece in the third quarter so far are not especially encouraging. Air passenger arrivals in July picked up versus June but are still down by around three-quarters on last year.
The risk of new restrictive measures
During February, as European countries gradually became aware of the threat of the coronavirus, Greece reacted quite slowly by the standards of regional peers. However, the Greek government started to act strongly at the end of February, and by late March Greece became one of the most restrictive countries in the EU with the exception of Italy. Given the low number of cases and deaths in Greece, the government felt able to loosen restrictions on economic life in mid-June. This helped the economy to start to recover. However, as the number of cases began to rise again from July onwards, the government tightened some measures again. This is likely to weigh negatively on the nascent economic recovery.
More fiscal space to support the economy
The coronavirus has loosened significantly the fiscal constraints that Greece has faced for a decade. Greece’s euro zone creditors have waived onerous primary surplus targets for now in acknowledgement of the extraordinary situation. Greece is set to get a big entitlement under the EU recovery fund. One estimate by Bruegel, a Brussels-based think tank, found that Greece’s entitlement under the Next Generation EU support and 2020 budget amendment would total grants worth 13.5% of GDP and guarantees worth a further 1.35%. This is the largest allocation of any member state except Bulgaria and Croatia.
Meanwhile the monetary interventions of the European Central Bank (ECB) have created a favourable financing backdrop, creating more space than at any time since the global financial crisis for the government to use fiscal policy to support the economy. As of early August, the nominal yield on Greek ten-year bonds was close to an all-time low of around 1%, with the yield on five-year bonds being below 0.25%. In early August the government announced new support measures worth EUR4.5bn, with a focus on returning pre-paid taxes and support for seasonal employees working in tourism.
Bumpy recovery with huge uncertainties ahead
The outlook for the Greek economy remains highly uncertain, and the risks to our forecasts in both directions are unusually large. Our current forecast is for a contraction of 7.5% this year, and a recovery of 3% in 2021. This rests on an assumption that there is not another national lockdown and a vaccine is available by the end of next year.
During the rest of 2020, we expect a choppy recovery, influenced by a pattern of easing and tightening of public health measures. This pattern will probably define 2021 as well. This year risks to the forecast are probably weighted to the downside, not least because of the recent increase in cases in Greece, which could have a negative impact on tourism demand. For next year, if a vaccine is rolled out more quickly than expected, the recovery could be a lot stronger than we project.
Source: Economist Intelligence Unit
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