ECONOMY

Banks once again expected to top the list of most profitable firms in the first quarter

The next big corporate news will be the quarterly results. Their publication will begin next week and last until the April 30 deadline. The sectors on which most interest is expected to focus are banks, industry, passenger shipping and commerce, both wholesale and retail. According to the latest evidence, banks will show the biggest rise in both turnover and profits. They will be followed by industrial enterprises, especially from the foods and beverages sub-sector, and retail merchants. Passenger shipping companies are also expected to show significant improvement, since the high price of oil boosts their turnover. We should note here that all listed passenger shippers have restructured their bank loans and achieved better repayment terms. Companies, in general, will also benefit from a more prudent investment strategy. Most listed firms improved profitability and reduced operating costs in 2003. They also saw the benefits of investments made in the 1990s. Last time around, when the full results for 2003 were published three months ago, the main features were the following: Consolidated sales rose 14.03 percent compared to 2002; consolidated profits rose 37.04 percent; most companies simultaneously achieved a reduction in operating costs and an increase in sales; and an important number of firms returned to profitability after two years in the red. Besides the abovementioned steps to improve finances, many firms increased their presence abroad, realizing that expansion into other markets is the only way to face the challenges of globalization. The food and beverages companies have always been ahead of most of the rest in this respect, having begun investing in the Balkans and Eastern Europe 20 years ago. Foreign investors increased their profile on the Athens Stock Exchange in March. According to official data from the Central Shares Depository, their participation in listed shares increased to 33.51 percent in March, from 32.33 percent in February. Conversely, the share of Greek investors fell from 67.67 percent to 66.49 percent. Foreign investors in blue chips, the companies listed on the FTSE/ASE-20 index, rose from 40.36 percent in February to 41.40 percent in March. Their participation also increased in mid-caps, from 16.70 percent to 18.23 percent, and in small-caps, from 14.17 percent to 14.88 percent. With each successive ASE session, the view of experts that the Athens bourse is a two-speed, or even multispeed, market is being confirmed. Interest in most listed stocks is waning and the sessions are increasingly dominated by blue chips and a few mid-caps.