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Greeks spend their locked-away euros

Use it or lose it: that's the plan for many Greeks, who have been going on a credit card-fuelled spending spree as the economy has tanked out of fears their cash could be confiscated or devalued.

[ATHENS] Use it or lose it: that's the plan for many Greeks, who have been going on a credit card-fuelled spending spree as the economy has tanked out of fears their cash could be confiscated or devalued.

Wary of the experience in fellow eurozone member Cyprus two years ago, when deposits were seized to recapitalise banks, Greeks are opting to drain their accounts by electronically paying taxes and bills - or buying luxury goods.

"Up to last weekend, people bought a lot of things to protect their money," confirmed Andreas Triantaphylidis, vice president of the Association of Athens Merchants.

Between June 27, when Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras announced a referendum that made his eurozone creditors boil, and July 10, when speculation peaked that Greece could crash out of the euro in a so-called "Grexit", luxury products have been flying off the shelves.

Sales of expensive goods such as watches and jewellery and electronic items like smartphones and computers leapt 30 per cent compared to the same period last year, Mr Triantaphylidis said.

The unexpected wave of spending was spurred by the rationing of cash from ATMs - withdrawals have been limited to 60 euros (S$91.6) per day for over two weeks - spurring the much wider use of credit cards and electronic cash transfers than ever before in Greece.

Some 500,000 credit cards were delivered in the past few days, helping push card transactions up 130 per cent, according to the Association of Greek Banks.

"Last week, we had a lot of clients. They wanted to buy all they could, for fear of losing half of their savings," said Ms Stephanie, a saleswoman in a family-owned jewellery store in the capital's upmarket Kolonaki neighbourhood.

Jewellery made of gold, a traditional safe-haven metal, and luxury watches, some of which cost up to 6,000 euros, were snatched up by "not especially rich" customers aged 30 to 50, said the 28-year-old employee.

"Greeks: I don't understand them. Me, I'd never spend my money in these times," Ms Stephanie added.

Since Athens struck a deal with its eurozone partners on Monday that assuaged the immediate prospect of a "Grexit" or a "bail-in", where bank deposits are seized, the Greek customers have been replaced by the usual tourist clientele.

And the rush of "protective spending", covering high-margin expense items, hasn't turned around Greece's economic fortunes.

According to the National Confederation of Greek Business, retail sales fell 70 per cent between June 27 and July 10, compared to the same period a year earlier. Only purchases of fuel and food increased, seen as proof the country is well and truly in crisis.

The government on Tuesday went out of its way to quash speculation and rumours that fuelled public panic, saying the bailout agreement "guaranteed deposits" and averted any need for a bail-in.

It added that parliament had until next week to transpose an EU directive into law, adopted after Cyprus's 2013 crisis, that guaranteed deposits up to 100,000 euros.

The calming words came after another unexpected side-effect of Greek's fears their savings could be seized: people are paying their taxes.

Some one billion euros flowed into state coffers between June 27 and July 10 as citizens looked to settle what they owed before any deposit "haircut" - nearly as much as the tax system usually receives in a month.

The payments, made despite the decision by tax authorities to push back the deadline for income tax payments to the end of July, ironically come after Athens pledged to crack down on Greece's rampant tax evasion under its new reform plan.

"For the first time in my life, I'm on time with my taxes," said Mr Giorgos, a 35-year-old running a small family-owned publishing firm. "I owe nothing to the government."


Read more on the Greek crisis here