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Thursday, December 24, 2009

Latvia Is Back In The News, And Expect More To Come

The Latvian government is getting nervous about the level of lending coming from Swedish banks. According to the Financial Times, "Latvia’s prime minister has warned Swedish banks they risk choking off recovery in the Baltic state’s crisis-hit economy unless they resume lending". The Latvian authorities are complaining, it seems, that banks such as Swedbank and SEB, which dominate the Latvian market, have reined in credit as they struggle to contain rising bad loans amid the deepest recession in the European Union.

“The . . . abrupt stopping of credit is a very problematic issue,” said Valdis Dombrovskis, the prime minister. “We expect Swedish banks to start [lending] again. “Of course you can say that Latvians were borrowing irresponsibly but to borrow irresponsibly you need someone to lend irresponsibly,” he said. “We had very easy credit in a very overheated economy. Now we have almost no credit in a very deep recession.”
Well, here is some of the background. After an extended period when private credit was rising at nearly 60% a year, the Latvian credit bubble suddenly burst, with very unpleasant consequences for everyone. Since mid 2007 the annual rate of new credit has been falling rapidly, and turned negative in June this year. In fact total credit has been falling since October 2008.

Lending to households alone has also fallen back, after shooting up dramatically over several years.

And Latvian base money (M1) has also been falling.

In fact, and unsurprisingly (given that it is what we are seeing everywhere in the exploded bubble economies) the only sector which isn't deleveraging at this point is the government one.

So it seems hard to me to simply blame mean banks for not doing enough about a situation which many saw coming, but few were willing to do anything to avoid. Sure, the banks made a lot of bad decisions, but so did many other people, and each and every party is trying to extricate themselves from the mess as best they cab. In fact total Latvia debt is not in fact falling at this point in time, since while many individual Latvians have been frantically deleveraging, the government has been borrowing at a faster rate than ever, in part to bail out Parex bank, and in part to fund the ongoing fiscal deficit. In the meantime Latvian GDP has dropped sharply, falling back again in the third quarter at an even faster rate than in the second one. Which means that despite the fact that private indebtedness is falling, the level of private debt to GDP is still probably rising.

This unfortunate situation is only further reinforced by the fact that prices are falling - not too fast as yet, only an annual 1.4% in November, but they are falling, and they will fall further, and this means that the percentage of debt to GDP will again rise, and this is especially bad news for the Latvian government (even though the drop in prices is a desired objective, no win-win strategy left to use now) since any fall beyond that anticipated is likely to push up the total debt level of 60.4% of GDP currently being forecast by the EU Commission for 2011.

And the pain doesn't stop, since having cut 500 million lati ($1 billion) in spending in its 2009 supplementary budget, the government initially resisted the idea of finding an additional 500 million lati of savings in the 2010 budget arguing that with no policy change the deficit was expected to be lower than the 8.5 percent target. Valdis Dombrovskis said in October his government could cut only 325 million lati in the 2010 budget and still meet the 8.5 percent target agreed with international lenders. The lenders did not agree, and Swedish Premier Fredrik Reinfeldt even intervened to tell Latvia it “must correct” its deficit. Following the rebuke further measures were passed equal to 500 million lati for 2010, and the country now targets a deficit of 7.6 percent of GDP. This is to be followed by a budget deficit target of 6 percent of gross domestic product in 2011, in order to finally arrive at the magic number of 3 percent deficit in 2012.

But considerable doubt exists over the ability of the Latvian authorities to fulfil these objectives. Which is why Mark Griffiths, IMF mission head in Latvia, describes the situation facing the government as challenging, and why the EU Commission base their Autumn forecasts on much higher deficit levels. The problem is that with domestic prive deflation (which is, remember, what Latvia is aiming for, the so called "internal devaluation" what is called nominal GDP (that is current price, unadjusted GDP) is likely to fall faster that the so called "real" GDP (adjusted for inflation) and this has two very undersireable consequences. In the first place debt to GDP goes up even faster, and the revenue which government receives (which is based on actual prices) drops faster than GDP, causing more instability in public finances. The deflator has shown falling prices since early this year and the EU commission is forecasting a drop of 5% for 2010.

So basically, in this climate, with unemployment rising, and wages falling, and an economy contracting at nearly 20% a year, it isn't hard to understand why not that much new bank lending is going on. Those who are creditworthy are trying hard to save, while those who need to borrow normally aren't that creditworthy, so Dombrovskis' plea is rather like asking the bank to subsidise new bad debts, and that is really not something you can do, and especially not when you are going along the course you are following because you wanted to, and against one hell of a lot of external advice. What kicked the whole process off was a short sharp credit crunch, but now it is the contraction in the real economy which is following its own dynamic, till someone finds a way to put a stop to it. It is the drop in output that is preventing banks from lending, and not banks being unwilling to lend that is causing the contraction to continue.

But there is another point in the FT article which should give food for thought.

Mr Dombrovskis...ruled out devaluation of the lat. While breaking the currency’s fixed exchange rate with the euro would help Latvia’s exporters, it would increase the burden of euro-denominated loans, which account for 85 per cent of lending, he said.

“We would not see much benefit from devaluation because we are a very small and open economy which means that any competitiveness gains we may get would be very short-lived,” he said. “We would redistribute wealth from pretty much all the population to a few exporters.”

Well, we haven't advanced too far in all these months, now have we, if we are still wheeling out the argument that "external" devaluation will hit holders of euro denominated loans, since it should be generally recognised that the (very painful) internal devaluation which is now taking place is hitting Euro loan and Lati loan holders alike. And the argument is a strange one to use just shortly after the statistics office announced that due to the rapid reduction in the number of those employed and to the fact that many of them changed their working conditions from full-time to part-time, the number of hours worked in the 3rd quarter of 2009 fell by an annual 27.3%, while labour costs fell during the same time period by 30.1%. This fall in disposable income, and the continuing prolongation thereof, poses a far greater threat to the continuity of Latvian loan payments than the 15% reduction in the value of the Lat as compared to the Euro which the IMF proposed in the autum of last year would have done. Indeed, it is, in and of itself, one of the pernicious consequences of having resigned yourself to an "L" shape non-recovery. Stress on the banking system only goes up and up, as incomes and employment fall, and the government has less and less ammunition left to counteract the contractionary pressure.

It is like sitting it out in freezing weather at the North Pole, in the vain hope that help will arrive. But help will not arrive, and the cruel truth about the post-crisis shock world we live in, is that nobody is coming to help you if you will not help yourself. In this sense, what Latvia doesn't need is more international borrowing (hasn't there been enough of that already) but some kind of meaningful strategy to start paying back the debt. But this means putting people back to work, and selling abroad, and financing Latvian lending from Latvian savings, and not pleading for yet more capital inflows to finance non-productive activities (attracting investment would be another matter, but as things stand right now the environment is far from "appetising", and according to the latest data from the Statistics Office, non-financial investment in Latvia was only 402.8 mln lats in the third quarter, a fall of 39% on the 3rd quarter of 2008).

And just to be clear, what we have seen to date is not a 30% drop in unit labour costs (which would, of course, mean a great boost to competitiveness), rather it is a drop in earnings due to the fact that the output people could have produced just isn't needed, since no one is willing and able to buy it. In fact according to the data of the Statistics Office to hourly labour costs fell by only 3.9% in the 3rd quarter when compared with the same period a year earlier. Hardly a massive drop, and especially not when the large annual increases of ealier quarters are taken into account (see chart below). The internal devaluation has a long course still to run!

Pensions Dilemma

But Latvia is back in the news today for more reasons, since the constitutional court has just ruled against the government pension cuts, drawing a question mark over Latvia's ability to meet the terms of its international lending commitments.

"The decision to cut pensions violated the individual's right to social security and the principle of the rule of law," the court said in its judgement, which cannot be appealed. The pension cuts - in place since July - formed a vital part of the Latvian government's list of austerity measures, as it struggles comply with terms of the IMF-lead bailout, and the constitutional inability to implement them is another hammer blow against the credibility of the current Latvian administration.

According to the Baltic Course, Valdis Dombrovskis told Latvian State Radio that the Constitutional Court's ruling on pensions must be carried out, and not debated. I am sure this will really come as music to the ears of people in Brussels and Washington. Basically pension reform forms a key part of the mid term strategy for sustainability of Latvian finances, and without the ability of the Latvian government to carry these out, then frankly the coherence of the whole strategy falls apart. If the Latvian constitution does not permit pension changes, then the Latvian constitution has to be changed, and the only surprising thing is that all this wasn't forseen when the initial loan negotiations took place in late 2008. Basically, it is impossible for the EU Commission and the IMF to accept any other view, since if any state could ring fence a whole part of social provision before entering debt negotiations, then non of the structural reform programmes could possibly work. This may seem harsh, but it is the price you have to pay for becoming insolvent as a society. Latvia's problems are NOT short term liquidity ones, but problems of the sustainability of an entire economic and demographic model, and, as in the case of Greece, these problems will not be solved by two or three years of (rather painful) fiscal deficit cosmetics. Real changes need to be made, and especially in raising the long term growth potential of the country, and frankly it is these changes which we have yet to see evidence for.

The issue is not simply one of limping into the Euro in 2012, even if as Mark Griffiths, the IMF’s mission head in Latvia, said in Riga last week the Latvian government does face a lot of “hard work” in trimming the budget deficit enough to qualify for euro adoption, and how much more so if they cannot constitutionally implement the cuts they agree to.

“The key is meeting the deficit targets, and meeting the Maastricht criteria and euro adoption, that’s the path,” Griffiths said. “The government needs to work hard over the next year to find the measures which will deliver that adjustment to meet those targets. It’s going to be a challenging task.”
Oh yes, and Latvia was also in the news yesterday for another reason, since Latvian stocks dropped the most among equity markets worldwide as small investors sold stocks before the government starts to tax investment gains. The OMX Riga Index fell as much as 4.3 percent to 271.55, its lowest intraday level since August 21. In dollar terms, the drop was the biggest among 90 benchmark indexes tracked by Bloomberg. The reason for the sell off was that Latvia’s 2010 budget includes measures which will impose taxes on dividends, gains from trading stocks and bonds and interest income. These measures were agreed to in order to ensure the continued transfer of the 7.5 billion-euro bailout from the European Commission and the International Monetary Fund.

Latvian investors have increasingly sold their holdings ahead of the Dec. 31 deadline. Dividends and interest income will be taxed at 10 percent, while tax on gains from trading stocks and bonds will be 15 percent.

As Unemployment Climbs, Latvians Start To Pack Their Bags

Finally one that wasn't in the news, but should have been, since while everyone knows that at 20.3% Latvia's unemployment is the highest in the European Union (see chart below), what they don't know is that more Latvian's than even are now being forced to leave their country in search of work.

According to a report by Oļegs Krasnopjorovs, economist with the Bank of Latvia, during the first half of 2009 8,300 Latvian residents left for Great Britain, a twofold increase over the year earlier period. 3,600 people emigrated to crisis-ridden Ireland in the first 11 months of 2009 - 3% more year-on-year. Among the new EU member states, Latvia has seen the sharpest increase in emigration to these two countries.

According to Krasnopjorovs, the data (which comes from the UK and Irish social security systems) confirm the trend identified by the Latvian Statistics Office, who examined data on long-term migration. In the first ten months of 2009, the number of long-term emigrants was 6,300, up 18% more year-on-year; moreover the steepest rise took place in the last few months, reaching a ten-year peak. For several years now the number of emigrants has exceeded that of immigrants in Latvia, with the exception of the second half of 2007 when a sharp rise in salaries and a steep drop in unemployment were fuelled by the credit and construction boom, leading to labour force shortages and the expectation that incomes would rise even further.

Exports Still The Key

The real problem here, of course, is that the Latvian economy remains mired in deep recession, and shows few signs of real recovery, something which is not surprising given that domestic consumption is in limbo land (where it is likely to stay), while the Prime Minister seems to attach little priority to boosting exports, and regaining competitiveness. Indeed, the contraction has rather gathered than lost momentum in recent months, and on a seasonally adjusted basis Latvian GDP fell another 4% between the second and third quarters of 2009. This was much faster than the 0.2% contraction between Q1 and Q2.

Year on year Latvian GDP fell by 19.0% in the third quarter.The decrease was largely due to a 28.7% drop in external trade (share in GDP 15.6%), a 18.2% one in transport and communications (12.5% GDP share), an 17.4% fall in manufacturing (10.2% GDP share, incredible) and by a 36% drop in construction (7.5% GDP share, not far below manufacturing).

Private final consumption fell by 28.1%. Government final consumption decreased by 12.4%, while expenditure on gross capital formation fell 39.4%. Goods exports (68.2% of total exports) fell by 11.7% and services exports by 20.5%. Goods imports (82.1 % of total imports) were down much more sharply - by 36.6% -and services imports by 29.1%. Which meant net trade was positive, otherwise the fall in GDP would have been greater, and nearer to the levels seen in domestic demand.

And entering the fourth quarter there were few signs of any real improvement. Retail sales fell in October by 1.3% from September (on a seasonally adjusted, constant price basis).

As compared to October 2008 sales were down by 29.1%. The drop was even larger in the non-food product group – 32.3%. According to Eurostat data, sales are now down nearly 35% from their April 2008 peak.

Industrial output, however, seems to be holding up a little better, and output has stabilised since the spring. The problem is that manufacturing industry is now such a small share in GDP that it will be hard to pull the entire economy on the basis of anything other than very strong rates of increase. Industrial production was up in October by 0.1% over September, marginal, but at least it wasn't a fall. Unfortunately most of the increase was in the energy sector, with electricity and gas up by 10.3%, mining and quarrying contracted, by 2.1% as did manufacturing, by 1.9%.

Compared to October 2008 industrial output was down by 13.5%, Output in manufacturing fell by 15.8%, in mining and quarrying by 11%, while in electricity and gas output was only down by 2%. Output is now down around 21% since the February 2008 peak.

There is one positive glimmer on the Latvian horizon at the present time, and that is, of course, exports which were up by more than 4.4% (or 31.7 mln lats) when compared with September.

As a result, the surplus in the current account of Latvia's balance of payments reached 10.1% of gross domestic product (or LVL 327.9 million) in the third quarter. The surplus is however rather smaller than in the second quarter, which was 14.2% of GDP.

With export growth exceeding that of imports, the combined goods and services balance was positive for the second consecutive quarter, standing at 0.3% of GDP (or LVL 11.2 million). This effect is more due to services than to goods exports, since the goods trade balance is still in deficit (see chart), so there is still a long road to travel.

The largest third quarter capital inflows registered under the capital and financial account were the result of government borrowing from the IMF-lead support programme. There was some new foreign direct investment in Latvian companies to the amount of LVL 370.2 million, which to some extent offset direct investment outflows. Net external debt shrank by LVL 0.5 billion in nominal terms, but due to the fall in GDP (as I explained earlier) the ratio of net external debt to GDP posted only a tiny drop, reaching 56.4%, and gross external debt to GDP (excluding foreign assets) was up, reaching 145.8%.

So, as I say, a start has been made, even if there is still a long, long road to travel. Internal devaluation is the chosen path of the Latvian people, the best thing I can suggest at this point is to get it moving in earnest (in fact there is some evidence from November producer prices that the rate of price fall is now accelerating), and that Latvia's leaders start to value what they have (that is, export potential) instead of dreaming of what they can no longer have (dynamic domestic consumption driving growth). Living in the past is never a good idea, not even in the sentimental moments of Yuletide. A Merry Xmas to you all!

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Latvia's Agony Continues In The Second Quarter - With Little Relief In Sight

Latvia’s economy shrank a revised 18.7 percent in the second quarter of 2009 over a year earlier in what was the second-steepest drop in the entire European Union (worsted only by Lithuania) according to detailed data released by the statistics office yesterday. The contraction, which is now the largest since quarterly records began in 1995, was revised down from a preliminary estimate of a 19.6 percent annual drop. And Latvia's problem can easily be seen in the above charts which show the most recent movement in exports, and quarterly data for constant price imports and exports. The Latvian economy grew driven by domestic consumption and increased borrowing during 2006 and most of 2007, but then the country ran out of extra sources of cash, and so imports slumped, followed by exports as the global economy entered crisis. Now its time to pay back, which means the lines we see in 2006 and 2007 will now need to be repeated, only this time with exports on the top and imports below. Of course, really doing this will only be possible once the global economy recovers. But the key question is, will Latvian export capacity be ready when that critical moment comes, or will Latvia's agony continue, stuck in a horrid "L" shaped "non-recovery"? The most recent data on foreign trade, which saw exports fall and the trade deficit once more widen suggest that the latter danger is far from being a mere theoretical one.

And I am not the only one to be raising it, since according to the latest report out from Nordea Bank, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, may well suffer deeper economic contractions than previously estimated as government austerity measures simply serves to sap domestic demand while export growth remains muted.

So well done Nordea! But please permit me to say that this discovery does come as a bit rich from analysts who have persistently remained in denial that the key to Latvia's recovery was a substantial reduction in the price level in order to facilitate exports (on my view better achieved by formal devaluation, but by the express desire of the elected political leaders of the Latvian people now being carried out via a convoluted and painful process known as "internal devlauation").

Still, it is interesting to see mainstream analysts starting to question the current orthodoxy that fiscal prudency will (due to the impact on investor confidence) lead to recovery in Eastern Europe, while here in the West our leaders have just re-affirmed the need to maintain fiscal stimulus, given the fragility of even those earliest signs of recovery.

Indeed the analyst consensus is becoming more and more pessimistic. Danske Bank say the following in their latest Emerging Markets report:

"Worries over Latvia’s public finances continue. Despite aggressive cuts in public spending so far this year, total central government spending in August 2009 was, extraordinarily, exactly the same as in August 2008. This is partly due to spending cuts being offset by increased social spending, and partly to some ministries and agencies awarding their employees big pay increases in June this year before imposing cuts in July as part of the IMF/EU programme. It is still too early to say that everything is fine in the state of Latvia."

In the following monthly report I will examine just what evidence there is for the idea that Latvia's economy has actually bottomed out.

The Fall In GDP Continues

Latvia’s economy shrank an annual 18.7 percent last quarter, following a drop in gross domestic product of 18 percent in the first quarter. The charge downwards was lead by a decrease in private final consumption which fell an annual 23.21% (year on year - see chart). Government final consumption dropped bya mere 6.9%, but expenditure on gross capital formation (which includes the critical investment item) crashed by 38.1% - with construction (which forms part) down 29.5% (see chart below). Goods exports (63.6% of total exports) was down by 19.1% and the export of services by 15.7%. The slump in imports was, of course) even worse with the volume of goods imports (78.8% of total imports) down 39.4%, and the volume of services imports by 38.2%.

But Slows On A Quarterly Basis

Quarter on quarter, however, the rate of contraction did slow slowed substantially, from an 11% rate in the first quarter to a 1.6% rate in the second quarter. But even though the rate of contraction is now much, much slower, the economy is still contracting, so I think it is not quite accurate to say we have hit bottom yet. And hitting bottom is not the same as recovering, since there is unlikely to be any rapid bounce back, and any "recovery" is likely to have an "L" shape with a slight upward slope.

Meanwhile, and hardly surprisingly, during the month Latvia’s credit rating was lowered by Standard & Poor’s, with the long-term foreign currency rating being lowered to BB, two notches below investment grade, from BB+, with a negative outlook. According to S&P's:

“The rating action reflects our view of the political and economic challenges as a result of rapidly contracting nominal and real incomes and the associated pressures on public finances, as the country struggles to improve its growth prospects while maintaining a fixed exchange rate regime.....The outlook for growth beyond that remains highly uncertain, not least due to highly leveraged household balance sheets.”

S&P's estimate that Latvia’s general government debt, which stood at 19 percent of GDP last year, will grow to over 80 percent in 2011, an estime which is broadly in line with current EU Comission forecasts.

The International Monetary Fund also agreed on August 27 to disburse the second installment (of around 200 million euros) of the 1.7 billion-euro credit line approved last December. The decision followed a long period of uncretainty. Latvia’s government is trying to cut spending/or raise revenue by 500 million lati ($1 billion) a year between now and 2012, in a bid to get the budget deficit below 3 percent of GDP as part of an attempt to meet euro adoption criteria.

The IMF said in their statement that the program had been adjusted to reflect:

- a significant increase in the program’s fiscal deficit ceiling in 2009 (up to
13 percent of GDP, compared with 5 percent in the original program) to avoid
measures that would harm the most vulnerable, and

- an allowance of 1
percent of GDP in additional resources for social safety nets.

The statement which Moody's following the IMF decision asserting that Latvia’s Baa3 government bond rating - the lowest investment grade, - was being kept at stable was hardly surprising, although the justification they gave - that the bond issuance was supported by “significant, extraordinary fiscal assistance” from international lenders - surely was significant, and very much to the point. The EU Commission and the IMF are now guaranteeing and in order to do this have effectively assumed sovereign responsibility fo the country (see Appendix below).

Moody's were also a little more optimistic than S&Ps on government debt, since they estimated it would only rise to about 60 percent of gross domestic product in 2010 and fluctuate from about 60 percent to 65 percent over the medium term. I think this is too optimistic, basically for the sort of reasons S&Ps are giving. On the other hand they did also state that a currency devaluation, while not being their central scenario, "was a clear risk, along with additional problems in the banking sector".

Little Sign Of Any Recovery In Main Indicators

If we now come to the future, we have to note there is little hard evidence at this point for any real recovery - nor should we expect to see any. Industrial output is still falling, and was down 1.4 percent in July over June, and 17.7% year-on-year (over July 2008). This compared with a 18.5% annual fall in the previous month.

Latvia's industrial output started falling in February 2008, and has now fallen 22.4% from it peak.

Retail sales were down 1% in July over June, and 29.5% over July 2008.

Retail sales have now been falling since April 2008, and are now 31.18% below their peak.

The Trade Defict Widens in July As Exports Drop Back

Latvia's July trade deficit was 95.2 million Lati up from 67 million Lati in June. This was the first increase since December 2008. Latvian foreign trade turnover came in at 613.3 mln lats in July, down by 3.8% or 24.5 mln lats in current price terms than a month earlier and and down by 41.1% over July last year.

In the January – July 2009 period foreign trade turnover was 4517.6 mln lats – down by 36.1% or 2547.5 mln lats over the same period in 2008.

In July exports were down by 32.6% over July 2008 and imports down 46%. Over January to July exports were down by 27.2% or 705.4 mln lats, while imports were down by 41.2% or 1842.1 mln lats over the same period a year ago.

Unemployment Continues To Rise, And As It Does Bad Loans Pile Up In the Banking Sector

Latvia's unemployment rate hit 17.4% in July according to Eurostat data, and again this was the second highest level in the European Union (after Spain). Naturally with unemployment rising to such levels the number of distressed loans continues to rise and bad debt provisions in the banking sector wnet up again - to 6.6 percent of the total credit portfolio in July from 6.1 percent the month before, according to credit supervisor FKTK.

The FKTK also said in a statement that bank losses by the end of the first seven months had hit 400 million lats ($817.6 million), up from 346.8 million lats at the end of the first half.

Lending was again down, and the total credit portfolio fell by 0.7 percent in July. The level of debts with delayed payments of more than 90 days rose to 13 percent of the credit portfolio from 12 percent at the end of June.

What About The Internal Devaluation, Is It Working?

Well, prices have started falling, and the consumer price level was down in August by 1.0% compared to July. The average prices of goods fell by 1.3%, and of services by 0.4%. But if we compared to August 2008 we find that consumer prices (as measured on the Latvian national index) have incredibly still increased by 1.8% (down admitdely from the 2.5% rate of increase in July), which leads me to ask, given the pain that all of this is evidently causing, are prices still falling too little and too late to do any real good.

The central bank seems to think the process is working, since they point out on their website that the real effective exchange rate of the lat, which is one measure of the price competitiveness of Latvian goods versus those of the country's major trading partners, improved between April and July, marking the first four-month gain since the beginning of 2005. We need to remember howvere that the REER index showed prices developing far faster than trading partners all the way from 2006 through to April 2009 (see comparative chart with Finland below) so there really is a long long way back down to go. And if we look at the chart immmediately below, we will see that while the gap is closing Latvian prices are still in a worse position in August 2009 (as compared to other Eurozone countries) than they were in August 2008 - that is over the last year as a whole the position has even deteriorated.

A similar picture can be found in producer (factory gate) prices, which have only recently moved into negative territory on an annual basis. To get a comparison, German producer prices were down 7.8% year on year in July, while

In fact, while export prices are dropping substantially, import prices are also falling (see chart), and thus the real rate of price correction is still quite small.

I therefore contend that this weeks statement from Unicredit Group Chief Economist Marco Annunziata to the effect that, “For the region as a whole and for Latvia, we have gone through the worst,” is way too premature. Conditions are not improving, and as Moody's suggested pressures in the banking system are still building up. It is an open empirical question at this point whether we have the worst behind us. Even over a longer term horizon it is hard to see the grounds for optimism, since there are certainly no "green sprouts" to be seen on the new babies front, with year on year three month moving average being stuck around the 8% drop level. This depression is going to cast a long shadow over the future of the Latvian people, let's hope for everyone's sake that all those responsible (the government, the IMF, and the EU Commission) are fully aware of their hsitoric responsibilities here.

Appendix: IMF and EU Conditions from the respective Letters of Intent.

According to the letter of intent signed by the Latvian Government, The Central Bank and the IMF, a number of new reporting obligations were agreed to. These include:

* Consolidated central (basic and special budgets), local and general government operations based on the IMF fiscal template
* Detailed information on revenues from EU funds at the general government level, and EU-related spending by the central government, including transfers to local governments for EU-related spending
* Consolidated central and general government bank restructuring operations
* Privatization receipts received by the general government budget (in lats and foreign exchange, and payments in governments bonds)
* Information on debt stocks and flows, domestic and external (concessional and non concessional), by currency, and guarantees issued by the (i) consolidated central, local and general governments and (ii) public enterprises (including the Latvian guarantee agency and
the Rural guarantee fund), including amounts and beneficiaries
* Information on new contingent liabilities, domestic and external, of the consolidated central, local and general governments
* Data on general government arrears, including to suppliers
* Data on operations of extrabudgetary funds
* Data on the stock of the general government system external arrears
* Balance sheet of the BoL, including (at actual exchange rate) (i) data on components of program NIR; (ii) government balances at the BoL, broken into foreign exchange balances—distinguishing various program partner sub-accounts for program financing—and balances in lats.
* Balance sheet of the BoL (in program and actual exchange rates) (i) data on components of program NIR; (ii) government balances at the BoL, broken into foreign exchange balances—distinguishing various program partner sub-accounts for program financing—and balances in lats.
* Consolidated accounts of the commercial banks
* Monetary survey
* Currency operations, including government foreign receipts and payments and breakdown of interbank market operations by currencies (interventions)
* Aggregated data on free collateral—available, unpledged collateral held at the Bank of Latvia
* Daily data with banks’ current accounts, minimum reserve requirements, stock of repos and fx swaps
* Foreign exchange rate data
* Volume of foreign exchange lats trades
* Projections for external payments of the banking sector falling due in the next four quarters, interest and amortization (for medium and long-term loans)
* Projections for external payments of the corporate sector falling due in the next four quarters interest and amortization (for medium and long-term loans)
* The stock of external debt for both public and private sector

The Letter of Intent follows the earlier signing of a Supplementary Memorandum of Understanding between the Latvian government and the European Union. The terms of this understanding contained the following Monitoring and Reporting protocols.

Monitoring fiscal developments

• Monthly revenue and expenditure break-down of social budget, including data on social
benefits' hand-outs (unemployment, family, etc).
• Monthly state basic budget expenditure breakdown per type of expenditure for each
ministry or other relevant budget entity.
• Monthly revenue and expenditure break-down of local governments, including data on
GMI hand-outs and other benefits included in category "other social support".
• Monthly information on debt stocks and flows and guarantees given on new debt,
contracted by the (i) consolidated central, local and general governments and (ii) public
• Monthly data on new contingent liabilities of the consolidated central, local and general
• Monthly data on state budget loans and PPP projects.
• Monthly information on central government (i.e., ministries and agencies) and state
owned companies' staff and remuneration levels, institution-by-institution, showing last
months'/years' trends.
• Monthly data on general government arrears, including to suppliers.
• Bi-weekly Treasury cash-flow assessment of central government financing needs.

Monitoring financial developments

• Monthly statements of the operations on the special account.
• Monthly report on the amount of mortgage loans converted from EUR to LVL.
• Monthly report on outstanding loans split by currency and detailed to households
(housing, consumer, other) and non-financial corporations (by sector).
• Notify DG ECFIN whenever there is a consultation process with DG COMP related to
financial sector stabilization (i.e., Parex).
• Monthly report on banking sector stabilization measures.

Monitoring structural reforms

• Monthly data on budget allocations to and appropriations of line ministries for financing
of EU Structural funds and Cohesion fund projects (including which programming
period they are related to).
• Monthly data on the amounts disbursed to final beneficiaries for project
implementation, by ministry and by EU Structural funds and Cohesion fund projects
(including which programming period they are related to).
• Monthly data on the amounts spent by state budget financed entities as final
beneficiaries on EU Structural funds and Cohesion fund project implementation, by
ministry and by EU fund (including which programming period they are related to).
• Monthly financial reports on reaching the Structural Funds and Cohesion Fund
expenditure targets by the Managing Authority.
• Quarterly qualitative assessment reports on reaching the Structural Funds and Cohesion
Fund expenditure targets by the Managing Authority.
• Quarterly assessment of policy options taken by the government regarding poverty,
health and pensions.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Is It Hot In Latvia In August?

Well the big news this morning is that the IMF mission to Latvia has finally reached agreement with the Latvian government on a new policy package that will give the country access to about $278 million in new financing. Details of the deal are scant at the moment, since the Letter of Intent will not be published until the IMF board approves the agreement, but it seems the terms of the IMF deal are (on the face of it) tough: additional budget cuts worth a reported 500 million lats ($1.02 billion) for 2010, a progressive income tax with the possibility of an increase in VAT if the cuts do not reduce the budget deficit to the stipulated level.

Really, this agreement changes very little in my opinion. As Capital Economics' Neil Shearing points out, many people are assuming that with the rapid Current Account adjustment in many CEE countries, the threat to external financial stability has largely gone away. But as Neil argues, while theoretically, it should be enough for the countries just to move back to balance, practical experience from Argentina etc suggests that as recovery arrives the CA tends to move from large deficit to large surplus. And this of course means exports growing at a much faster rate than imports. This is the only practical way to pay down the debt.

And as Afoe's own Claus Vistesen puts it:

This is all about the composition of the external balance and what kind of extensions foreign creditors give. Now, the benefit of the peg is of course that you can begin to accumulate foreign assets at reasonable valuation to your liabilities. HOWEVER, the only way to reasonably begin this process is of course to actually begin accumulating those assets and in order to so so, you need productive investment targeted at foreign operations and this is very difficult unless the "internal devaluation" has run its course. Essentially, domestic investment to serve foreign markets are not productive until deflation has taken its toll.

So basically the message is, whatever the final details of the new agreement, stay tuned and keep watching, since all of this is far from over.

Edward Will Not Be Going To Latvia In August

The little news of the day is that I will not be attending the conference on Latvia's economic future which members of the Peoples Party are trying to organise for August, even though I was invited. As the Latvia Daily Diena (Latvian only I'm afraid) which reports on the preparations for the conference puts it "E. Hugh, who declared himself a defender of the lat devaluation, however, declined to participate, adding he'd like to maintain political neutrality." Well, this is fair enough as a presentation of my opinion, but, just for the record, here's what I actually did say.

First of all I would like to say thank you very much for thinking of me and inviting me to your conference....

....while I think a decision to accept the original IMF proposal of a 15% devaluation of the Lat, and pressure the EU Commission into euro entry was the best option last autumn, this is now no longer the situation. So while I was advocating devaluation back then, what I am saying now is that in my opinion devaluation is inevitable at some point, but that it will now be an unholy mess. Serious contagion problems will most likely ensue, and so in this sense I am no longer "advocating" Latvian devaluation. Ideally it needs to take place as part of a much more general solution to problems in the economies of the Eastern European countries who are members of the EU.

If Latvia is simply forced off the peg, then we should all watch out. I am in Spain, and I am expecting consequences here.

Thirdly, I am not in basic disagreement with the IMF, and would not wish to do anything which may make their work more difficult. Basically, from where I am sitting the issue is to put pressure on the EU institutional structure in an attempt to get them to recognise some of the basic ABCs of economics.

Lastly, I would emphasise that I am an economist, a mere technician of economic systems, and not a politician. I am explicitly non politicial, and am maintaining this stance both vigourously and adamantly.

Basically, as I said, I consider devaluation inevitable..... tomorrow, in August, after Christmas, in 2011, I don't know when. I also know that the longer it is in coming, the more serious the consequences will be, due to the continuous degradation in the credibility of the associated institutions (IMF, ECB, EU Commission, EBRD etc). This is all now quite likely to eventually become (via the other Baltic states, Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania and even Ukraine and Serbia) a very serious problem, with potentially major global implications.

So there will be a before and after. After devaluation there will need to be a major rethink about where Latvia is going. Devaluation is not an end in itself, it is simply a means to an end, a begininning. We also need to think about how Latvia will earn its living, pay off its debts, and find its way in the world.

Long term structural, and strategic economic thinking are needed.

Here I think I do have a part to play. As you may well have noticed, my view is that the ongoing demographic deterioration of your country lies at the heart of your macro economic problems.

I think this deterioration needs to be addressed as soon as possible, and I see three large issue.

i) Productive capacity needs to be increased substantially. This means increasing the labour force, and this means (as outlined in the World Bank Report, From Red To Grey) facilitating large scale inward migration. Given the serious political implications of encouraging ethnic Russian migration into your country, I see only two viable source regions, the Central Asian Republics in the CIS, and Sub. Saharan Africa. Possibly this solution will not be widely popular with Latvian voters. Well, they do have the right to choose. Your country can take the measures needed to become sustainable, or you can watch it die, as the economy shrinks, and the young people leave. That, I think, is your choice.

The other two measures you need to take are contingent on the first being implemented, since without the first measure you will simply not dispose of the economic resources for the other two.

ii) A serious policy to support those Latvian women who do wish to have children. But with major financial advantages, not half measures, and propaganda stunts. You need policies that can work, and I know plenty of demographers with ideas.But this needs money. Important quantities of money. And gender empowerment, right across the economy, at every level. We have formal legal equality in the labour market, but evident biological and reproductive inequality, in that only one of the parties gets to bear the children. The institutional resources of the state need to redress this imbalance.

iii) Major reforms in the health system to address the underlying male life expectancy problem. You can only seriously hope to raise the labour force participation rates at 65 and over if people arrive at these ages in a fundamentally healthy condition. In economic terms, simple investment theory shows why this is the case. A given society spends a given quantity of resources on producing a given number of children, those who have citizens who live and work longer evidently get a better return on their investment. If you want to raise Latvian living standards, you have to raise the life expectancy. And this apart from the evident human issues.

OK, I am saying no for the moment, but I would like to stress that when conditions change, I would be more than willing to come to your country to try to help. But not for a day, for a month, and not to give a talk, but to work with some serious people who are willing to roll their sleeves up and do the serious spadework that will be needed to find those solutions you so badly need.

Basically, my feeling is that the issues you face are so complex that public debate is unlikely to produce a very fruitful outcome at this point. You need a long term education process, and for the time being more or less technocratic solutions, but not the technocratic solutions you are being offered by the EU now (which basically won't work), technocratic solutions which get to the heart of the problem and set your country on a sustainable path.

Friday, July 24, 2009

It Isn't Only Canicular Heat They Are Suffering From In Latvia

Maintaining the peg also requires substantial political commitment. If this commitment were to falter, there is a risk that the execution of the difficult but necessary policies required under the authorities’ program could also weaken. However, all political parties are strongly committed to the exchange rate peg.
How the world changes in six months. The above lines come from the IMF "Republic of Latvia: Request for Stand-By Arrangement - Staff Report" of January 9 2009. But just today we can read in a Baltic newspaper:

"Reliable sources tell LETA that the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has stipulated that the loan agreement document must be signed by all ruling coalition parties in Latvia, thereby showing their resolve to implement it."
The reason the IMF are now so edgy is spelled out by Reuters Political Risk Correspondent Peter Apps:

A string of other countries are also facing stark cuts, and analysts say in many - like Latvia - domestic politics could well intervene as elected politicians are unwilling to face the political consequences of cuts demanded by the IMF and wider financial markets.
So what the IMF are evidently worried about is the possibility that some coalition members may support the agreed measures just long enough to get the payout, and then effectively disown them. This seems to be a far cry from the substantial political commitment that was earlier considered to be so essential to maintaining the peg.

And the issue goes well beyond Latvia, since as Apps points out, a string of other countries are in a similar if currently marginally better condition, including Bulgaria, Romania, Lithuanis and Hungary, all busily making cuts while coming to rely more and more on multilateral lenders.

So if there is no clear resolution to Latvia's growing dispute with the IMF, the European Union could end up facing a dilemma - whether to bail out troubled emerging European countries who won't make cuts or face the consequences of not doing so. As Lars Christensen, head of emerging markets research at Danske Bank in Copenhagen says:

"This could be a test case for Europe....In Latvia, it's domestic politics that really become the driver. The question is what the EU would do if the IMF walks away."
A good question.

In the above quoted IMF document, they also make the following point:
Correcting currency misalignment without nominal depreciation is extremely difficult, as experience from other currency board and fixed exchange rate countries continues to show. Large external financial support and sustained wage and fiscal discipline by both the private and public sectors are required. Failure could entail substantial reputational risks for both the authorities and international institutions.

The last sentance is important, failure could entail substantial reputational risks for the international institutions involved, in particular in this case for the IMF and the EU Commission. This loss of credibility should the peg eventually collapse in chaos is one of the considerations that lead some of us to argue strongly from the start against going down this road. But few would listen.

Beyond the immediate issues of the peg, there are also serious structural considerations which make this kind of "body-with-two-heads" approach less than desireable in delicate situations such as this. Even if all we have here is - as some would suggest - a soft-cop hard-cop duet, the policy of letting the EU Commission permanently play the role of soft cop is hardly desireable, especially for the message it will be sending to Southern Europe, where our improvised duo may soon find themselves once more forced into action. And especially also for financial markets where nervousness about the ability of Europe's complex institutional structure to handle the evident continuing weaknesses in the banking system is still highly evident. Leaving the impression that the EU itself is not able single handedly to deal with its own recalcitrant offspring is not exactly the best way to convince the sceptics.

Today's Latvia Roundup

The exact state of play in the negotiations with the IMF is still far from clear. Latvia's Prime Minister Valdis Dombrovskis said on Thursday that talks with the IMF were making progress on issues of pensions and taxes and results of the talks are expected early next week, but since we have been getting news like this for some days now it is hard to draw conclusions.

Izabella Kaminska at FT Alphaville thinks the analyst community is increasingly interpreting the deadlock as yet another (and possibly decisive) chink in the armour of Latvia’s euro-peg defence, citing in particular the latest research note from the RBC Capital Markets’ emerging markets team. While Capital Economics' Neil Shearing is even more explicit:

Relations between the IMF and Latvia are deteriorating quickly, raising the prospect that the loan programme that is vital to maintaining the country’s currency peg could collapse altogether..... with relations between both sides souring, and the pain in the real economy intensifying, it remains to be seen how long a new agreement will hold. Indeed, there is a growing risk that the programme could collapse altogether, which would spell the end of the currency peg and trigger a round of debt restructuring.
As for me, I agree with Neil, this situation has now become so unstable, while the internal devaluation is working so slowly, that the Fund really need to think about how to handle the damage containment issue. The crisis is far from over in the East and South of Europe, and the risk of a spark from this whole fiasco setting either Athens or Madrid alight is most certainly non-negligable. I advise all concerned to think very carefully at this point about the implications of what they are doing, for the sake of all our well-being. The Maginot line may still be far from broken, but a distant fortress on our outer defence ring may well be about to fall. Let's just learn the lessons shall we?

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Why Latvia Is In Such A Mess

Hat Tip to Aleks Tapinsh - "No wonder this country is in such a mess. Someone posted this video of a payday at the Elkor electronics chain in Latvia. The paycheck as you can see comes in an envelope, in cash. No one pays any taxes. And everyone happy. Or not".

Second example: Prime Minister Valdis Dombrovskis cited in a press conference in Riga yesterday the fact that some companies, including state-owned companies like Latvian Railways, had tried to cheat the social security system by significantly raising the wages of some of its employees (in his example from 1,000 lats a month to 12,000 lats a month), thus apparently raising their pay into the social security system. That way, if a person gets laid off, they'd get 70 percent of the new and improved wage.

Now two recent quotes from my blog interpreting yesterday's comment from the Economy Minister - (Viz: "Representatives sitting in Washington and educated at Yale do not fully understand what is going on in Latvia”)

"To provide with logic behind quote of the economics minister, I believe he thought that the EC and IMF does not realize the scope and importance of grey economy in the country. With that figure hard to estimate (ranging from 15%-40%). Any increase of Tax base will only push the economy on the gray side both for individuals (tax exemption on income earned) and for companies (unaccounted cash revenue, forgone taxes,etc). Thus resulting in even less tax revenue that initially had and larger budget deficit to balance. As for VAT tax, as a sign of protest, some of the local companies have publically annouced the full closure of their business if the VAT is raised to 23%."

"Yep, stupid comment when at the same time you are reaching out your hands to receive their money... That said, the IMF does not really fully understand if they think they can introduce e.g. a progressive income tax and raise more revenue. Very hard to do in a country that does not believe that higher taxes will benefit the population and where tax avoidance is an art mastered by most."

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Danskebank's EMEA Daily Latvian Quote Of The Day

Quote of the day: "Representatives sitting in Washington and educated at Yale do not fully understand what is going on in Latvia", Latvian Economics Minister Kampars yesterday on the Latvian TV programme 900 sekundes.

As they point out, when the borrowers publicly criticise the lenders in this way, something must be going on.

While Mr. Kampars might be right on his assessment of the IMF staff, it is certainly unhelpful for further negotiations (if there are to be any) to bad mouth the institution that is supposed to give Latvia a loan. In our view it increasingly looks like the IMF will not pay out the next instalment on Latvia’s loan. This not only has ramifications for Latvia, but should also be a reminder to investors that the IMF is not just a “money machine” that automatically bails out all countries with funding needs.

Also Danskebank provide some simple calculations to illustrate the extent to which Latvia does still need the IMF funds:

A back of the envelope calculation illustrates this. In June, central government spent about EUR 125m more than came in revenues and funding. Assuming that this “burn rate” continues for the rest of the year (August-December) then that adds up to EUR 625m for the rest of the year. Furthermore, during the rest of the year EUR 715m worth of t-bills are maturing which need to be rolled over. Hence, the refinancing of maturing debt and the monthly cash burn adds up to EUR 1,340m. In our assessment the Latvian state treasury probably has EUR 540m in liquidity at the moment. That leaves the Latvian central government with a funding need of EUR 799m. This is why it is important that the EC in the Supplemental MoU ties up half of the EUR 1.2bn instalment for the financial sector, as the amount that will be “free” to cover the budget deficit will be less than the funding need (EUR 600m vs EUR 799m).

Thus, according to Danske the Latvian government will be around 200 million euros short by the end of the year – unless it is able to roll over more than half of the maturing debt, something which would require sustained perfect conditions for issuance in the local money markets for the rest of the year, unlikely given that the international markets are more or less closed to Latvian debt, and that non receipt of the IMF share would hardly increase the risk appetite.

Parex Update

The situation at Parex bank seems to be giving rise to all sorts of speculation at the moment. It has been suggested that the Banks owners have been systematically taking advantage of the bailout to line their own pockets. Some support for this view can be found in the statement of the Latvian Finance Ministry last Friday that it had asked the state prosecutor's office to probe Parex takeover last year.

RIGA, July 17 (Reuters) - Latvia's Finance Ministry said on Friday it had asked the state prosecutor's office to probe the state takeover last year of a major bank that helped trigger the need for the country's IMF-led bailout.

The IMF has delayed its latest share of lending in the bailout, though the EU has decided to give a further 1.2 billion euros. The prime minister said he would hold more talks next week with the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Some local media reports and politicians have criticised the wisdom of taking over the country's second largest bank, Parex, and the way it was done. Most recently the media has reported that some former employees left with big handouts. Finance Minister Einars Repse said he had asked the prosecutor's office to investigate the takeover to clear up such controversies

What the connection is (if any) between the "Parex affair" and all the other unknowns we have in our equation set at the moment still remains to be seen.

And finally, to close, here's yet another Latvia quote, this time from former IMF chief economist Ken Rogoff:

“It is so clear that Latvia’s peg is ultimately unsustainable, all protestations by Latvian government officials notwithstanding,” said Kenneth Rogoff, a former chief economist at the I.M.F.. “But ultimately unsustainable pegs can go on for years before crashing and burning, and Brussels seems to be willing to pay a lot to get past the financial crisis before cutting the cord on Latvia.”

Monday, July 20, 2009

Brief Latvia EU Loan Update

Well, there is still effectively no word from the IMF. But The EC did today release an addendum to its memorandum of understanding with Latvia identifying a number of economic and fiscal policy measures it wants the country to enact before it receives next chunk of funding. The document, which is a pretty rough-and-ready PDF photocopy, can be found here. Reading the document, one thing seems certain: the upcoming tranche of 1.2 billion euros will not now be sufficient to cover the budget deficit for 2009, since the EC requires half of the money to be set aside for the financial sector - which prompts the question, is the nationalized Parex bank really as healthy as the government and the bank's leadership have previously said it was?

Other items of interest in the document are the proposal to raise VAT in 2010 from 21% to 23% if other forms of revenue raising cannot be identified. The impact on already very hard pressed retail sales is not too hard to imagine. The introduction of a residential real estate tax is also proposed with local authorities being empowered to increase the real estate tax to 3% of cadastral values. If implemented, this will do only one thing: further reduce Latvian real estate values which are already down 50% from their peak, and on whose bottoming-out any hope of ultimate recovery depends.

Which is another way of saying that in macro economic terms the document leaves rather a lot to be desired, and essentially it is hard to find any item which is actually going to stimulate rather than flatten a recovery.

Also worthy of note is the requirement that Latvia now has to closely coordinate policy with the EU and the IMF.

"All significant Cabinet decisions or other decisions with a fiscal impact, including on social security or any guarantee scheme, shall be announced and undertaken only after discussions with the EC and the IMF,"

The document also stipulates that the government will have to report every month on all key aspects of spending and revenue, including providing a breakdown for each ministry as well as for local governments. These performance criteria, given the now near total dependence of the country on external support - de facto, as a sovereign state Latvia has effectively ceased (at least temporarily) to exist, some 19 years or so after its foundation - are not surprising in and of themselves, but it could have been hope that the country would have been better served in terms of the kind of advice which is being offered. The document repeated that Latvia should aim to reach a budget deficit of 10 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) this year, 8.5 percent in 2010, 6 percent in 2011 and 3 percent in 2012, numbers which, if my back of the envelope calculations are not totally awry mean that Latvia's debt to GDP will be outside the EU 60% limit by the time the deficit comes down under 3%, depending on GDP performance in 2010 and 2011. In any event it will be touch and go. So you enter by one door, only to leave by the other.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

IMF Imposes New Conditions On Latvia

Izabella Kaminska at FT Alphaville has the story (via Reuters):

The International Monetary Fund has put forward new, difficult conditions for Latvia to receive further loans, the prime minister said on Wednesday in a further sign the Fund is being tougher than the European Commission.

It isn't clear at this point what these conditions are. Rumour has it they may be an end to the flat income tax, or a hike in VAT. A hike in VAT would be more hari-kiri, since this would again hit consumption AND would boost inflation at a time when they are trying to deflate to carry through an internal currency correction. It also isn't clear whether this is a serious attempt to add new conditions (which I find unlikely, given how advanced the distemper is) or whether this is a way for the IMF to get themselves off the hook (ie leave the EU Commission to stew in its own juice) without having a public and potentially damaging break with the EU. The IMF need to find some sort of exit strategy I think (since Latvia evidently at this point doesn't have one), or it risks losing its own credibility if it puts a seal of approval (by granting the next tranche) on something which most external specialists now think could end up in a very messy grande finale. Argentina ghosts are stalking the corridors in Washington, not because of the similarities between the two countries (they are, at the end of the day pretty different), but because of the way giving a final "kiss of death" loan to a country can ultimately come back and haunt you.

Update One

The local Latvian news agency is saying that if Latvia and the IMF do not sign the new agreement by Friday, Latvia may not see the next chunk of the IMF loan and it could jeopardize the further funding from the EC. This could be brinksmanship, but even brinkmanship can go badly wrong if the other party can't concede. And who is the other party here? Latvia or the EU Commission, since they already said they are happy with progress. What a muddle!

Update Two - Thursday Afternoon

Bloomberg's Aaron Eglitis reports this afternoon that Friday may in fact not be any kind of deadline. He quotes Caroline Atkinson, head of external relations at the IMF, in Washington, to the effect that the head of the IMF mission in Riga is returning to Washington this weekend as scheduled, while the mission itself would “continue its work.” This suggests there will be no final decision this week. She also said there was “broad consensus among all the parties involved” about the goals for Latvia, declining to go into specifics.

Rumourology has it that the IMF wants the government to become more effective in revenue collection, with the fear that the current contraction may be so strong due to the fact that part of the economy is disappearing back into a "grey area" as a backdrop. Various proposals are being floated around, but perhaps it would be better to wait for some concrete information before speculating about this.

Latvian central bank Governor Ilmars Rimsevics has also been holding a press conference in Riga today, and he took the opportunity to suggest that the country’s budget deficit was likely to grow to between 9.5 percent and 10 percent this year. If this is the case, then this would obviously put Latvia outside the 60% gross debt to GDP criteria by 2010, which would make euro membership as an exit strategy non viable over the relevant horizon in my view. Just a long shot, but maybe that is what they are all arguing about. The EU clearly has to offer the four peggars more in the way of a carrot, although they themselves need to remember - looking over at Slovakia and Slovenia - that mere euro membership is no panacea to cure all ills.

Monday, July 13, 2009

The IMF/EU Commission Rift On Latvia Seems To Be Deepening

Two weeks ago I drew attention to a revealing press conference given by IMF First Deputy Managing Director John Lipsky and European Central Bank governing council member Christian Noyer where it seemed a rather different posture was being taken on the Latvian question than that which is being transmitted from Brussels. Then P O'Neill found a message on Twitter which suggested the topic of the Latvian budget had been unexpectedly added to the EcoFin agenda.

Today Bloomberg report that Barclays Capital’s chief economist for emerging Europe Christian Keller thinks that the IMF's posture of continuing to withhold funds even after the approval of the spending cuts “signaled that the rift between the IMF and EU has widened” .

Now I don't want to see connections were there are none, but it is a coincidence that Christian Keller works for the same Barclays capital whose Head of Emerging Markets Strategy Eduardo Levy-Yeyati recently published a lengthy analysis on the influential Is Latvia the new Argentina? - where he argued that: "The strategy of engineering an “internal” depreciation under a peg in Latvia (via contractionary fiscal policy, wage cuts and price deflation) implicit in the IMF program is proving too painful, if not self-defeating as in the 2001 collapse of Argentina’s currency board"

Now the publication of this article was interesting since Eduardo Levy-Yayati is not just any old economist. Previous to joining Barclays Capital, as his Voxeu biography informs us, he was

"a Senior Financial Sector Advisor for Latin America & the Caribbean at The World Bank. Previously, a Senior Research Associate at the Inter-American Development Bank, the Director of Monetary and Financial Policies and Chief Economist for the Central Bank of Argentina, and the Director of the Center for Financial Research and Professor of Economics and Finance at Universidad Torcuato Di Tella. He has also worked as consultant for the IMF, the World Bank, the Inter-American Development Bank, the Japan Bank for International Cooperation, among many public and private institutions. His research on emerging markets banking and finance has been published extensively in top international economic journals. "

That is, Señor Levy-Yayati is an extremely experienced economist, an old Argentina hand, and enjoys some considerable influence over emerging markets issues in Washington. So was the appearance of the article in Voxeu at the end of June totally coincidental? He certainly is experienced enough to know what he is doing in these matters. And was it also a coincidence that only a week later former chief economist at the International Monetary Fund Ken Rogoff - surely another person who knows perfectly well what he is doing - gave an interview where he said that "Latvia should devalue the lats to avoid a worsening of its economic crisis" and that "the IMF made the wrong decision when it allowed Latvia to keep its currency peg"?

The IMF cannot say what it really thinks for obvious reasons, but could we construe Levy-Yayati and Rogoff as thinking out loud on the funds behalf?

The clash between the two institutions (should such a clash exist) derives from “ideological differences” according to Keller. "The IMF is focused on economic questions such as the sustainability of the currency peg, the use of economic stimulus or the idea of fast-track euro adoption......The EU’s main concern is political, such as euro-adoption rules and the implementation of convergence programs".

This all rings pretty true, and it rings even truer when you note that the Latvian Prime Minister Valdis Dombrovskis said only last week that the country "may not need the IMF share of the financing". As Keller says, “The Latvia program has become a headache for the IMF.”


Latvian foreign trade was down again in May, at 618.3 mln lats it was 4.2% (or 27.1 mln lats) lower than it was in April (no green shoot here) and 38.5% (or 387.6 mln lats) down on May last year, according to provisional data of Latvian Statistics Office. May exports were down 30.1% over May 2008, while imports were down an incredible 43.7%. Over the January – May period foreign trade was down by 35.4% on the same period in 2008. Exports were down by 27.7% and imports by 39.9%.

Industrial output fell back again in May over April, by 0.4% on a seasonally adjusted basis according to the statistics office. Year on year it was down 19.3%.

And domestic demand continues to weaken. Retail sales were down 0.48% in May over April, and 24.14% year on year, according to Eurostat data.

Latvia’s inflation rate fell to 3.4 percent in June, the lowest annual rate since October 2003, from 4.7 percent in May. Prices were down 0.5% on the month, but this is way too slow for the kind of internal devaluation process which is underway. At this rate the loss of GDP will be truly massive before the internal currency correction has taken place.

There were 206,000 people unemployed in Latvia in May, or 16.3 percent of the labour force, according to the latest Eurostat data. This is slightly down on earlier data, but since these results are survey based, and such rapid changes make it difficult to apply such methodologies, I don't think we need suspect any kind of "foul play". The rise is dramatic enough as it is, as can be seen in the chart below. This makes me wonder were we will be by mid 2010.

One area where the central bank has had some success has been in getting overnight interbank lending rates down again, and the overnight Rigibor is now back around 3% (13 July), but the 12 month rates are still very high (20.2% 13 July) which does suggest that while market participants are fairly sure the peg is safe in the short term, they are not at all convinced about what is going to happen in the longer term. And in this they seem to be making a valid judgement, since this is the situation at the time of writing.

Meatime Latvia's natality continues to suffer under the weight of the crisis, there were 1750 live births in May, down 15.3% on May 2008. Thus, not only are we playing with the countries short term future here, we are also putting the possibility of having a long term one at risk.

Where Is The Endgame?

When it comes to the short term dynamics of the looming currency crisis in Emerging Europe, one of the Baltic Three, probably Latvia, will most likely be the first to concede its peg, as Eduardo Levy-Yeyati says this is just too painful, and the loss of GDP which is taking place while the politicians are dithering is fearful.

But when Latvia does leave its peg, then others are almost bound to follow. Everything depends on whether the EU Commission and the IMF are proactive or limit themselves to a mere reactive, problem-containment role. If the Latvian currency realignment is done in an organised and systematic fashion, then it may, even at this late date, be a containable process. For this to happen the EU Commission have to stop playing with the politics of the situation, realise that the Maastricht criteria were not written in tablets of stone, and start to formulate a reasonable exit stratgey for all the Eastern members of the EU. They need, that is, to start thinking practical economics, the way the IMF now seem to be doing. The macro economics of this was always clear and straightforward.

But if the Latvian situation is simply left to fester, and the country falls into the grip of a growing political anarchy, then containment will be much more difficult, since panic will more than likely set in.

A similar situation pertains in Bulgaria (see my latest post on Bulgaria, since the similatities are evident). Absent a Latvian devaluation, it is not unthinkable that the Lev peg may be maintained in Bulgaria for another year or so. But if the Bulgarian authorities do go down this road, then we face the severe risk of a a further raggedy ending, since the problem is not one of sustaining the peg, but of restoring competitiveness and economic growth, and this is much more difficult without a formal devaluation. And if Bulgaria does go hurtling off that cliff on which it is currently perched, then just be damn careful it doesn't drag half of South Eastern Europe careering after it. The EU Commission need to begin to resolve this mess, and the need to begin now!

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Estonia's Neck Goes Into A Latvian-style Noose

Well, today is the 30 of June, and still no news from the IMF on releasing the next tranche of the Latvian loan. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why (via Ott Umelas at Bloomberg).

Estonia’s fiscal deficit under European Union terms more than doubled in the first quarter from a year earlier, indicating the Baltic country may not be able to adopt the euro in January 2011. The deficit, including social security and state and municipal spending, rose to 5.57 billion krooni ($502 million) from 2.06 billion krooni a year earlier, according to data published on the statistics office’s Web site today. The gap corresponds to 2.5 percent of gross domestic product, according to Bloomberg calculations based on the Finance Ministry’s forecast for Estonian GDP for 2009.

The first-quarter figure means the government will have to keep the deficit at 0.5 percent of GDP for the rest of the year to meet euro-entry criteria. Finance Minister Jurgen Ligi has said he sees no improvement in the economy before the third quarter. The minority Cabinet of Prime Minister Andrus Ansip has cut the 2009 budget deficit by 16 billion krooni, or 7.3 percent of GDP, in recent months to avoid depleting state reserves and keep the fiscal deficit at last year’s level of 3 percent of GDP, the same as the EU’s budget-deficit threshold. This would allow Estonia to adopt the euro in January 2011, the government’s main economic goal.

So why a "Latvian-style" noose? Because these countries have built for themselves a sort of "paradox of fiscal thrift" connundrum, whereby the more you cut, the more GDP falls, the more revenue rises, the more spending grows, the more the fiscal deficit goes up, the more you have to cut, and so on. In the end, as Kenneth Rogoff said yesterday, it simply becomes too painful. There seems no way Estonia can achieve a 3 percent deficit this year at this point. And remember what IMF First Deputy Managing Director John Lipsky said last week.

“If there is a solution it begins with macro policies,” Lipsky said. “No single exchange rates solution, or exchange regime represents a solution to these kinds of problems. What is important is that the currency regime is credible and coherent”.

Estonia now has no exit strategy, at least not to join the euro in 2011 it doesn't And then we have Lithuania and Bulgaria to think about. Basically, the ECB and the European Commission should never have drawn a line in the sand across the original Maastricht criteria. But it's too late for that now.