In 2009, public sector debt in Greece reached 115% of GDP. Subsequently, the International Monetary Fund revised that calculation to 130% of GDP. Compare that to the World Bank's estimate for the U.S. at that time of just 68%.
Greece was in trouble. Big trouble. But it's not 2009 anymore, and things are looking better than you might think.
International bankers to the rescue?
With the nation on the verge of default or worse, a consortium of international organizations, led by the European Central Bank and the IMF, intervened in Greece, essentially bailing out the flailing country.
The time to sell your Greek investments would have been 2010.
A painful pill to swallow
No one really likes going to the doctor's office. It's a sterile place with latex gloves, sharp needles, and medicine that generally tastes horrible. Greece feels the same about the demands of intervention.
Massive fiscal austerity measures intended to reduce the account deficit (econ talk for getting the country's spending under control) and improve competitiveness in the markets were implemented. Noble goals indeed, even in the face of the massive social uprisings, violence, and one of the nastiest peacetime recessions witnessed in a modern industrialized nation.
The Greek economy shrank 22% from 2008 to 2012. Unemployment rose to 27%. Youth unemployment is above 60%.
Now is the time to look to the future, not the past
Despite the riots, despite the political rhetoric, despite what you have invariably heard on the nightly news, Greece has begun to make progress.
The account deficit, which previously stood at more than 15% of GDP, has declined remarkably to just above 3%, according to the IMF. This is a staggering improvement.
The initial phase of the account restructuring primarily consisted of a massive reduction in wages and pensions for Greek workers. This fueled the recession, especially initially, as prices for goods remained stable. The result was individuals who had less money to buy goods with a stable price.
That scenario has begun to change. Since early 2013, Greece has entered into a deflationary period, with prices for goods now declining to levels more commensurate with the new standard for wages and pensions. In other words, Greeks can once again afford to buy goods and services. The economy is finding a balance.
The IMF projects that the Greek economy will return to positive growth in 2014, ending the recession.
How to get investment exposure
The National Bank of Greece (NYSE:NBG), headquartered in Athens, is a Greek bank with a few unique qualities of particular interest to U.S. investors. First, National Bank of Greece trades on the New York Stock Exchange, making it an accessible investment from your home computer or through your neighborhood stockbroker. Second, it offers a preferred stock option, NBG Preferred Stock (NYSE:NBG-A), which for some investors may be more palatable that investing in common shares.
Third, and perhaps most interesting, is that the National Bank of Greece owns a majority stake in the Turkish bank Finansbank. This diversification is an attractive hedge on the Greek investment, as the Turkish operations can support the company over the short and medium term as the remaining challenges in Greece are overcome.
Too nervous about an investment in the financial sector? Check out Navios Maritime Partners (NYSE:NMM). Navios is technically structured as a master limited partnership, giving it tax advantages and a massive dividend (currently 11.7%).
Navios is a Greek company, but most of its business actually takes place in South America. So while the company tends to see its stock price move based on domestic events in Greece, its business fundamentals are much more global in nature, and therefore insulated from troubles at home.
Not without risks
An investment in Greece is, of course, not without risk. There remain serious structural economic reforms to be implemented. The political future of the state remains ambiguous. The banking sector still needs additional systemic reforms.
And the dramatic improvement in Greece's books has not come without real costs for the people. The IMF states that the spending cuts "have been socially painful, but necessary, given that [wages and pensions] were the primary source of spending pressures leading up to the crisis."
Furthermore, the political landscape in Greece remains tumultuous. The two leading parties garnered approximately 80% of the vote in 2008. In early 2012 that number was just 42%. The current fiscal program is only supported today by a slim majority based on very fragile coalition government.
But the upside is huge and the timing is right. Buying on value is buying when price and quality meet. Buying Greece today is buying Greece at the bottom.
Fool contributor Jay Jenkins has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.