GREEK . Outlook calm for the shipping billionaires
First came a high-powered motorbike ridden at speed by a figure who looked as if he might belong to the Athens chapter of the Hell’s Angels. Then the first of two black limousines with darkened windows – this one a BMW with personalised number plates. Finally, an ordinary saloon.
Photograph: Sean Smith for the GuardianSuper-yachts at anchor in Piraeus yesterday. The fortunes of most of Greece’s richest people derive from shippingThe cavalcade pulled to a halt by the stern of a 49-metre superyacht moored in one of the most exclusive marinas in Athens. As the motorcyclist scanned the immediate vicinity, two burly figures leaped from the front of the BMW and opened the rear doors.
A man with white hair and beard emerged from one side, a woman with long, silver hair from the other. Both made their way to the gangplank, where the man exchanged a few words with the captain before they stepped aboard. A member of the crew followed, laden with shopping bags.
It was shortly before 3pm. Another weekend had begun for one of Greece’s richest couples.
At the start of the crisis, said Angelos Kopitsas, the general manager of the marina, the owners of Greece’s superyachts fled to home ports in more stable countries, including Turkey. “But in the end they found it was much more convenient to stay here.”
For at least two reasons, the Greek super-rich are exceptionally prone to controversy. One is that, in a society infused with patronage and cronyism, their wealth gives them influence in politically sensitive areas, notably the media. The second is that Greek riches are extraordinarily mobile, and thus largely tax-exempt.
Most of the country’s great fortunes derive in whole or in part from shipping. Currently, Forbes makes Spiros Latsis, the son of the tanker magnate John Latsis, Greece’s richest individual. But, though the family still owns a relatively modest fleet, most of its wealth is invested elsewhere. According to Bloomberg, today’s leading Greek shipping magnates are John Angelicoussis, George Prokopiou, Peter Livanos and George Economou. Between them, they own almost 400 vessels. Shipping is a source of pride and jobs for Greeks: their country’s merchant fleet is the biggest on Earth. Directly and indirectly, it is reckoned to give work to almost 200,000 people.
But the shipping business also inspires resentment. Greece’s 1967 constitution stipulates that it should pay no tax on the international earnings it brings into the country. And it has little to fear from either the debt crisis or an exit from the euro.
“It’s not really affecting us because we’re not Greek companies: we’re based abroad,” said a tanker owner who requested anonymity. “Our business is done in US dollars, and shipping companies don’t just have one account in one country.”
The ship owners’ semi-detached status has come under growing scrutiny as the country’s economic plight has deepened. They have for some years been paying a tonnage tax and in 2013 they agreed to double it over the three years from 2014 as an extraordinary voluntary contribution.
But although Syriza came into power in January pledging to step up the burden on the industry, it has not followed through. In fact, it was the troika of Greek creditors, and not the Greek government, which demanded a rise in the tonnage tax in the negotiations that fell apart last week.
While the commercial shipping business may not have suffered, another maritime industry is feeling the pinch. On the other side of the Zea marina, standing at the stern of one of his company’s yachts, was Antonis Stelliatos, the president of the Hellenic Professional Yacht Owners’ Association.
In recent years yacht chartering has faced competition from other countries, and now it faces a new challenge. “We have VIP tourism. But it will not come easily to Greece now,” said Stelliatos. “We are suffering. But as Greeks, we know what pain means and we will put the country back on track.”