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Saturday, October 4, 2008

Latvian Credit Downgraded As Retail Sales Continue Their Decline

As reported in this post, on Friday Fitch Rating Service announced they were cutting long-term sovereign ratings for Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, citing worsening financial conditions in Europe. Latvia's long-term foreign-currency Issuer Default Rating was cut to BBB from BBB+. The outlooks were kept negative.

The move by Fitch follows an earlier decision by Moody's Investors Service to lower its Latvia outlook to negative. The outlook change affects Latvia's A2 foreign currency and local currency debt rating. The outlook on the Aa1 country ceiling for foreign currency bonds was kept at stable. Moody's A2 rating is five levels above investment grade. Kenneth Orchard, senior analyst at Moody's wrote in the statement: "Although it is not Moody's central scenario, Latvia's economy is vulnerable to a sharp reduction in foreign capital inflows.''

Latvia has low levels of government debt and no foreign bonds maturing for over five years, so there is little serious danger to Latvia's public sector funding. On the other hand Latvian interest rates to households and companies are expected to rise and the number of non-performing loans to grow as a by-product of the ratings changes and the global financial market turmoil which lead to them.

``Credit is becoming more difficult to access, and if you can access it, it will be in smaller sums and at a higher interest rate,'' Janis Brazovskis, vice-chairman of the Latvian Financial and Capital Market Commission, speaking in an interview on Latvijas Neatkariga Televizija's program 900 Seconds.

According to Brazovkis, interest rates will rise by between 0.5 and 2 percentage points for Latvian borrowers. Overdue loan payments may rise to 2 percent of total credits from the current 0.7 percent. Brazovkis stressed that Latvia's exposure to the U.S. financial system was "extremely minimal,'' and that Latvian lenders did not invest in "toxic financial instruments,''. This is undoubtedly true, but on the other hand I have never actually seen anyone suggest that Latvia's problems were a by-product of poor quality investments made in the US - in other words this would simply seem to be yet another one of those famous "red herrings". Latvian lenders also did not buy toxic instruments, since they were effectively selling them - to eg Swedish investors. Latvia, like the US, the UK and Spain, has a current account deficit, and it is the current account deficit countries who were effectively issuing the toxic instruments to finance their external borrowing at rates which were below the real level of the risk being assumed. If lending practices in Latvia were not lax (which is the normal argument directed towards the United States), then I simply do not understand the chart below - which shows bank lending going off a cliff once documentation and lending rules we tightened up in the spring of 2007.

So the problem is, it seems to me, that the people who bought instruments issued by the Latvian banking system (or who created instruments elsewhere to then inject funds into Latvian banks) are the ones who have the problems, and they are unlikely to be so forthcoming in the future, which is why credit will remain tight in Latvia (about this Brazovkis is undoubtedly right) and interest rates may well rise. Which is just one more reason why we should not expect any imminent revival in Latvia's flagging retail sales (see below) - and by imminent I do mean over the next few years. This recession is in for the long haul.

Retail Sales Continue To Decline

Month on month seasonally adjusted retail sales (at constant prices) were down by 1.2% In August. Compared to August 2007, and according to working-day adjusted data, at constant prices, total retail sales decreased by 8.9%.

The largest volume decreases were in food products – down by 10.3%.

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