by Scott Ronalds
As a tourist, I’ve always wanted to visit Greece. The country’s rich history, landscapes, food and fables have long intrigued me. Plus, my wife has run two marathons and has wanted to see where it all began.
As an investor, I’ve also been curious to see firsthand what life is now like in the small Mediterranean country that was the posterchild of the European sovereign debt crisis.
Upon returning from a 2-week holiday, I can say that Greece didn’t disappoint. The scenery was beautiful, the people charming, the temples incredible, and the food & drink fantastic (more on that in a minute).
Life also seems to be on the uptick for many Greeks. After numerous rounds of reforms, tax increases, austerity measures, bail-outs and a brain drain (well-educated people leaving the country), the general consensus was that things are improving. The “Crisis”, as it’s become known, is still talked about but there was a feeling that Greeks are trying to put it in the past.
Economic numbers show that the economy is growing again following years of stagnation (in the wake of the global financial crisis, Greece suffered the worst recession of any developed country since World War II). Unemployment, while still high, is falling. And last August, the country emerged from its final bail-out program.
Young people also told us there are better opportunities now. We could see new businesses succeeding and money being spent. Maybe my wife and I had the blinders on as tourists being indulged with fresh calamari and ouzo. To be sure, Greece still has its share of problems, including a refugee crisis, inefficient bureaucracy and escalating tensions with Turkey over offshore oil & gas reserves. But there seemed to be an air of optimism around the country. One topic, however, that hasn’t faded away is the country’s debt. This is where I stumbled across an interesting story, over a beer.
While taking in the sweeping views of Santorini over lunch one day, the local brew I was drinking, Volkan White, was among the best I’ve tasted. The perfect blend of hops, citrus and a touch of sweetness. I turned to the label to see what exactly was in it and noticed a statement on the bottom: For each 1 euro of profit, we will help reduce the Greek national debt by 50 euro cents.
I did a little investigating and found that the owner of the company, Petros Nomikos, comes from a wealthy shipping family and established a non-profit foundation in 2011 known as Greece Debt Free. The foundation collects donations from businesses and individuals (including those living abroad) to buy Greek bonds in international markets and then cancel them, thus relieving the government of future liabilities. Volkan donates 50% of its profits to the cause.
The goal of the foundation is to help chip away at the country’s massive debt. By establishing a non-government, non-political entity to do so, Nomikos believes that patriotic Greeks are more likely to donate to the cause (mistrust of the government still runs high).
It’s a novel idea. How successful the foundation will ultimately be is still a question mark, but other companies and organizations have joined the pledge, including Athens-based football club Olympiakos. If nothing else, Greece Debt Free is a symbol of philanthropy and progressive thinking in helping a country regain its economic footing. That’s worth lifting a beer to.
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