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Checking In with Greece

Checking In with Greece

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January is always a good time to look back, take stock, and make plans. And 2021, while a complicated year, was in no way uneventful. Across CEE, we’ve had lawyers and law firms variously reporting on – besides the obvious pandemic-related restrictions and increased work flexibility – a record year for M&A transactions, growing green energy, effervescent capital markets, a surprisingly solid real estate sector, ascendant ESG practices, a renewed focus on infrastructure, and TMT going from strength to strength.

To better understand the country’s new normal, we reached out to a (baker’s) dozen law firms in Greece. We asked each which practice was busiest in 2021, what the drivers for that activity were, and where they think we’re headed, in 2022.

Energy

Metaxas & Associates Managing Partner Antonis Metaxas, KLC Executive Partner Alexandros Tsirigos, and Moussas & Partners Managing Partner Nicholas Moussas all report that Energy was the main practice area, in terms of activity, in 2021 – with Moussas highlighting renewables and energy disputes and Tsirigos mentioning M&A transactions, project development and construction mandates, and project financing transactions.

“We have been dealing on the daily with demanding cases involving complex energy regulation issues,” Metaxas says, pointing out that renewable energy is on the rise. The firm advised on quite a few deals in that regard, he says, including providing legal support to the Municipality of Megalopolis on the preparatory process for the “Just Transition Development Plan, towards its decarbonization effort, in order to ensure a fair development transition by 2023.” Metaxas also highlights the project involving “Hellenic Hydrocarbon Resources Management on the reassessment and modification of offshore safety provisions in hydrocarbon activities aiming, inter alia, to ensure the safe storage of natural gas.”

Tsirigos points to the National Energy group deal “regarding the development, construction, financing, and operation of its 500-megawatt solar and winds assets portfolio,” and to the mandate from the Greek Ministry of Finance to “formulate the regulatory and contractual framework for channeling EUR 12 billion from the EU Recovery and Resilience Fund (RRF) to eligible projects contributing to the green and digital transition.” Moussas highlights the Green Island of Astypalaia by VW project – a ‘Smart Green Island’ initiative in Greece, with work on “the implementation of a pioneering mobility system,” as well as “climate litigation, which mostly consists of disputes related to the licensing and construction phase of renewable projects or to state schemes aiming to reduce emissions and enhance the penetration of renewables.”

In terms of what has been driving this work, Moussas points to “climate change concerns, which have become a market trend.” In particular, Metaxas talks about work being generated by the Greek government, that, “in order to keep up with the European framework on Green transition, cycle economy, and sustainability, is implementing major reforms in the energy sector, which naturally translate into a complex energy policy.” This, Tsirigos says, led to a “favorable feed-in tariff and feed-in-premium regime.”

And this regulatory drive has not gone unnoticed by the market, with Tsirigos explaining that Greece is registering a “high investment appetite for RES projects.” Complemented by the perceived legal safety and, according to him, an overall “improvement of the economic outlook,” this all means that a lot of work ends up in law firms’ pipelines.

Looking to the future, Moussas expects energy mandates to “significantly increase, because Greece is following a growth pattern which is expected to continue, with further investments in renewables, infrastructure, and projects in general.” Tsirigos points out that, alongside the same drivers that contributed to the energy sector’s growth trend, the practice will be “further boosted by the RRF funds, leveraged with private sector resources.” Metaxas believes that, with the Greek government’s drive to keep up with the EU and the energy market in an ever-expanding phase, “energy will remain our core practice throughout 2022, and in the years to follow.”

Maritime & Shipping

For Hill Dickinson, Stefas – Tasiopoulos & Associates, and Watson Farley & Williams, Maritime and Shipping were the busiest practice areas, as Partners Jasel Chauhan, Christos Stefas, and Vassiliki Georgopoulos respectively report. We saw the “most prolific growth in ship sale and purchase.” says Chauhan, noting that it was a record-breaking year “in terms of volume of sales, with demand for tonnage far outstripping supply across different sectors, most notably containers and dry bulkers.”

Georgopoulos says that 2021 has been a remarkably busy year, particularly for ship finance, with her firm advising on CPLP Shipping Holdings’ USD 150 million corporate bond issuance, a USD 34.2 million loan to subsidiaries of Globus Maritime Limited for the refinancing of its fleet of dry-bulk vessels, and a sustainability-focused USD 25 million financing for Union Maritime Limited, among others.

Stefas highlights one project, as an example: “a salvage claim regarding the grounding and fire incident on the passenger vessel Europa Link in the port of Corfu.” His firm represented the Kerkyra Maritime Company and Igoumenitsa Maritime Company in a dispute over salvage services with the vessel’s underwriters.

Chauhan and Georgopoulos share the opinion that the pandemic was an important driver behind the growth registered across Shipping practices. “Initially, industries curbed production, expecting that consumers would curtail spending,” Chauhan explains, “however, amid the pandemic, online sales of products soared … and supply of tonnage has been unable to keep pace.” According to him, “a series of problems, including the pandemic-related labor shortages and immigration problems, port congestion, the temporary closure of the Suez Canal, and a dearth of available containers used to store and move goods” caused “a huge spike in freight rates in some sectors and vessel prices – in some cases five to six times higher than the pre-pandemic five-year seasonal average.”

Georgopoulos adds that “increased focus on sustainability across all industries” and “the increased charter hire rates for containers” were some of the other factors behind the shipping finance activities. For Stefas, the main driver is still, “most probably, global trade growth – with trade about to reach the level of USD 28 trillion by the end of 2021.”

As for 2022, Chauhan expects the “sustained record-high freight rates seen over the last year” to continue. He notes that, according to the Baltic and International Maritime Council, “the spike in freight rates and vessel values will continue well into 2022 and are expected to be sustained at these elevated levels going into 2023.” Therefore, Chauhan expects “corporate acquisitions and ship sale and purchase activities to continue upward and sale volumes to remain robust throughout 2022.” He notes that “exceptional market circumstances and fluctuations have also maintained a high level of shipping-related disputes and legal activity (post-Brexit), and these appear set to continue.”

Georgopoulos adds that, in shipping, increased activity is expected on sustainability-linked loans, issuances of Greek shipping bonds, as well as on compliance with the latest regulations. According to her, “renewal of the existing fleet through the ordering of newbuildings adapted to cater for new fuel technologies” is also anticipated.

Stefas too believes “the practice to remain at least at the same levels in 2022, with a fair possibility to increase,” if world trade “continues recovering during 2022 and the COVID-19 pandemic begins to relapse.”

Corporate and M&A

Drakopoulos Senior Partner Panagiotis Drakopoulos and Avramopoulos & Partners Senior Partner Vassilis Avramopoulos say that Corporate and M&A has been the busiest practice, throughout the year, with an “increased number of deals, including both new projects and resumed transactions that had been previously paused due to the pandemic,” according to Drakopoulos.

Avramopoulos mentions “several projects, primarily referring to acquisitions of both companies and assets.” He says the “tourism industry was one of the main fields of interest … with traditional clients as well as newcomers, from various jurisdictions around the world, wishing to invest in Greece.”

The main driver for M&A transactions has been momentum, Drakopoulos says. According to him, factors such as “the stabilized political and economic conditions, the lengthy period of inertness and insecurity due to the pandemic, and the heavy capital left to deploy,” alongside a legal framework with no significant changes, have all “been working in favor of businesses.”

Avramopoulos adds that local political factors, in particular, “the enhancement of a relationship of trust between foreign investors and the Greek government,” resulted in intense activity in the field. In addition, he notes that the Greek government prioritized “the creation of an attractive investment framework,” through the establishment of a “stable tax environment and the provision of investment incentives.”

Looking at 2022, Avramopoulos believes that the Corporate and M&A practice “will face new challenges, as Greece is expected to experience increased mobility in terms of investment, provided that the COVID-19 pandemic will be successfully controlled.”

Drakopoulos agrees that “stakeholders are fretting about high market prices, with valuations expected to reach an all-time high next year.” However, he has a positive outlook for the upcoming year. “The practice will continue to boom,” he says, highlighting that “ongoing business activity in the industry is incrementally growing and is combined with an already increased appetite and pressure from investors to deploy capital.”

Banking and Finance (NPLs)

Moratis Passas Partner Vassilis Saliaris and KP Law Firm Partner Constantinos Klissouras note that a significant rise in non-performing loans activity has been characteristic for 2021.

According to Klissouras, the firm “generated significantly increased (more than double) workloads in 2021” in disputes, litigation, and asset liquidation work, as well as “in finance, restructuring, and investments work.”

Saliaris says his firm advised companies from the Greek banking and financial sector on a number of securitization transactions, including “the Piraeus Bank Group on the Hellenic Asset Protection Scheme securitization transactions Sunrise I and II (involving two retail and corporate NPE portfolios valued at EUR 7.2 billion and EUR 2.7 billion, respectively), the doValue Group on the Mexico securitization transaction originated by Eurobank (EUR 3.2 billion multi-asset NPE portfolio), and Davidson Kempner on the Project Galaxy securitization transaction (for a EUR 10.8 billion NPE portfolio).”

As for the drivers of this activity, Saliaris explains that “Greece went through a large-scale crisis, between 2008 and 2016, that resulted in a massive increase in NPLs.” The pandemic “disrupted global financial stability and reversed the growth prospects of the Greek economy” even more, he says. According to him, the government initiated a series of measures to address these issues, including “a program to securitize and sell bad loans which helped to reduce NPLs.” More specifically, “the Ministry of Finance implemented the Hellenic Asset Protection Scheme” under which the four systemic Greek banks have submitted requests “to securitize EUR 31.3 billion (gross book value) of NPEs.

Klissouras says that “the overall improvement of Greece’s macroeconomic outlook, over the past two and a half years, following its ten-year fiscal and banking crisis,” has been a driver for his firm’s practice. “The acceleration of non-performing servicing activities by specialist servicers, and the reduction of COVID-19 pressures on economic activity” have also been principal factors, he notes.

Saliaris says that in 2022 these measures are “reasonably anticipated to be continued, taking into consideration that the NPLs are expected to increase again, as the impact of the COVID-19 crisis on the real economy intensifies.”

“Growth will continue at a more sustainable pace” for the practice, according to Klissouras, “both as a result of particular projects and as a result of the expected further improvement of economic conditions in Greece.”

Intellectual Property

Kiortsis & Associates Law Offices Manager Christina Kiortsis reports that the busiest practice in 2021 has been Intellectual Property, “with patent work, mostly including European Patent validations in Greece, covering the biggest part of that activity.”

Kiortsis highlights that her firm’s clients for the past year included Indena, Regeneron Pharmaceuticals, Scotsman Ice, Soler & Palau Research, Geox, Revance Therapeutics, Amylin Pharmaceuticals & AstraZeneca Pharmaceuticals, Nabla Wind Power, GlaxoSmithKline, and others, on patent and utility model filings.

She says patent work might be “considerably reduced in Greece the following years, maybe even starting from 2022.” The reason behind it is that “the European Patent Office and the participating countries are in the final stages of establishing the Unitary Patent and the Unified Patent Court,” she explains. “This represents the biggest change to patent law in Europe for 50 years.”

Kiortsis believes that the initiative “will create a single approach to patent registration and litigation across the 24 European member states” and, further, that Greece will not necessarily need to be involved “during the whole grant or court procedure regarding European Patents.”

Litigation

A&K Metaxopoulos and Partners Managing Partner Kriton Metaxopoulos identifies Litigation – in particular, commercial, corporate, and patent litigation – as the firms’ busiest practice in the last year.

As an example, Metaxopoulos says the firm represented the “five-star Astir Palace hotel in a commercial dispute, as well as in a corporate action involving former directors of the company.” He also highlights having represented “BAT against Philip Morris, in a major international patent dispute.” He says market trends have been the biggest factor supporting such activity.

Thinking of the future, Metaxopoulos is of the opinion that “the impact of COVID-19 and the recent legislative amendments in the field of litigation practice and court disputes” are likely to negatively affect the business of the Litigation practice. Therefore, in 2022, the firm is fully prepared to “also focus on other practice areas such as IP, copyright disputes, and GDPR,” he adds, alongside “advertising law and real estate law.”

Tax

Iason Skouzos & Partners Managing Partner Theodoros Skouzos says Private Client Tax Matters was the firm’s busiest practice in 2021, advising “mainly high-net-worth individuals and incoming tax residents moving to Greece.” According to him, there are two main drivers for this activity.

First, “during the COVID-19 crisis, many categories of individuals – self-employed IT professionals, independent contractors, but also salaried employees – realized that they can work from anywhere,” he says. For many of them, Greece turned out to be “one of those ‘anywhere’ places worth living in, because of its natural beauty and ideal climate,” Skouzos adds.

The other factor, motivating foreigners to “to set-up their life and tax presence in Greece,” according to Skouzos, are the tax incentives for individuals introduced by the “liberal government elected in 2019, applying to (1) high-net-worth individuals, (2) pensioners, and (3) ‘digital nomads.’” So, the pandemic, the Greek landscape, and tax incentives “created an incoming flow of new clients interested [in moving to] Greece. We are their guardian angels.”

Skouzos expects the practice to continue to grow, for several reasons. He says that better management of the COVID-19 pandemic – including “the vaccination campaigns, Greece’s efficiency in organizing travel under the new circumstances, and people becoming more accustomed to traveling again” – will motivate even the more reluctant individuals to travel to Greece. In addition, “Greece is a very attractive place for investment now,” he notes, which “increases the overall traction of the incoming flows of permanent residents.”

This Article was originally published in Issue 8.12 of the CEE Legal Matters Magazine. If you would like to receive a hard copy of the magazine, you can subscribe here.

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