Although the SME confidence index in H1.2016 showed a marginal improvement (up by 5 percentage points from H2.2015), it nevertheless remained in negative territory, implying that the broader business environment remains restrictive. Against this backdrop of business reticence, the slight increase in employment in the two-year period 2013-2015 (1.4 per cent annually) is as a notable development – with GDP growth virtually stagnant in real terms (growing by 0.2 per cent annually over the same period).
In seeking to investigate these trends, NBG's survey focuses on SMEs which account for 57 per cent of employment in Greece (compared with ⅓ on average in the EU). On the basis of a questionnaire submitted to a sample of 1,200 companies, it appears that – after the slump in employment in the first years of the crisis (-26 per cent in the period 2007-2012) – the surviving SMEs are now gradually starting to take on new staff, with average employment per company growing by 3 per cent in the period 2013-2015.
It is noteworthy that the recovery in employment is due to those SMEs that display export-orientation or innovative features, and which are steadily increasing their share of the SME segment overall, accounting for 40 per cent of SMEs in 2016, compared with 30 per cent in 2013. It is estimated that export-oriented and innovative SMEs will remain the pillar for growth in the year ahead, as almost ½ of these enterprises state that they will increase their employment levels (compared with only 14 per cent for traditional SMEs).
While employment in SMEs displays a gradual recovery, sales by SMEs have continued to contract. As a result, the ratio of wage costs to sales rose to 14.5 per cent in 2015 from an almost unvarying 12 per cent during the sharp fall in economic activity in the period 2007-2012. The growth of employment before an increase in sales may be interpreted as operational preparation by SMEs for an imminent increase in demand, which – due to negative surprises in economic developments compared with initial business expectations – proved premature.
Consequently, SMEs appear to be adopting a "wait-and-see" stance vis-à-vis recovery in demand so as to further increase their employment. Specifically, our survey indicates that 92 per cent of SMEs consider that further labor market reforms will not lead to an increase in employment – which is hardly surprising, since small businesses are little affected by labor market legislation. In contrast, 51 per cent consider adopting policies that stimulate demand to be a precondition for more hirings, while 25 per cent consider structural reforms in other areas as the key to unlocking the potential of the labor market.