The Greek debt crisis certainly has all the ingredients for headline-grabbing drama, with its shuttered banks and imminent threat of default on an International Monetary Fund payment worth $1.8 billion. But for U.S. business owners, who watched with alarm as global markets fell on Monday, the impact is likely to be small.
Greece, a tiny country with about 11 million inhabitants and an economy responsible for less that 2 percent of the 19-country euro zone's gross domestic product, has been struggling with debts it can’t afford to pay for five years. Though the country will soon have a referendum about whether it should leave the euro zone and abandon the euro in favor of its old currency, called the drachma, in the end that could strengthen the economic prospects for the remaining countries in the zone.
Serious as the departure of Greece from the euro zone would be for Europe, which has not had a member divest itself from the monetary union since it was formed in 1999, if you’re a U.S. small business, and particularly if you’re one that does a lot of importing or exporting, you can relax.
In the short term, the euro may decline--although its value rose against the dollar on Monday by nearly 3 percent--and that will certainly make U.S. exports more expensive. But rattled European bond markets overseas are likely to lead to strengthened bond markets in the U.S., as investors flee to the safety of U.S. debt, experts say. And for some U.S. export providers, which purchase services overseas, the uncertainty in Europe will present an opportunity.
“This has been the most heavily telegraphed train wreck in history, and the markets have been watching this for quite some time,” says Drew Nordlicht, partner and managing director of HighTower Advisors in San Diego, which manages $25 billion in assets.
Nordlicht adds that the chances for some sort of global contagion from Greece are minimal. Instead, the euro zone, which includes one of the strongest economies in the world in Germany, could benefit significantly from no longer having to support Greece with loans it can’t afford to repay.
(By contrast, Nordlicht says he worries far more about the recent slide in Chinese markets, which could signal the second-largest economy in the world is about to contract significantly.)
Nevertheless, some business owners are wary about Greece, including Gary Winstead, chief executive and founder of LoadMatch Logistics, which provides trucking services for U.S. exporters of raw materials and paper waste products.
The owner of the Wilmington, North Carolina business, an Inc. 5000 company that employs 41 people, still has bad memories from the financial crisis of 2008, when markets across the globe contracted. At that time, Winstead's exporting customers were unable to move their goods as credit markets froze globally, and international importers were unable to finance their operations.
He worries that his U.S.-based business could face something similar with Greece. While just 25 percent of his business involves exports to euro zone countries, Winstead says he’s developing a backup plan, which involves focusing on expanding the company’s services domestically.
“I am watching this situation most diligently,” Winstead says.
Similarly, an executive at export logistics company Taggart International says the short-term impact of the Greek debt crisis has resulted in a slight drag on the company’s European export services, which represent about 15 percent of total business.
“Any time there is uncertainty in the market, it pushes business owners to not make longer-term decisions, and so it slows trade down, and it slows our business,” says Taggart executive vice president Sean Scarbrough, whose spouse Elizabeth Scarbrough founded the company in 2009. Taggart is also an Inc. 5000 company.
Still, Scarbrough says the crisis could have a silver lining, particularly if the euro falls, because the logistics services it purchases for clients in Europe also become less expensive as a consequence.
“If the euro drops, I am better off,” Scarbrough says.