How will the Greek cement industry cope with the Greek debt crisis?


Updated Fri, 03 Jul 2015 16:35:31 GMT

Greek:The Greek debt crisis directly hit the local cement industry on Tuesday 30 June 2015 when Titan Cement reported that it was unable to pay a dividend to its shareholders. The leading local cement producer blamed the capital controls introduced by the government.

It is worth looking at the effects on the domestic cement industry as the Eurozone bureaucracy and the Greek government play 'chicken' with each other while Greece starts the default process, having failed to pay the latest International Monetary Fund (IMF) payment on 30 June 2015. Greece will now join a group, possibly even more select than the European Union, of countries that have failed to pay back the IMF, including current defaulters like Sudan and Zimbabwe.

A better comparison might be made with Argentina which defaulted upon its foreign debts in 2001. Its construction industry fell by 12% year-on-year in 2001 and by a further 30% in 2002. Cement consumption and cement production utilisation rates hit 23% in 2002. One key difference with Greece is that the country has had major financial difficulties for far longer than Argentina. Argentina ran into financial depression in 1998 and defaulted in 2001. Greece ran into financial trouble following the 2008 financial crisis and then received its first bailout in 2010.

As the capital controls show, even initial responses to the financial situations are impacting upon the standard transactions a limited company conducts. The Financial Times ran an article in May 2015 examining the potential effects on businesses of a debt default and Greek exit from the Eurozone (Grexit). In short, business and commerce will continue where possible reacting to whatever comes their way. For example, an olive oil producer reported switching to exports to make profits. Crucially though, another company interviewed, a construction contractor, worried about potential cuts to government or EU-led infrastructure projects.

As Titan reported in its first quarter results for 2015, its Greek market has been dependent on road building. In February 2014 Titan Cement reported its first improved operating results in seven years followed by profit in 2014 as a whole. The other major cement producers, Lafarge subsidiary Heracles General Cement and Italcementi subsidiary Halyps Cement, reported an improved construction market in 2014 with rising cement volumes. However, it was noted by Lafarge that it was developing exports to 'optimise kiln utilisation.' Titan also noted the benefits of exports in its first quarter report for 2015, focusing on a strengthening US Dollar versus the Euro. Given on-going events, one suspects there is going to be a lot more 'development' of this kind.

To set some sense of scale of the crisis Jim O'Neill, former head of economics at Goldman Sachs, famously calculated that, at the height of its growth, China created an economy the size of Greece's every three months. What happens next is down to the crystal balls of economists, although the path of least resistance now seems to be pointing at further default, departure from the Eurozone and Euro and further significant financial pain for Greece.

It looks likely that the local construction market will stay subdued and exports will offer a lifeline. How much the EU is prepared to let Greece default on its bills and then try and undercut its own over-capacity cement industries remains to be seen. However, since the main cement producers in Greece are all multinational outfits, it will afford them some flexibility in their strategy in coping with the fallout. Meanwhile a cement production capacity of around 14Mt/yr for a population of 11m suggests over capacity by European standards. If exports can't help then the situation looks grim.