Locals brace for final act of Greek tragedy

Hard as it is to believe, there was a time many Australians were drawn to Greece for its work opportunities. The president of the Greek Orthodox Community in Melbourne, Bill Papastergiadis, says until the economic crisis struck, hordes of Australians were attracted by the country's good jobs and comfortable climate.

Hard as it is to believe, there was a time many Australians were drawn to Greece for its work opportunities. The president of the Greek Orthodox Community in Melbourne, Bill Papastergiadis, says 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 expats have come home, and most are in their prime working years.

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

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

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

But how would the rest of the economy by affected if events in the troubled 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 Australian 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 a five-month low below US99?, as investors rushed to the traditional asset of choice in times of stress, US Treasury bonds.

Analysts say the Aussie could fall further, noting its plunge to near US60? in 2008.

But the former secretary of the Treasury Dr Ken Henry has a different view. He says Australia could end up being a safe haven for global capital, bucking the trend of previous crises, when international money had made an exit.

"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," Henry said this week.

The Citibank economist Joshua Williamson agrees with Henry and points to the surge in demand for Australian bonds, which this week pushed the return on 10-year government bonds to a 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 turmoil.

Greece's total foreign debt is ?422 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 eurozone exposure is in France and the Netherlands, where banks have about US$8 billion each.

However, there is a risk Australian banks could be affected if credit markets freeze, as happened during the 2008 mayhem.

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 basis points in March, but lower than the highs of last year.

Philip Bayley, a credit market specialist with ADCM Services, says the big 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," Bayley 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 eurozone 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 almost two-thirds of its exports to Europe in the decades after World War II. So in the past, a crisis in the region may have harmed trade significantly.

These days, China is by far 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.

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

The chairman of BHP Billiton, Jac Nasser, said this week commodity prices were cooling and likely to fall further - and BHP was no longer likely to spend $80 billion investing in Australia over the next five years, as it had 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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