ECONOMY

2003 stock market rebound still leaves entire sectors in the cold

Even though 2003 has seen a rebound of the Athens Stock Exchange (ASE) after more than three years of steep declines, this does not apply to the majority of shares and, indeed, the future of virtually entire sectors of listed firms seems in doubt. Dozens of companies in the sectors of fish farming, textiles, construction, information technology, passenger shipping and retail commerce are facing the specter of bankruptcy under the weight of serious financial problems, while their share prices are tottering. Many analysts take the view that the situation is irreversible for many firms facing large debts, inelastic operating expenses and shrinking turnover as ill-conceived investment moves take their toll. It is seen as no coincidence that pressures on small-capitalization stock prices have intensified since the publication of their nine-month results. Besides, the announcement of the ASE’s new trading regulations earlier this month has seen a surge of liquidations in small-caps, especially in the last few days. The new regulations introduce new sub-markets, some of which include problematic firms according to criteria such as firms persistently in the red or of low marketability. As a result, it now appears clear that the main market in 2004 will include a significantly reduced number of stocks with sound fundamentals. Market players appear concerned with some of the changes, particularly with the attempted separation of «good» shares from «bad,» arguing that this gives indirect investment guidelines and in part neutralizes the role of professional management. Stock market officials take the view that even though the new regulations will affect many companies, they will have a minimal quantitative impact on the ASE; they note that the approximately 100 firms estimated to be affected account for 3-4 percent of total capitalization and only 2 percent of the bourse’s average daily turnover. But critics still believe that the psychological impact will be incomparably higher than the economic one. They also point out that stock market authorities and banks (which now have majority control of Hellenic Exchanges, the ASE’s parent company) bear a huge share of responsibility for the listing of a large number of fundamentally unsound entities during the euphoric years; they argue that substance was ignored or invested with a cloak of legality, and that the changes represent a peculiar attempt at self-cleansing and elimination of the problematic elements. Sectors in doubt Information technology (IT): The sectoral index is down 11.38 percent for the year, while one firm, Datamedia, has been suspended from trading. Concern for the sector as a whole is high, as the big projects anticipated, especially in the public sector, never materialized, and unabsorbed EU investment subsidies are expected to be transferred to other sectors. Given the low level of investment in technology, Greek listed IT firms are mostly commercial entities. Fish farming: The first firms were listed in the 1990s and now all of them are facing serious problems: A recent entrant, Seafarm Ionian, has been suspended from trading, while Xifias is desperately looking for a strategic investor. Construction: Billed as the new Eldorado in the late 1990s, it has not made good on the huge expectations. The sectoral index is 10 percent down for the year, despite the building frenzy under way. ATEMKE, Ergas and Technodomi now appear as sorry relics of past promises and all indications suggest the list will grow impressively after the lights of next summer’s Olympic Games are out. Retail commerce: The irrationally exuberant expansion moves made mostly in 1999 have left deep problems in the sector. Even though several companies have managed to substantially improve their financial position since (with positive effects on the sectoral index this year), many analysts remain skeptical about prospects, pointing to the sector’s considerable debt burden. Textiles: This once-strong sector is in frail health and its index has receded 17.5 percent this year. Especially the firms that set their eyes on expansion in recent years are now facing many problems.