ECONOMY

Athens bourse aims for a regional role to keep both pace and vitality

Stock market players are sounding the warning bell that the Athens bourse needs urgent initiatives to be revitalized and avert being further sidelined from the mainstream of European markets. In the first six months of 2006, there were only two new listings on the Athens Stock Exchange (ASE), the Postal Savings Bank (TT) and EFG Eurobank Properties – the lowest number among the 13 largest European bourses. The two listings raised about 720 million euros (of which 612 million from TT’s privatization), while in 2005, only 40 million euros were raised from just four listings. Spyros Kapralos, president of Hellenic Exchanges (the holding company of which the ASE is a member), insists that initiatives are under way. A few days ago he called for incentives that will attract large and healthy Greek enterprises. The present situation is a far cry from the ASE’s days of the «irrational exuberance» six to seven years ago, when dozens of semi-problematic firms were in line for listing. Even the smallest construction company then had a market capitalization larger than Germany’s Hochtief. Today, almost 30 percent of the 314 listed companies have a market value of less than 20 million euros each. In statements to Kathimerini, Kapralos said the ASE will soon complete testing technological systems that will allow the launching of a joint platform with the Cyprus Stock Exchange, which was announced two years ago. He considers that this will be the first step of an effort to make the ASE the center of a regional Balkan market, to include firms from Bulgaria and Romania, which are due to join the EU next year. Vienna, already controlling the Budapest bourse, would be a strong competitor to Athens. Kapralos says that although alliances are indispensable in the drive to make the ASE a regional force, the right partner is also necessary, as attested by the unsuccessful merger of the Lisbon bourse into Euronext. Several Portuguese blue chips found themselves much lower on the list after the merger, with reduced visibility to powerful institutional investors. The Athens market remains expensive in charges for activities such as transactions while its European rivals seek ways to reduce commissions and costs by creating economies of scale and unifying technological systems. Kapralos notes that the ASE’s charges are lower than major markets, but transaction costs remain higher. Further, obligations such as publishing annual financial reports add costs. The ASE head does not rule out a full revision of the market’s charges policy in the context of EU directives, with discussions with the Capital Market Commission already under way.