ECONOMY

Banks, foreign investors’ darlings

Greek banks continue to attract strong investment interest, despite the considerable gains of recent years. National Bank, for instance, has reached successive historic levels this month, its share price standing 18 percent higher than even the highs seen in the irrational, stock market exuberance of 1999, when the Athens Exchange (ATHEX) general index had skyrocketed to more than 6,300 points (yesterday if fell below 5,000 points). Piraeus Bank and Eurobank, which are planning rights issues of -1.35 billion and -1.2 billion respectively in September in order to finance ambitious expansion plans abroad, are also recording impressive gains. In all, Greece’s four largest banks have virtually recovered all the ground lost since the 1999 highs, while those investors who took up positions during the bear market of the 2000-2003 period are realizing even larger gains. Characteristically, National Bank’s share price is now 677 percent higher than when the general index hit rock bottom in 2003, Piraeus Bank is 560 percent higher, Alpha Bank 406 percent higher and Eurobank 248 percent higher. However, this strong performance involves only the «big four.» Even Emporiki Bank, which also belongs to the «seniors club» is down 228 percent since 1999, while its smaller peers, Attica and Aspis banks, have recorded even more dramatic declines. According to stock market data, the continuing strong investment interest in banks originates mainly from abroad. Indeed, foreign investors have been the driving force on the ATHEX since 2003. In the last 12 months, their share in the blue chips of the FTSE-20 index has shot up from 45 percent to 57 percent. Foreign portfolios own 52 percent of National Bank shares, 29 percent of Eurobank (which has lower dispersion, with the Latsis family owning 41 percent), and 42 percent each of Alpha and Piraeus banks. The total value of their current holdings in the big four exceeds – 20 billion, that is, roughly the current stock market value of National Bank. Apart from strong liquidity in the global financial system, there are two further reasons for the strong foreign interest in Greek banks. First, their significant growth prospects in Greece itself and, second – of increasing importance – their strong presence in Southeastern Europe.