No economic conversation has captured the public's eye quite like the explosion of national debt. From the U.S. to Europe to Asia, leading economies have staved off the worst of the recession by incurring runaway debts that have blossomed to the size of GDP -- or greater.
But which nation is leading this unfortunate race to the debtor's bottom? Among the largest 50 economies worldwide, here are the five most debt-burdened nations, according to IMF estimates for 2013. Investors beware: These lagging leaders may not be the countries you expected.
No. 5: Ireland, 122% Debt/GDP
Kicking things off in fifth place is Ireland, one of the hardest-hit nations in the recession. The crisis slammed the country's GDP and devastated the country's economy; Irish unemployment still lingers above 14% five years after the depths of the recession. Despite the eurozone's recession, however, hope remains for Ireland: The European Commission expects Ireland's GDP to grow 1.1% this year, the third-fastest rate in the eurozone. By 2015, the IMF expects Ireland's unemployment rate to fall below 13% -- not good, but progress nonetheless.
Despite the bleak reality of the Irish economy, investors have capitalized on at least one of Ireland's top stocks. The Bank of Ireland (NYSE:IREBY) has dropped nearly 98% over the past five years, but the stock has gained more than 92% over the past year. Should you invest in this beaten-down riser? Probably not. While this stock has done well lately, Ireland's recovery -- as well as Europe's -- is still too fragile to bet on risky financial picks like this. Stick to larger, less exposed, and less risky financial stocks in Europe if you're tempted by the sector's regional offerings.
Ireland's debt could fall out of the top 5 if the country's growth outpaces spending, but for now, the Irish economy's meager growth ranks among the leaders in one of the worst economic regions on Earth. That's not a sign that this debt will fall meaningfully soon, and the IMF expects Irish debt to remain above 105% of GDP by 2018.
No. 4: Portugal, 122% Debt/GDP
Spain's neighbor on the Iberian Peninsula hasn't had it any easier throughout the European debt crisis. The recession has crushed the Portuguese economy despite the country's ongoing bailout program, and debt has been racked up despite the country's harsh austerity program designed to rein in spending. Portugal's government recently proposed a new stimulus program, but while that could help the country's lagging businesses, it won't help bring down its skyrocketing debt. With more public-sector job cuts on the table, unemployment at 18%, and GDP expected to fall 2% this year, this country's far from a turnaround.
Investors, stay away. While Portugal Telecom's (NYSE:PTGCY) hefty 5.4% dividend yield and recent moves into developing nations such as China and Brazil might lure investors looking for a beaten-down stock to buy cheap, this pick's anything but ready to rise. The company's Portuguese-based revenue has fallen substantially recently, along with its return on equity. If you're looking for a turnaround candidate, Portugal's floundering economy is one of the last places you should look.
No 3: Italy, 130% Debt/GDP
Let's have a big hand for Italy, Europe's third-largest economy -- and the third-most-indebted top-50 economy in the world. While nations such as Spain and Cyprus have dominated the debt talk in Europe, Italy has slowly dug itself into a giant hole. By posting a seventh straight quarter of economic contraction to start 2013, Italy now finds itself in its longest recession since the country began keeping quarterly economic records in 1970. Throughout the turmoil, Italy's debt has steadily climbed, rising 10 percentage points in the last two years as the Italian government attempts to keep its economy from sinking even further.
There's little to like here for investors. The iShares MSCI Italy Index (NYSEMKT:EWI) ETF dove earlier this year with the nation's tumultuous election. While it has recovered since and has posted 30% gains over the past 52 weeks, the Italy ETF has lost 1.3% this year. Italy's economic woes and this ETF's performance aren't one and the same, however. If the European Central Bank continues to lower interest rates as it has in the past, this ETF could rise even as the nation's recession lingers on. However, Italy's a risky proposition at best, and with other, more stable markets surging, there's no reason to take a flier on this pick.
In short, don't expect Italy's debt to come down much in coming years -- nor should you expect its economy to please any economists. The IMF predicts Italian debt to fall less than 7 percentage points over the next five years.
No. 2: Greece, 179% Debt/GDP
Ah, Greece. We were all wondering when Europe's most notorious debt-plagued economy would show up. The Mediterranean nation ranks first in debt among the recession-wallowing continent. The eurozone recently "commended" Greece's fiscal performance in 2012, but don't let that fool you: The Greek economy contracted 5.3% in the first quarter. Harsh austerity measures should help drag down this debt, as the IMF forecasts Greek debt to sink to 144% of GDP by 2018, but those same measures have driven up unemployment to an eye-popping 27%.
Select Greek stocks have done well in the past year, but this is undoubtedly a risky region for investors. Even global Greek stocks such as Navios Maritime (NYSE:NM), which has gained 35% this year and offers an enticing 5.1% dividend at a low payout ratio, face plenty of challenges. Navios is still plagued by the Baltic Dry Index's nosedive, as well as a substantial 105% debt-to-equity ratio. Until shipping rebounds, Navios and its fellow Greek shippers won't be tossing lifesavers to anyone's portfolio.
No. 1: Japan, 245% Debt/GDP
The world's most debt-burdened nation is also home to 2013's best stock market. Here's a debt crisis that investors can get behind.
Japan's debt isn't so much the product of recession -- as with the European nations above -- as it is a consequence of the country's two decades of stagnation combined with new Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's ultra-aggressive stimulus tactics. Abe's hope is that easy money will ignite the Japanese economy after years of sluggish growth, which would help ease this inordinately high debt. If the plan fails, however, Japan will be stuck with a monster debt just in time for an aging population to tax social systems to the brink. That's a bad combination for this economy's future.
In the meantime, however, investors have plenty to gain across the Pacific. Abe's stimulus is great news for the country's financial sector, and brokerage firms such as Nomura Holdings (NYSE:NMR) have capitalized on Japanese stocks' wild gains. With the yen weakening against the dollar, investors continue to pour money into Japanese stocks -- a cycle that will continue to fuel Nomura's success and reward the firm's shareholders. The company recorded its best quarterly profit in seven years last quarter, and while Nomura's stock certainly isn't cheap right now, it has a bright future so long as this rally continues.
America's debt misses the list
While the U.S. public debt didn't make the top five, don't think America is in a better spot. The IMF estimates American debt to be 108% of GDP and expects that number to fall to just 106% by 2018. The U.S.'s slow but steady rise out of the recession should help lessen the debt's impact, but if the country doesn't get a grip on its debt soon, America could well rise up the ranks of the debtors.
Fool contributor Dan Carroll 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.