Greece has only one option

Before a deal was even struck, naysayers from Greece, to the European Union and elsewhere were sounding the death knell for a rescue package.

Surely this is a very tough deal. Its unpopularity has led some experts to continue to argue for Greece abandoning the euro. With the exception of the left- and right-most leaning members of the Greek political system, few of these proponents live in Greece. Polls regularly show that 65 to 70 percent of the population supports remaining in the euro zone. The devaluation entailed in a new currency means at least halving per-capita GDP. Greece would need 7-percent average annual growth over the next 10 years just to get back to today's level of economic output. However harsh the latest austerity measures are, they are not the equivalent of an economic atom bomb.

Tourists visit the ancient Acropolis hill, with the ruins of the Parthenon temple in Athens.
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Tourists visit the ancient Acropolis hill, with the ruins of the Parthenon temple in Athens.

Demonstrating quick progress — to itself and to the world — is the one way Greece has left to move forward. The deal with Europe does contain several solid cornerstones to build on.

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Taxes, stability, and investment: Increases in VAT and the corporate income tax are now law — and they bite hard. The only thing that businesses like less than higher costs (including taxes) is uncertainty. The government has an opportunity now to signal — strongly and repeatedly — that the corporate tax code will not change until Greece gets back on its economic feet and can tackle a full tax overhaul. The country desperately needs investment. The prospect of new or altered taxation is a big barrier that the government can remove with a credible pledge on tax stability.

Privatization: The naysayers question whether the 50-billion-euro target for the privatization of state-owned assets is achievable. They miss the point. The list of assets on the government's books is long, valuable, and attractive —and many have the potential for wider economic benefit. The easy targets — state-owned stakes in airports, Piraeus and other ports, and enterprises such as Hellenic Petroleum — are only the tip of the iceberg.

Greece is a vacationer's paradise, and tourism generates about a fifth of GDP. But the country has few world-class resorts because the government owns much of the most desirable — and developable — coastal land. Multiple Greek Islands have government owned airports that currently host one flight a day — or fewer! Meanwhile, the busiest airports, such as the one on popular Mykonos, need to expand their capacity. This will not happen under public ownership. Yachters flock to the Greek islands. There is not enough marina capacity to serve them. Guess who owns most of the marinas? The list of possibilities goes on.

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Attracting foreign capital: In the years following the 1997 Asian economic crisis, countries such as Malaysia and South Korea showed how facilitating foreign investment can help an injured economy return to growth. Current regulations in Greece restrict foreign investment. It can take more than 10 separate government department approvals to start a mid-sized manufacturing operation. The government can take steps immediately to eradicate red tape and make it easier for foreign — or any — companies start new operations.

Commitment to implementation: The prime minister can signal strong commitment to reforms — and help to ensure follow-through — by appointing a centralized delivery team that reports directly to him. Mr. Tsipras needs a team of tough-minded technocrats and reformers who aren't afraid to twist arms or step on toes. And he needs to personally oversee their progress so that everyone knows that the members of the delivery team speak for him.

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Other reforms: These are all only first steps. Greece cannot turn itself around fully without addressing many entrenched economic problems. Unemployment, the unsustainable Social Security system, and the ineffective tax code and collection system are all high priorities. But Mr. Tsipras and his government need to show progress soon. It's the key to getting additional time from European creditors, attracting the investors whose capital Greece needs, and convincing Greek voters and consumers that there is indeed hope on the horizon, however distant. Greece has to move forward. The only other option is debating a worse fate, from a weaker position, when the next debt payment comes due.

Commentary by Vassilis Antoniades, who leads the Athens office of The Boston Consulting Group (BCG), where he is a partner. He also leads the firm's Financial Institutions practice in Central Europe, Middle East and Africa.