The Impact of New Greek Property and Shipping Tax Laws
Greek tax laws have undergone major changes over the past year or so as part of the range of measures designed to combat the financial crisis and to meet the obligations of the bailout agreement. This has helped some, but forced others to make some difficult decisions. The removal of the property tax attachment to electricity bills was a popular move that benefitted many. Its replacement by a broader real estate ownership tax and the reduction in the rate of property transfer tax from 8-10% down to 3%, which came into effect in January 2014, has had the desired effect of stimulating movement in the property market, but this has not always been for positive reasons. A large number of property owners have made the decision to divest themselves of their assets to avoid the higher tax burden on ownership. One result of this is that revenues from property taxes in 2014 may be as high as €3.8 billion for 2014, compared to the 2009 figure of only €500 million; another is that property prices have collapsed.
Casualties and beneficiaries
There was much resistance among Greeks to the introduction of the new 3% transfer tax as it removed the tax burden from the few with large landholdings and onto the shoulders of the many – the 87% of the population who are home-owners, who would on paper share the tax burden more fairly but in reality have found it crippling. The new unified property taxes follow the model set by the troika in its €240 billion bailout package, where the tax burden is moved from property transfers to ownership. This applies not only to commercial and residential property, but to farms, sports fields and vacant land. Transfer tax revenue is therefore expected to drop in 2014 to only €2.65 billion, compared to the €2.90 generated under the old law. The government plans to cover this shortfall with cuts in investment spending.
The beneficiaries of this property market slump are the foreign buyers, who are attracted by lower prices as well as by the lure of residence permits, which are now granted to non-EU investors buying property valued at over €250,000; but not all foreign buyers are going for the more expensive properties. Prices at the end of 2013 had already fallen by 32% since 2008, and they are still falling. This is the second steepest property price decline in the EU after that of Croatia. Greek prices are forecast to drop by another 20% in 2014. A Bank of Greece survey shows an average annual rate of change to residential property prices of -29.9%. Homes are generally on the market for 10 months before being sold at 20% below the asking price.
Some Greek real estate agents estimate the decline in property prices to be nearer 50%. With the exception of luxury property and property in the more popular tourist resorts, the quantity of sales has dropped considerably since the market’s peak in 2005. Property analyst Christos Bletas said that in Athens ‘the lack of interest displayed last year… hasn’t been experienced since the second world war.’ Greeks have traditionally seen property as the securest of investments. This is no longer the case, and the sevenfold increase in overall property tax has meant that for many people their home has become a huge financial drain on their diminishing resources.
According to the Hellenic Property Federation (POMIDA), which is ‘fighting against the new burdens place upon real estate property owners due to the debt crisis,’ more than 500,000 people want to sell, but around 300,000 residences remain empty—a golden opportunity only for foreign buyers of holiday homes. The biggest buyers are the British and Russians, closely followed by the Germans, Turks and Chinese. However, the Hellenic Realtors Federation has warned that the new taxes could result in a freezing of transactions that would lead to a collapse of the market.
Greek commercial ship-owners may be among the richest people in the country, but they have traditionally enjoyed special tax concessions on their ships. This is because of the high-risk nature of the business. However, these concessions, which are enshrined in the constitution and have been respected by governments without exception since the 1940s, have now been reviewed as part of the enforced reassessment of the country’s tax laws. Until this year, most of the ship-owners had conformed to an agreement made in 2013 with the Minister of Finance to contribute voluntarily to the country’s finances. Legislation rushed through parliament by Antonis Samaras’ coalition government before Christmas 2013 has now imposed on them a mandatory tripled tonnage tax.
The President of the Union of Greek Shipowners (UGS), Theodoros Veniamis, said this was a ‘constitutional deviation’ and that ‘a negative climate has been created for any type of business investment inGreece.’ The ship-owners have said they are willing to wait for the government to reconsider, although in February 2014 the Merchant Marine Minister, Miltiadis Varvitsiotis, said that the tax was an emergency three-year measure only. This is not good enough for the UGS, which has threatened to move their fleet abroad and to sail under a foreign flag unless the policy is reconsidered.
Unemployment in Greece is now 28%, the highest in the EU. Against a background of economic and social marginalisation, after four years of austerity under the bailout agreement, and facing further fiscal shortfalls in 2014, Prime Minister Samaras is sticking to his guns as far as the ship-owners are concerned. He has refused to make further unpopular spending cuts in other sectors that have already made considerable sacrifices. This decision to demand a greater contribution from one of the richest sectors of the economy has drawn praise from Giorgos Stathakis, the opposition Syriza party shadow minister for development, who called it ‘a positive step’.
Vassilis Antoniades, MD of the Boston Consulting Group, which has undertaken a recent study on Greek shipping and the Greek economy, said: ‘The shipping industry is a significant contributor to Greece in terms of jobs, cash and economic activity, and it stands to lose all three if it changes the regime for attracting shipping companies to the country.’ Greek shipping employs around 200,000 people and is estimated to have brought more than €140 billion foreign exchange into Greece over the past decade. The industry accounts for around 7% of the country’s GDP, so there is a real fear of the consequences of the government getting this wrong, even though the policy is justified by the ship-owners wealth and the country’s need.