Now May (Or May Not) Be the Time to Buy Greece

If you joined us on our recent Global Gains research trip to Greece, then you know that we arrived in the country skeptical of its ability to meet its obligations, but departed thinking that when the rubber met the road, Germany and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) would step up and fund a solution to avert a Greek default. This proverbial "180" was the result of extensive conversations with bankers, business leaders, and political analysts in the region. They almost unanimously pointed out that because Greece's financial problems are relatively small in a global context, a risk/reward study by anyone close to the situation would show "assistance" as the only acceptable course of action.

And this makes sense. After all, it would take only $11 billion to see Greece through its May 19 debt repayment and $52 billion to see it through 2011. These are not large sums in the global bond market. In fact, Carlos Slim, the world's richest man, could personally help serve as Greece's short-term benefactor given his $53.5 billion fortune (and they might reward him with some sweet island digs and unlimited access to ouzo if he were to do so).

Are you listening, Carlos?
This tongue-in-cheekery, however, is not meant to underplay the seriousness of Greece's problems. The country has excessive debt and needs to enact painful structural changes in order to begin righting its financial ship. Rather, it's to ask why would the EU want to unleash the chaos of a Greek default on the world -- a default that would blow gaping holes in the balance sheets of banks such as National Bank of Greece (NYSE: NBG  ) , Commerzbank, BNP Paribas, while potentially cratering the euro -- when it could easily act to at least buy Greece more time?

It's this time right now that's most important since it would give Greece a chance to prove the efficacy of its austerity plan, and it's this time right now that Greek stocks such as NBG and Hellenic Telecommunications (NYSE: OTE  ) are priced as though the country will never get help.

Are Greek stocks worth buying?
This viewpoint, mind you, was promulgated in our 3 Plays to Profit From the Greek Crisis special report on April 1 (Global Gains membership required), a full 10 days before EU finance ministers approved in theory a $40 billion aid package for Greece. So when that news finally did hit the wire, we felt pretty good about our assessment of the situation and the relevant investment opportunities.

Unfortunately, it's been almost all downhill ever since.

Although the EU and IMF outlined an assistance package on April 11, they held off on implementing it in the hopes that the presence of a backstop for the country would allow it to raise debt at reasonable rates on the open market. This didn't happen. Rather, Greek bond yields continued to rise and now sit north of 11%, 800 basis points higher comparable German bonds. To put this in context, this means the market now considers just two countries less creditworthy than Greece: Argentina and Venezuela.

Obviously, the consensus foresees disaster for Greece, and the market sold off significantly on Tuesday after Greek bonds were cut to junk status. (And why not? Those folks at Moody's and S&P have really been sound assessors of risk these past few years, right?) Fortunately, the global market decline seemed to get Germany's attention. While the country had previously been dragging its feet on getting something done to help Greece, Germany announced yesterday that it stands ready to fast-track parliamentary approval of an aid package for Greece. Should Germany succeed, it does look like Greece would be able to avoid a near-term default -- which would give a boost to Greek stocks and allow the Greek government to start putting in place a longer-term solution.

The fly in the ointment
Looming over all of this, however, is a May 9 parliamentary election in the German state of North Rhine-Westphalia that could tilt the balance of Germany's parliament, throwing any potential aid package for Greece back into peril. This election is a political wild card and opinion polls don't hint at any clear result. Yet the results will have global ramifications and a binary outcome for investors in Greek stocks.

All of this is to say that while there may be opportunity in depressed Greek stocks today, opportunities should be considered speculative and therefore only appropriate for aggressive investors, i.e., those investors with a long time horizon and sufficient financial security.

If that does not describe you (or if you want to take a more conservative tack here), then the best strategy may be to wait out the Greek crisis and hope that its knock-on effects on the euro cause declines in stalwarts Philip Morris International (NYSE: PM  ) and Diageo (NYSE: DEO  ) , both of which have significant euro exposure. These, after all, are solid, cash-generating businesses where any headwinds in Europe should prove to be only temporary.

Whatever you decide -- aggressive action, conservative action, or inaction -- these will be fascinating events to watch unfold. German voters may hold the future of the European Union in their hands … and there's no telling what they're capable of.  

Get Tim Hanson's Global View column every Thursday on Fool.com, or by following him on Twitter.

Tim Hanson is co-advisor of Motley Fool Global Gains. He owns shares of Philip Morris International, which is also a Motley Fool Global Gains choice. Diageo is a Motley Fool Income Investor selection. Try any of our Foolish newsletters today, free for 30 days. The Fool's disclosure policy enjoys ouzo and hopes German voters aren't nihilists.


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  • Report this Comment On April 30, 2010, at 4:58 AM, EuroBob7 wrote:

    This is difficult to call. In Europe it is never a purely financial decision. This is why in many many decisions the brinkmanship is stark because the politicians have to show their constituencies there is 'no alternative'. Thus Greece needs to say there is no alternative to more austerity because Germany has a gun to their head. The Germans have to show they have no alternative or the whole eurozone will be fair target for speculative attack - the house will collapse. This ballet goes on longer than it should but thats the Europe style. The only long term solution is more centralised fiscal control (across the eurozone) at a EU level that enables a convergence of the members economies. But giving up control is nigh to impossible for countries unless they are brought to the brink and made stare over it. This has some way to run yet. My only bet is a continued decline of the euro which will of course help exports and stop US tourists complaining about high prices.

  • Report this Comment On May 05, 2010, at 5:59 AM, JibJabs wrote:

    Why put your money at risk? Without robust growth, Greece is doomed with or without the bailout at five percent interest. They cannot grow their way out of the "bailout." An investment in Greece is pure speculation and the past indicates that default is highly likely (they have been in default 100 out of the last 200 years, roughly). I'm not putting a dime in and anyone who does should be fully aware that the trouble has been delayed but not avoided by the bailout.

  • Report this Comment On May 05, 2010, at 2:41 PM, BMFPitt wrote:

    I've got about $200 in my wallet right now. Will I have enough left after buying Greece to still buy Detroit?

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