Eurozone's storms to unsettle trade winds

The Greek crisis is not expected to send a tsunami this far south, but Australia's economy will feel the tremors.

The Greek crisis is not expected to send a tsunami this far south, but Australia's economy will feel the tremors.

IT SEEMS hard to believe today, but there was a time when many Australians were drawn to Greece for the work opportunities.

Bill Papastergiadis, the president of the Greek Orthodox community in Melbourne, says the until the economic crisis struck, hordes of Australians were attracted by the country's good jobs and comfortable climate.

''There's something like 100,000 Australians living in Greece. Up until recently, it was a great lifestyle,'' he says.

In the past year, however, he says about 5000 of these Australian expats have come home, and most were in their prime working years.

''The ones who are coming back are mainly between the ages of 20 and 50,'' Mr Papastergiadis says.

This relatively small number of Australians have directly felt the impact of the economic drama unfolding in Greece.

There are also about 1600 people in Australia who draw some pension from Greece, and any move to abandon the euro may affect their incomes.

But how would the rest of the economy be affected if events in the eurozone took a turn for the worse?

This question confronts investors as Greece prepares for crucial elections next month - seen as a referendum on whether to quit the euro. Here are some of the main channels through which the euro's crisis may affect Australia's economy.

THE DOLLAR DRAMATIC global events nearly always move the Aussie dollar. It's part of being a resource-rich trading nation with a currency that is hugely popular with speculators.

This week the currency slumped to a five-month low below US99?, as investors rushed to the asset of choice in times of stress, US Treasury bonds.

Analysts say the currency could fall further, noting its plunge to near US60? in the global financial crisis.

But the former secretary of the Treasury, Ken Henry, says Australia could end up being a safe haven for global capital - bucking the trend of previous crises, when international money deserted Australia.

''It is quite possible on this occasion Australia will be seen as offering something of a safe haven for global capital movements. That'll be the first time in the postwar period, but it's possible to imagine it now,'' Dr Henry said this week.

Citibank economist Joshua Williamson agrees, and points to the surge in demand for Australian bonds, which this week pushed the return on 10-year government bonds to a new postwar low of less than 3.2 per cent

''The falling yield means people are bidding up the price of bonds higher, and that bidding is coming from overseas investors who want to hold their money in an asset that they feel will give them a safe return on their capital.''

If demand for Australian assets remains this strong, it seems unlikely the dollar will fall as sharply as it did in 2008.

BANKS EUROPE'S woes have been caused by public debt, but banks are inextricably linked to the crisis. Greece's foreign debt is ?422 billion ($A540 billion), much of it owned by banks and government institutions such as the International Monetary Fund.

Australia's banks have no direct exposure to Greece, and latest figures from the Bank for International Settlements show the highest euro zone exposure is in France and the Netherlands, where banks each have about $US8 billion.

But there is a risk our banks could be affected if credit markets freeze, as happened in the 2008 global financial crisis.

So far, there have been warning signs in credit default swap spreads, an indicator of the perceived risk of default.

The spread for Australian corporate borrowers has risen to more than 190 basis points, up from 115 in March, but lower than the highs of last year.

Philip Bayley, a credit market specialist with ADCM Services, says the big Australian banks have more of their funding secured for this financial year. However, conditions are getting closer to the point where markets are effectively closed to borrowers.

''We haven't got there yet but we are heading in that direction,'' he says. ''Because this is also a banking system problem, it's affecting the wholesale funding markets that our banks rely on for funding.''

TRADE LESS than 8 per cent of Australia's exports go to Europe and a negligible share of this trade is with Greece, so economists say a euro break-up would have a modest impact on trade.

But with China also slowing, there are concerns the euro crisis could upset the world economy, which is crucial for Australia's resources exports.

The chief economist at JPMorgan, Stephen Walters, says Australia used to sell nearly two-thirds of its exports to Europe after World War II. So in the past, a crisis may have harmed trade significantly.

These days, China is a bigger influence on our trade - buying more than 25 per cent of all exports.

''The direct impacts are pretty small because we don't export a lot to Europe any more,'' Walters says.

But the jitters in Europe come at a time when China's expansion is slowing. Its annual growth rate in the March quarter was 8.1 per cent, its slowest quarter since the global financial crisis.

BHP Billiton chairman Jac Nasser said this week that commodity prices were cooling and likely to fall further - and BHP was no longer likely to invest $80 billion in Australia over the next five years, as previously predicted.

These fears of slowing in China - alongside the Greek drama - were the reason resources stocks bore the brunt of heavy selling this week.

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