Greece: The Sick Man of Europe

It's been a rough go for Greece through the global economic slowdown. The country's been under fire from every angle, as the media characterizes it as the poster child of Europe's fiscal maladies while its fellow eurozone members grill Greece's government over outstanding debt and obligations. The bad news? It's not getting any better anytime soon for the beleaguered nation. There are a few opportunities for investors here, but Greece is a fiscal nightmare that's just begun.

Fall from grace
During the run-up to the 2008 global calamity, Greece's economy soared with Europe's best. The country averaged 3.5% GDP growth between 1994 and 2003, hitting even greater heights with 5.5% growth in 2006. It was a good time to be Greek, but the boom times wouldn't last. After managing 3% growth in 2007, Greece's economy tanked.

We know the fallout of the country's poor decisions during those times: 25% unemployment. Youth unemployment over 50%. GDP contraction of nearly 7% in 2011. Rioters flinging petrol bombs in the streets. Crushing austerity blows coupled with harsh bailout agreements from fellow eurozone members.

It's all hurting the Greek people in more ways than imaginable. German pharmaceutical company Merck KGaA announced that it will cease deliveries of a cancer drug to Greek hospitals as the nation struggles with unpaid debts. It's a good business move for Merck KGaA, but it's one more strike against Greece's citizenry.

The ceiling has collapsed on Greece, and business has come to a standstill in the besieged Mediterranean nation. Some companies -- among them Coca-Cola Hellenic (NYS: CCH) , once the largest company on Athens' stock exchange -- have relocated to safer harbors abroad, perpetuating capital flight from a land in desperate need of money. Many of the companies that have stuck around, such as the National Bank of Greece (NYS: NBG) , have seen their share prices plummet. Only a few lucky survivors have continued to thrive.

A bleak outlook
It all adds up to hopelessness for the Greek people, who have suffered through wage cuts and the aforementioned unemployment. Unfortunately for Greece's economy, there is no easy solution.

Sadly, things don't look better in the near future. In its recent World Economic Outlook report, the IMF predicts full-year 2012 GDP contraction of 6%, with 2013 only marginally better at a contraction of 4%. Unemployment is estimated to stay above 25% in 2013.

That's not painting a picture of recovery, and with bigger economies in the eurozone such as Spain and Italy suddenly on the precipice, Greece's economy, not to mention its stability, is in serious danger. Thousands of Greece's youth have already left the country, and further departures of both young citizens and capital will suck the country's future dry. With a lack of young, productive workers in the future, any hope of long-term recovery will dissipate.

With businesses in the nation having a history of tax evasion and other financial crimes, maybe it's hard to feel sorry for Greece. But is there a chance for investors like you to profit on the nation's economic collapse -- or will Greece's troubles burn your portfolio?

What's an investor to do?
Greece hasn't dominated the news recently the way its larger ill-fated eurozone cousin, Spain, has. With an upcoming austerity vote on further Greek bailout packages coming the day after the U.S. presidential election, however, the country's still hanging by a thread on the edge of total fiscal disaster.

All's not lost for an investor looking for Greek exposure, though. Throughout the crisis, shippers Diana Shipping (NYS: DSX) and Navios Maritime (NYS: NM) have weathered the storm and remain steady plays. With the Baltic Dry Index -- a measure of demand for shipping -- up strongly over the past two months, these two stocks could be ready to rebound.

Both boast double-digit operating margins, and Diana has managed its debt well -- notable in an industry renowned for high debt loads. Navios isn't so successful there, but it's a top dividend play with a 6% yield at a 60% payout ratio. Diana doesn't yield a dividend at all, so you income investors will want to stay away from that one.

The more aggressive investors out there may want to dabble in a riskier play such as the National Bank of Greece, but for the average investor, I'd recommend you play it safe in Europe's financial war zone.

The sick man of Europe
Greece's outlook isn't good. Between devastating unemployment and business crushed under government debt and a dwindling economy, there's little reason to expect any real recovery for some time. It's tough to recommend anything out of Greece for most investors, but sturdy companies such as Navios and Diana can still provide value to your portfolio. Ultimately however, if you're looking to build your financial foundation, stay away from the sickest country in Europe.

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