The Greek shipping myth: an industry talks up its impact
Published 01/12/2015 | 02:30
On the day he took office as Greece's shipping minister in June 2012, Kostis Moussouroulis received a visit from a 90-year-old ship-owner.
He still remembers the older man's words: "Don't forget, the best minister of shipping and maritime affairs is the minister who is doing nothing for the shipping industry. He is the one who is leaving us alone."
That's the way Greek ship-owners like it. The magnates who run one of the biggest merchant marine fleets in the world have long argued that if Greece tried to tax them, they would leave - and that their departure would devastate the economy. In recent years, as international institutions repeatedly bailed out Greece, the lenders have also pushed Athens to beef up its tax take.
Ship-owners have resisted any effort to ditch the tax breaks they enjoy, and no government has dared touch them.
"Shipping is a pillar of the Greek economy," says the Union of Greek Ship-owners, the ocean-going industry's main association.
Greece's statistics office says shipping contributes around $9bn - or 4pc - of Gross Domestic Product (GDP). When you include related business, the industry says, the figure jumps to 7.5pc of GDP, or about $17bn a year. Deep-sea shipping and related trades employ more than 192,000 people, it says. That's 4pc of all Greek workers.
But an analysis of corporate filings and economic data by Reuters suggests shipping's heroic role in Greece's economy is largely a myth.
That's because Greek ship-owners include in their statistics billions of dollars which never enter the economy.
If Greece counted only payments to Greek companies and individuals - as other countries do - the deep-sea shipping industry's contribution would be equivalent to around 1pc of GDP.
For Greece, the cost of the tax breaks granted to shipowners runs into hundreds of millions of euro. Though that is small compared with the country's debt, plenty of other citizens have had to tighten their belts.
The ship-owners "are powerful in that they… get the media to write what they want," said economist and former finance minister George Papaconstantinou.
"Immediately when you start touching them you start to hear: 'We are 7pc of the economy we bring 17bn every year, 200,000 jobs'… That's not the case."
The Union of Greek Shipowners declined to comment on the Reuters analysis, but said any suggestion it used political or media influence to perpetuate inaccuracies about its economic contribution was "a completely false allegation".
The industry says government tax revenues from Greek shipping have increased more than eight-fold since the outbreak of the economic crisis.
But today, instead of Greek-based ships manned by Greek sailors, shipping is mainly made up of small management offices in Athens' port of Piraeus that collect freight fees on behalf of their tax-haven registered parents.
It's not clear how many jobs the industry generates. Shipowners, too, often live abroad.
Papaconstantinou, the former finance minister who said he doubted the importance of shipping, is one politician who wants change. He said the government should commission an independent report to estimate the real contribution of the sector. But he said the industry would resist.
"It's not by accident that you do not have an authoritative independent study of this," he said. (Reuters)