MAKING SENSE -- November 15, 2012 at 12:24 PM ET
Money Manager Jon 'Merle Hazard' Shayne Visits Athens
Passengers ride the German-made transit system in Athens, Greece.
When Jon Shayne last commented on Greece for us, it was in song as "Merle Hazard," Jon's musical alter ego. He was actually filing from his hometown of Nashville, Tenn., where a life-size replica of the Parthenon has been an immovable object since the Tennessee Centennial Exposition of 1897.
The Parthenon is one Nashville institution. Jon the money manager is another, as attested to recently by Forbes magazine in an article about him: "Where the Cheap Stocks Are -- Come Hell or High Water."
So when Jon asked if we'd like to share a telling encounter in actual Athens not long ago, we invited him to write it up. Here's what he sent:
Jon Shayne: I was briefly in Athens this summer, and had a discussion with a friend there, native Athenian Georgios Michalopoulos, who was months from finishing a Ph.D. in modern Greek history at Oxford. We met online when he translated something for me, but this was our first in-person meeting.
Georgios has a fertile mind. The son of teachers, he's an omnivorous reader and movie-watcher. Lucky for me, he was back in Athens when my family and I were passing through. He was kind enough to give us a tour of the city.
At one point, we were sitting with him in the subway stop near Syntagma Square, not far from the Greek parliament building in the heart of Athens. I mentioned how nice the infrastructure looked, and how surprised Americans would be to see it, given the stream of dire news we get about Greece. The airport was fully modern, as you would expect in other cities in Western Europe, or the U.S. The roads and bridges we saw on the drive in from the airport were also up to that high standard. The subway, I mentioned to him, looked particularly up-to-date and efficient, more like the system in Washington, D.C., than the one in New York.
"Built by Germans!" he laughed. "We can't build any of this stuff." (Indeed, the nameplates on the subway cars were German-sounding, as were those on our hotel elevators. The roads were actually Greek-built, Georgios later messaged me.)
I told Georgios that the level of "for rent" signs in store windows in the neighborhoods around our hotel seemed high, but again, not at a level that screamed "Depression." He said yes, the vacancies are maybe two or three times as high as normal.
He said he was most concerned that it is very hard to start a business in Greece. The goal among more educated Greeks, once they get out of college, is to work for a state-run company like the rail system, or for the government itself. Parents of recent graduates pull strings to get their kids such positions. Then, after three or four years, when the kids are secure in their jobs, or as secure as they can be in the post-crisis economy (everything is harder now), they marry and have kids of their own. They tend to stay put for life. He said that the bureaucracy is bad, so the skills of the employees develop much more slowly than in other countries.
What are the major industries in Greece? I asked.
Tourism, shipping and agriculture, he replied; nothing that will generate wealth sufficient to support the current level of consumption.
"Then what does the future hold for Greece, Georgios?" I asked.
"More subsidies from the Germans!" he said.
Paul Solman P.S.: The entire Merle songbook can be accessed here.
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This entry is cross-posted on the Making Sen$e page.