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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.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Are The IMF and The ECB Lining Up Against The EU Commission Over Latvia?

There was a very interesting and revealing press conference given by IMF First Deputy Managing Director John Lipsky and European Central Bank governing council member Christian Noyer in Paris on Thursday. Christian Noyer said that, in his opinion, Baltic countries like Latvia would not be helped by joining the single currency (the euro) prematurely.

"It's in the interest of candidate countries not to enter too early because it risks making the economic situation unbearable," Noyer said.
Lipsky, for his part stressed the region could not depend on any particular foreign exchange regime to shield it from the effects of the financial market crisis:

"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".

Do I detect a shift in emphasis here? Certainly Latvia's currency regime is not credible (most external observers now consider devaluation inevitable), nor is it - in my opinion - coherent. And there has only been a deafening silence coming out from the IMF in recent days on the topic.

The EU finance ministers have decided to support maintenance of the peg, but that is hardly surprising, however, Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt told Reuters, again rather revealingly, that "We think that a clear signal of support from the EU would help them to achieve support from the IMF." That is, the IMF is wavering, and the EU is putting pressure. This, approach, however, suffers from the flaw that it is hardly either coherent or convincing.

Now the Latvian parliament approved budget cuts of 500 mn Lati for the 2009 budget on June 16, a vote which lead the EU to decide to release the next 1.2 billion euro tranche of the emergency loan to Latvia. So why is the IMF still assessing the situation? Some draw consolance in the idea that the IMF’s share of the program is smaller - only 1.7 billion euro in comparison to the 3.1 billion which is coming from the European Commission. But this is to neglect the strategic role the IMF is playing in the whole process. If the IMF isn't leading, then what is it doing. Evidently, the fissures which may be developing between the Commission on the IMF approaches only serve to draw more attention to the complexity of the whole current EU economic and political architecture.

Latvia is a sovereign country, also member of the European Union. Looked at from one point of view, what was the IMF doing there in the first place. But once they have taken leading responsibility, it is not wise for the Commission to try to claw this back from them. After all, the whole process is supposedly intended to raise investor confidence, something which is hard to do if there is not unity of purpose.

Meanwhile liquidity conditions continue to remain tight, and Rigibor interest rates shot up again at the end of last week, following the termination of the summer solstice holiday.

The last official news we have said simply that the IMF would decide on the Latvian loan after June 26. Well we are now after June 26, and we are still none the wiser.

Meanwhile Latvian's continue to save, and outstanding private debt fell in May to 14,140.2 million Lats from 14,252,4 million Lats in April. They year on year change is now down to only 1.6%, and will more than likely turn negative in June, which means that, with the government also trying to save hard, continuing contraction is completely guaranteed without exports.

And today we have two additional pieces of relevant news. Firstly, and most interestingly, former IMF chief economist Kenneth Rogoff - now a Harvard University professor - has said the IMF made a mistake, and should never have allowed Latvia to keep the peg. (That is, he agrees with what Krugman and I have been arguing all along). The IMF, however, is still maintaining an apparent vow of silence on the whole situation, or so it seems, and have yet to pronounce. Hello, EU Commission, how can you lose your heads, when all around you are keeping theirs?

Latvia should devalue the lats to avoid a worsening of its economic crisis, said Kenneth Rogoff, a Harvard University professor and former chief economist at the International Monetary Fund, in an interview with Direkt. The IMF made the wrong decision when it allowed Latvia to keep its currency peg, Rogoff said in Visby, Sweden today, according to the Swedish news agency. While a quick devaluation would be best for Latvia, Rogoff doesn’t believe it will happen for a long time because the IMF and Europe will provide the Baltic nation with loans, Direkt reported. In a normal situation, Latvia would already have devalued the lats and defaulted on its debt, Rogoff said, according to the news agency. World leaders have decided no countries should be allowed to fail and Latvia is benefiting from that, he said.
Secondly Central bank governor Ilmars Rimsevics has given an interview to Reuters TV. He will go down with his ship, like every good Captain should, but there will be no lifeboats for the rest of you.

Latvia will stick to its currency peg and not devalue, even if the country fails to win further loans from the European Union and International Monetary Fund, its central bank governor said on Monday. "People who are expressing that (a devaluation is possible) lack some education and knowledge and I am sorry. There is absolutely nothing to do with devaluation in Latvia," he told Reuters at the Bank for International Settlements (BIS) meeting. "If the cuts (in the budget) won't be made, there would not be financing available, but that in no way would influence or affect the currency peg," Rimsevics added.
The European Central Bank also today urged urged Latvia to rethink plans to siphon off half of its central bank's profits to help rebuild the country's battered finances. Latvia's government plans to up the amount of central bank profits it takes, to 50 percent from the current 15 percent.

In a legal opinion published on its Web site on Monday, the ECB warned the move risked hurting Latvian central bank independence and wiping out funds designed to be a financial safety net for country's troubled banks. "The use of central bank financial resources may be counterproductive from the credibility point of view if confidence in the financial stability and independence of the National Central Bank is undermined," the ECB said.

"It is important to shield the rules related to the distribution of profits from third-party interests and to ensure a legal framework that provides a stable and long-term basis for the central bank's functioning."

One of the most crucial questions going forward is will the process of relative price adjustment, while still keeping the peg, be able to balance the economy, or will it turn out to be intolerable, thus leading nevertheless to devaluation in the end. Although wage growth and inflation are slowing, one could ask whether the adjustment is fast enough to enable Latvia to keep the currency pegged. Uncertainty about the answer is likely to keep the devaluation fears as well as the uncertainty in the FX and money markets alive in the future.
Annika Lindblad: Nordea

Well quite, this is one of the things I have been arguing all along, and now those who in theory support the maintenance of the peg begin to "worry" that the rate of price and wage decline may not be fast enough to maintain the peg. Wouldn't it have been better to have thought a little more about this, before embarking on what is evidently such a risky endeavour.

At the end of the day what we could really say here is, that in a bid to defend credibility, all credibility has now been lost, and things will only get worse from here on in. Tragedy has already repeated its self as tragedy, and now its about to become one of the sickest of all sick comedies. I think it's time to put a stop to the agony.


Latvia's Central Statistical Bureau announced yesterday that retail sales rose slightly in May (as compared to April), by a seasonally adjusted 0.9%. Year-on-year, though retail sales were still well down, by a working day adjusted 26.4% over May 2008. So it is hard to talk about any kind of "green shoot" here.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Facebook Links

Quietly clicking my way through Bloomberg last Sunday afternoon, I came across this:

Facebook Members Register Names at 550 a Second

Facebook Inc., the world’s largest social-networking site, said members registered new user names at a rate of more than 550 a second after the company offered people the chance to claim a personalized Web address.

Facebook started accepted registrations at midnight New York time on a first-come, first-served basis. Within the first seven minutes, 345,000 people had claimed user names, said Larry Yu, a spokesman for Palo Alto, California-based Facebook. Within 15 minutes, 500,000 users had grabbed a name.

Mein Gott, I thought to myself, if 550 people a second are doing something, they can't all be wrong. So I immediately signed up. Actually, this isn't my first experience with social networking since I did try Orkut out some years back, but somehow I didn't quite get the point. Either I was missing something, or Orkut was. Now I think I've finally got it. Perhaps the technology has improved, or perhaps I have. As I said in one of my first postings:

Ok. This is just what I've always wanted really. A quick'n dirty personal blog. Here we go. Boy am I going to enjoy this.
Daniel Dresner once broke bloggers down into two groups, the "thinkers" and the "linkers". I probably would be immodest enough to suggest that most of my material falls into the first category (my postings are lo-o-o-ng, horribly long), but since I don't fit any mould, and Iam hard to typecast, I also have that hidden "linker" part, struggling within and desperate to come out. Which is why Facebook is just great.

In addition, on blogs like this I can probably only manage to post something worthwhile perhaps once or twice a month, and there is news everyday.

So, if you want some of that up to the minute "breaking" stuff, and are willing to submit yourself to a good dose of link spam, why not come on in and subscribe to my new state-of-the-art blog? You can either send me a friend request via FB, or mail me direct (you can find the mail on my Roubini Global page). Let's all go and take a long hard look at the future, you never know, it might just work.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Another Round in Latvia?

By Claus Vistesen: Copenhagen

I will forgive my readers if they think that my coverage of the recent debacle surrounding the potential for an imminent devaluation in Latvia has been a bit asymmetric. I mean, here I was; throwing fuel on the bonfire when it looked as if the cracks would make the edifice tumble and now as it seems that those cracks have been temporarily mended, I have gone silent. Well, not entirely then, and this post is thus to show that I actually do attempt to provide a balanced coverage.

Consequently, it seems as if the defences will hold in Latvia, but the apparent vote of confidence from the IMF and the EU commission and thus promises that the external loan financing will continue will not come for free. In order to make due on the loans the Latvian government is planning an unprecented range of spending cuts amounting to an astonishing 10% of the entire fiscal budget according to Bloomberg reporter Aaron Eglitis. These massive cuts include, among other things, a 10% pension reductions and a full fat 20% wage reductions for state employees. As prime minister Dombrovskis is quoted; these cuts should be more than enough to please the debtors in the form of the EU and, most notably, the IMF to whose mercy Latvia finds itself. One would surely hope for Dombrovskis that he is right.

And by all means, it does seem as if markets have been calmed so far [click on picture for better viewing].

As we can see overnight rates have fallen to much more comfortable levels the past few days and we have even had the news that the central bank were actually selling Lats in the open market in stead of its hitherto valiant efforts to maintain the peg, by sucking up domestic Lat liquidity pushing overnight rates up to a massive 100-200% according to a number of, I should say, unofficial reports. Medium term financing in the form of the 3 month and 6 month RIGIBOR remain elevated compared to last month, but so far the massive squeeze in short term financing seems to have abated. Overnight rates consequently fell from an officially reported high of 24.60% to 8% on the 15th of June and further down to a soothing 5% here on Tuesday.

Does it end here then? This seems to be the inevitable question we must ask ourselves.

I have my doubts. First of all, it is difficult to see the big difference here. The fundamentals still look anything but solid and the underlying weaknesses remain. As Edward noted recently in a thorough analysis of Latvia's long term economic potential, the crisis has long and deep roots which go beyond the question of default now or default later. More importantly however, Latvia has now effectively begun a great experiment to see whether it pays off to literally dismantle one's society with the aim to fulfill a distinctly narrow economic objective in the form of a fixed exchange rate. To add insult to injury, the peg itself is not the main goal. Eurozone membership is, and apart from the obvious question of whether such a membership would be a desirable outcome for Latvia at all, I have my serious doubt that we will ever get there.

But that is somwhat for the long term. In the short term, the horizon is still littered with uncertainty and I tend to agree with Danske Bank's Lars Christenses as he dryly notes:

“There really hasn’t been any fundamental change,” said Lars Christensen, head of emerging markets at Danske Bank A/S in Copenhagen. “The only thing that has changed is how long they can postpone a devaluation. The issues are still there, and what will happen when they need the next loan installment?”

This sounds about right to me and although it distinctly seems as if Latvian policy makers are determined to do whatever it takes, the costs will be immense and one has to wonder whether the fort will hold forever? I don't think it will.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

The Clock Is Ticking Away Under Latvia

As the European Commision and the IMF conduct their latest post-Keynesian "social and economic experiment" in Latvia to see whether it is possible to revive an economy which is contracting at an annual rate of 18% under the weight of debt deflation relying almost exclusively on a process of drastic fiscal cuts - a process which today is glorified with the name of "internal devaluation" but which in the 1930s was simply called what it is: wage and price deflation - a new problem looms its head. What, we might like to ask ourselves will be the long run consequence for Latvia's already fragile demographic dynamic if we don't get a most-optimistic-scenario-best-case outcome here? That is, if instead of a devaluation-driven "V" shaped recovery, we get not a "U" shaped one (the optimistic scenario), but rather "L" shaped stagnation (a distinct possibility on my view, if wages and prices simply take too long correcting to competitive rates) what will be the implications for the longer term future of the country?

The question I want ask here is simply whether or not short term decision taking on the part of the Latvian government (the crisis "exit strategy") may not produce knock-on effects on the short term decision process of potential Latvian parents leading them to postpone decisions on parenthood, such that the impact of the crisis is a further deterioration in long run population dynamics, and hence, ironically, in potential economic performance? What I am asking is whether or not there may be a kind of "vicious circularity", whereby one negative feedback process influences another in a way which produces a very unfortunate outcome. Not for nothing do we say that social systems are complex ones!

But before we go into the nitty gritty of all this, I would like to just take a quick look at two charts.

Structurally, they look quite similar don't they? They are both output charts, showing year-on-year changes in production. The second is a chart for industrial products, and the first is a chart for children. Strange they should look so similar, isn't it? Or is it? Below I will go into some recent work by economists and demographers which providing a theoretical background within which we may be better able to understand the sort of complex processes we can see operating in Latvia. At the end of the post we will then breifly take a brief look at some of the conclusions it might be possible to draw from what is happening.

Theoretical Background

Basically there are two key line of approach which may help get to grips with the present situation, one of these is the Low Fertility Trap hypothesis advanced by the Austrian demographer Wolfgang Lutz. The other is the cohort-size-driven relative-income-hypothesis advanced by US economist Richard Easterlin. You can find a nice summary of Wolfgang Lutz's low fertility trap hypothesis in this earlier post by Claus Vistesen. Essentially Lutz argues that the negative dynamic associated with long term below replacement fertility may produce self reinforcing processes such that the anticipated "rebound" in fertility levels simply does not take place. Needless to say there is considerable (negative) evidence in support of the idea that societies where fertility falls to "lowest-low" levels (defined as below 1.3) have considerable difficulty in reovering sustainable longer term fertility levels (circa 2.1) even if the reasons for such difficulty are still a matter for debate. Essentially there are three components to the Lutz hypothesis, and these can be seen in the diagram below:

As Lutz says the key idea is that once fertility falls below a certain level (and even in the event that the hypothesis proved to be well founded this level could only be determined empirically, on the basis of actual experience) a self-reinforcing demographic regime may be established from which it is hard to escape, in the sense of raising fertility back up towards replacement levels. The cut-off point which Lutz et al start from is 1.5 (and in this they take their lead from a proposal by Peter Macdonald in this paper ). This figure does seem to have some coherence in terms of actual experience to date, since with the exception of Denmark - which did briefly fall under 1.5 tfr in the 1990s - no country seems to have gone below this and come, and stayed, back up again.

Now Lutz identifies three potential self reinforcing processes - population momentum, ideational processes, and economic factors - but in this post I want to focus on one of these, the economic one. The explanatory mechanisms we are offered are full of self-reinforcing feedback processes, as can be seen from the diagram below (incidentally please click over the image for better viewing):

Based on work which Claus Vistesen and I have been doing applying Modgigliani's Life Cycle Model of consumption and savings in the context of rising population median ages I think it is now possible to flesh out just how some of these processes work (see, for example, this post, or my Taking Solow Seriously - Does Neoclassical Steady State Growth Really Exist? post, or Claus here on Japan's engine failure).

Essentially, the argument we are developing is that as median ages rise beyond a certain point - 42/43 let's say - the structural characteristics of an economy change. While younger economies - let's say with median ages in the 35 - 39 range - are driven by large scale borrowing (on aggregate), domestic consumption surges, and, of course imports and current account deficits to match the domestic savings weaknesses. More elderly societies exhibit higher relative savings levels (Japan, Germany and Sweden would be the classic cases), can no longer rely on domestic consumption to anything like the same extent, and increasingly come to depend on export growth and lending abroad to achieve economic growth. This situation is highly unstable, as we are witnessing now in the Swedish case, since as the consumer booms in the younger societies fail, exports slump and many of the loans go bad. This is not a very satisfactory state of affairs, but it is in fact what is happening. This is the demographic transition we are all part of.

Basically, I would argue it is possible to think about four economic mechanisms which "feed" the low fertilility "loop" in the longer run.

1) In order to compete for exports the elderly export-dependent economies have a permanent pressure on their tradeable sectors, whereby outsourcing is continuous and ongoing, wages are continuously compressed, and structural reform is permanent. Since the very export dependence is only further reinforced by the continuing process of change in the population pyramid (ie domestic demand never "recovers" as such) this is all self-reinforcing. That is to say, the more time passes the more there is downward pressure on the wages of young people, and this pressure evidently influences decision taking about parenthood among young people.

Indeed the negative re-inforcing mechanism on domestic consumption can be even stronger, as can be seen from this chart for German retail sales. These, it will be noted, have been falling since the start of 2007, despite the fact that 2007 was a "bumper" year for the German economy. This has nothing to do, please note, with any supposed impact of the global economic crisis, since it evidently pre-dates this. And what happened in January 2007 which set this decline in motion? Guess what, a three percent hike in VAT consumption tax. The hike was, ironically, introduced in order to help pay ageing society health costs. So just like the theory predicts, the consumption of young people is squeezed to help pay the cost of high elderly dependency ratios, and it is squeezed with important structural consequences for the economy. There has been a great deal of noise and hot air spoken of late about who did, and who did not, see this crisis coming, but I would direct your attention to this post by Claus Vistesen on A Fistful of Euros in February 2007 - a (then) 22 year old business school student in economics at the Copenhagen Business School giving Master Classes in economics.

So watch out Latvia, since you just hiked your VAT consumption tax!

2) Due to the comparatively lacklustre economic growth performance there is a constant shortfall in the tax income necessary to guarantee existing welfare and pension commitments. This shortfall is produced by the low levels of trend growth (think Italy, Germany and Japan) which you can generate exclusively on the basis of export growth. Since the changing pyramid structure (here is another part of the feedback loop) means that an increasing part of the voting population comes to be over 50, the tendency, as we are in fact seeing, is to attempt to maintain welfare commitments by increasing the tax burden, which affects the consumption and earning possibilities of the young directly.

3) Migration factors. As societies age, the general lack of economy growth, and the tendency towards increased retirement ages and higher participation rates at the older ages, all mean that there is a relative lack of well paying jobs at the entry level, a phenomenon which makes outward migration an increasingly attractive proposition for educated young people (again, as we are seeing in Germany and in Italy). This out-migration once more feeds back into the structural evolution of the population pyramid. If the out migration is in part compensated for by in-migration of lower skilled workers, then this tends to retard the process of moving towards higher value work, a feedback which one more time would seem to find reflection in lower wage levels on average in the younger age groups.

4) Impediments on pro-natal policies. The pressure on fiscal resources which result from the previous three factors mean that effectively it becomes increasingly difficult to generate the resources to finance really meaningful pro-natal policies which might attempt to "tease" fertility back up towards a higher level. As time goes by this problem only gets worse.

Easterlin and Macunovich

Lutz, for his part, bases his economic feedback mechanism on the cohort impact theory of Richard Easterlin and on the relative income hypothesis he uses as the transmission mechanism for this. According to Easterlin changing cohort size produces either a crowding-out (the baby boom) or a crowding-in (declining fertility) phenomenon. The hypothesis posits that, other things being constant, the economic and social fortunes of a cohort (those born in a given year) tend to vary inversely with the relative size of that cohort, which is itself approximated by the crude birth rate in the period surrounding the cohort's birth. The cohort mechanisms operate mainly through three large social institutions – the family, the school and the labour market. Diane Macunovich has a good summary of Easterlin's ideas and their application to fertility changes in Relative Cohort Size, Source of A Unifying Theory of the Global Fertility Transition (Macunovich, 2000, online here).

The operation of this general 'crowding mechanism' means that large birth cohorts face adverse economic and social conditions, higher unemployment, and lower than expected wages, outcomes which are significantly at odds with their material aspirations. As a result, they postpone family formation and have fewer children. This line of research now represents a long-standing tradition in the United States, where an ongoing body of work (Easterlin 1975, 1978, 1980, 1987, Macunovich 1998a, 1998b, 2000, 2002, Bloom, Freeman, and Korenman, 1987, Korenman and Neumark, 2000) has posited the idea that the relative size of young cohorts entering the labour market has far-reaching implications for wages, inflation, unemployment rates, etc, as well as for a variety of cohort impacting factors like living standards and family behaviour. The core idea behind the crowding thesis is also now being applied in studies of the 'greying' phenomenon in the United States as the large 'boom generation' steadily approaches retirement age. .

On the other hand, the crowding-in syndrome should mean that the reduced cohorts which follow the fertility decline should find employment opportunities easier to obtain, and salaries relatively higher. The result of this is rising income expectations and aspirations for a better life all round. Insofar as these are realised there is an associated "birth spurt" as young people's confidence in starting families (or adding to them) grows and grows. This is the phenomenon we saw at work in Latvia - complete with the very high rates of wage inflation - in the years of boom - even if the heightened aspirations was more the product of a "pinching" of young labour supply through out migration than it was of lower fertility at that point, that impact is still to come basically. Now, however, we see the other side of the coin, as the sharp contraction produced by the rapid deflating of the earlier boom throws everything into reverse gear.

The argument here is not that demographic movements produce the boom bust, but that such processes serve to amplify the distortions, and this is what we can quite clearly see happening in Latvia I feel.

So far Maconovich and Easterlin, but Lutz and his colleagues offer a further, and most suggestive) direction for analysis: low fertiliy (via the population momentum impact) accelerates the process of societal ageing, and boosts the importance of the elderly dependency ratio. This in turn cuts growing pressure on health, welfare and pension benefits, generates a general pessimism about the future and lowers expectations about future income growth. Thus the earlier rising income expectations which were previously associated with those "narrow" cohorts, now become more difficult to sustain as the fiscal burden weighs down on younger generations, and this has the consequence that they continually postpone starting families.

The general pessimism that ensues, coupled with ongoing pension reforms which effectively reduce guaranteed benefits at a time when life expectancy is increasing, only serves to produce an increase in saving for the future, which, of course immediately represents a drag on current consumption. The drag on consumption leads to a far more lethargic level of economic growth, and this only adds to the negative cycle since it effectively induces young people to delay further having children in order to attempt to maintain current income. This type of economic chain reaction, especially plausible in the light of what we have actually seen happening in Germany and Japan (the two countries who have advanced furthest in this particular demographic transition), does seem to be one of the possible mechanisms through which Lutz's trap - should it in fact exist - might operate.

In fact Macunovich takes the Easterlin theory even further, and tries to use it to develop a general theory of the whole demographic transition as a process operating almost in its entirety via cohort effects. At this level I find her argument not entirely convincing. The cohort dimension is however very evident in the US baby-boom phenomenon, and the subsequent fertility reaction, and indeed this has had the consequence that population ageing is being seen very much as a cohort phenomenon in the United States, but this US experience is perhaps hard to generalise. What is evident though, is that the cohort phenomenon, and the changes in economic dynamic that it produces, does generate very real and important short run effects, and this is just where Lutz's idea becomes important, since if the population process is not a homeostatic (self regulating) one (which it isn't at this point) but rather a path-dependent one, where long run outcomes are highly sensitive to short run changes, then the short run impacts we are seeing operating now in a country like Latvia (and Hungary, and Ukraine) become potentially very important indeed, since - via another of Lutz's pathways (the population momentum one) they can in fact make the difference between long run sustainablility and unsustainability for a country, and I do wish that the EU Commission and the IMF would open up their ears, and listen to this argument, at least just a little bit. The evidence is mounting, the only thing which is not clear is for how long people are effectively able to ignore it. Not until it is too late to react, I hope.

The Relative Income Low Fertility Trap Mechanism At Work In Latvia?

Well, as I said ealier both the argument and the evidence on how a restricted cohort might lead to strong rising income expectations are clear enough, and now there is little doubt that Latvia is facing a very sharp economic contraction. This is leading to falling living standards, deteriorating employment stability expectations, growing pessimism, and of course (as we will see below) falling births.

Indeed only this weekend the Latvian Cabinet met in emergency session, in order to reach to agreement a the package of measures to be put before parliament. These measures - I think it is hard this part really is the unkindest "cut" of all - are actually being demanded by the leaders of the European Union (via their representatives on the European Commission) in order to agree the release of the next tranche of the Latvian "bail out" loan, and among measures being discussed are a reduction of 10% in both state pensions and maternity and child care benefit. The former may be hard, but unavoidable the latter, as we will see, more or less amounts to voluntarily agreeing to slit your own thoat.

Monthly Births The New "Lagged" Indicator For Latvia?

Let's take a look at the problem. Births have long been falling in Latvia. In the mid 1980s they hit a peak, at a little over 40,000 annually. Then, in harmony with what most economists and demographers would expect, fertility dropped sharply, and hit a historic low in the mid 1990s (under the impact of the transition shock) - with a peak to trough fall of something over 50%. As we can then see in the chart below, fertility rebounded in the late 1990s under the impact of rising living standards, and due to the fact that more or less record numbers of people entered the childbearing age group.

Unsurprisingly then, the Latvian period fertility measure (the total fertility rate) started to tick upwards again from the record low of 1.12 hit in 1998.

But what has been happening to births since the crisis broke out? Well, fortunately the Latvian statistics office do publish monthly live birth stats, so this is one indicator we can track fairly easily. Here's the chart from the start of 2007, but there is so much volatility (seasonal variation?) that it is hard to see exactly what is going on.

However, if we apply an old economist's trick, and look at the year on year variation, the pattern gets a bit easier to see.

And then if we apply another seasoned economist's "quick and dirty" procedure to iron out a bit of the seasonal variation by smoothing with a three month moving average chart, the picture seems very clear indeed. As output drops, and living standards fall, so to does Latvian society's "production of children".

And of course, the negative population dynamic goes even further than this, since we have out-migration to think about. We have official monthly figures from the stats office, and even if these undoubtedly underestimate the size of the movement, the data quite possibly does give reasonable evidence of the trend, and what we can see in the chart below is not good news, since the rate of emigration is obviously rising.

Now these two factors, migration and births have a direct impact on a third indicator - population median age, and as we can see this is rising in Latvia, and very rapidly, with pronounced and important implications for both elderly dependence and economic performance. And of course, the median age assumptions for future fertility between now and 2020 where made on the more postivive outlook of improving fertility which prevailed before the crisis.

Now, from our more general studies of the economic impacts of ageing population, it is apparent to Claus Vistesen and I that the medain age of forty is something of a watershed for any population. The entire structural characteristics of an economy begin to change from this point in the ageing process, and the economy becomes increasingly export dependent as we can see in the case of high median age societies like Japan, Germany and Sweden.

But something is different in the Baltics, since male life expectancy is much lower than in the above mentioned countries, on average nearly 10 years lower, as can be seen from the comparison between Germany and Latvia to be seen in the chart below.

Now, from a strictly pragmatic point of view someone might be tempted to say, well "where's the problem there, less pensions to pay" (leaving aside the obvious humane issues), but this isn't the point, since the dependency ratios are set to rise sharply even assuming this mortality rate. The problem is that most of the remedies for offsetting the ageing population dependency issues assume the viability of raising labour force participation levels in the 55 to 65 age groups, and in the Latvian case many of the men involved - the ones whose infusion into the labour force is set to "dynamise" the economy - either simply aren't there, or are in very poor health.

So no, this is not simply one more plea for leaders of Latvia to get to work and devalue the currency. It is a plea to those leaders to stop and think a little about the implications of what they are doing. Surely no one can be happy to see their country flushed down the tubes in quite this way?

And for purposes of comparison, here is the chart for Hungary. Actually this one really is fascinating for those of you who know anything about what has been happening in Hungary. In June 2006 there was a major financial crisis in Hungary. And guess what? You can see this in the births nine months later. Then births recover again, and then, of course, they start to deteriorate. Now the crisis hit Hungary sharply in October 2008, so if this theory is at all right, we should see another sharp deterioration in Hungarian births around August/September 2009.


Bloom, D., R. Freeman and S. Korenman. 1987. “The Labor Market Consequences of Generational Crowding”, European Journal of Population, 1987, 131–176.

Easterlin RA (1975). “An Economic Framework for Fertility Analysis” Studies in Family Planning, 6(3):54-63.

Easterlin RA (1978). "What Will 1984 be Like? Socioeconomic Implications of Recent Twists in Age Structure," Demography, 15(4):397-432 (November).

Easterlin RA (1980). Birth and Fortune: The Impact of Numbers on Personal Welfare, Basic Books: New York.

Easterlin RA (1987). “Easterlin Hypothesis”, pp.1-4 in J Eatwell, M Milgate, P Newman (eds) The New Palgrave: A Dictionary of Economics 2, Stockton Press: New York.

Korenman S and Neumark D (1997). Cohort Crowding and Youth Labor Markets: a cross-national analysis”, NBER #6031,
Cambridge, MA.

Lutz, Wolfgang, Maria Rita Testa, Vegard Skirbekk, 2006. The "Low Fertility Trap" Hypothesis, Paper presented at the Population Association of America (PAA) 2006 Annual Meeting, March 30 - April 1, Los Angeles, California

Lutz, Wolfgang, Maria Rita Testa, Vegard Skirbekk, 2005. The "Low Fertility Trap" Hypothesis power point presentation at the Postponement of Childbearing in Europe conference held at the Vienna Institute of Demography, 1-3 December 2005, Vienna, Austria

Macunovich, D.J. 2002, Birth Quake: The Baby Boom and Its Aftershocks. Chicago: University of Chicago Press

Macunovich, D.J. 2000, Relative Cohort Size: Source of a Unifying Theory of Global Fertility Transition? Population and Development Review, Volume 26 Issue 2, June 2000

Macunovich, D.J. 1998a, Relative Cohort Size and Inequality in the U.S. American Economic Review (Papers and Proceedings) May 1998 88(2):259-264

Macunovich, D. J. (1998) “Fertility and the Easterlin hypothesis: An assessment of the literature.” Journal of Population Economics 11:53-111.

A Good/Bad Time To Stop Having Babies

Guest post by Doug Muir

This post originally appeared on A Fistful Of Euros In March.

Here follows a bit of demographic speculation. It’s guesswork right now, but we’ll know in a year or two if I’m right.

Interesting Fact #1: birthrates tend to drop during recessions, and the drop tends to correlate with both the severity of the recession and the speed of its onset. The current recession is looking to be a bad one, and it happened pretty quickly, so we can reasonably expect a sharp drop in birth rates. I say “expect” because it hasn’t happened yet — human biology being what it is, we won’t see the first effects until nine months after most people became aware of the recession. This summer, more or less.

– Makes sense, right? Babies are expensive; more to the point, babies limit your options. They make it harder to move to a different city, change careers, stop working for a while. When times are hard and uncertain, babies become a luxury. For individuals and families, a recession is a good time to put childbearing on hold.


Interesting Fact #2: all across Communist Eastern Europe, birth rates declined slowly through the 1970s and ’80s… and then crashed after 1990, dropping to very low levels and staying there through most of the decade. In some countries they bounced back a bit, in others not, but in almost all cases there’s a big “birth gap” from about 1991 until at least 1997, and often later. This is in contrast to, say, Germany or Italy or Greece, where birthrates declined more smoothly.

Put these two facts together, and there’s a problem.
See, a country’s total birthrate depends on two things. One is the fertility of its women — especially its women in peak childbearing years, 18-35. The other is the total number of women in those childbearing years. If your country has very few young women, then the country as a whole can’t have a high birth rate, even if every young woman is having lots of kids.

Still with me? Well, consider: Eastern Europe saw birthrates crash after 1990. That means that, all across the region, the number of fertile women is starting to decline sharply. In Russia and Ukraine, Bulgaria and Serbia and Hungary, there just aren’t many 18 year olds relative to the total population. And year by year, as the “empty” birth cohorts of the 1990s move into their peak child-bearing years, the number of fertile women will continue to decline.

Okay, this isn’t news. Demographic projections have taken it into account for years. But now there’s a new factor: the recession.

What’s likely to happen is that the countries of Eastern Europe will be hit with a double punch: few childbearing women, and those women having few children. Demographically, the recession is coming at the very worst possible time: roughly one generation after birthrates crashed across the region. This suggests that over the next couple of years, countries like Russia and Ukraine are going to see record low birthrates in both absolute and relative terms. This, in turn, suggests that starting next year, long-term demographic projections for those countries are going to start nosing downwards.

Now, there is one glimmer of hope here. Across most of Eastern Europe, women still tend to start having children sooner than their Western sisters. The average age of birthing mothers in Germany is 29.5; in Sweden, it’s over 30; in Bulgaria, it’s about 25. So there is some slack, demographically speaking. If the recession is short, young women can simply pick up where they would have, only a year or two later. The babies not born in 2010 might just be born in 2012 instead. In this respect, the East is better off than the West; countries where the average birthing mother is already over 30 don’t have this margin.

But if the hard times drag on… well, some of the demographic projections for Eastern Europe were pretty drastic already. By the 2030s, Romania’s population is supposed to shrink by about 10%, Bulgaria’s by over 15%, Ukraine’s by roughly 20%. The recession is likely to make those numbers even more alarming.

So: a good time for individual women and families to stop having babies. But for their countries, maybe not so much.

Lost In The Latvian Translation?

According to reports in the Baltic Course newspaper, Latvian Finance Minister Einars Repse (of the New Era party) is not against the strikes and rallies that are being organised in response to the proposed state budget cuts, he is, however, opposed to any violent protests and subsequent civil unrest.

Rallies and strikes are a good thing, but disturbances will not solve anything," Repse pointed out after a meeting with Latvian Free Trade Unions Association representatives today. As the finance minister explains, he realizes that "people are really concerned and desperate", however, damaging government buildings will not contribute to improving the situation in any way as repairing the buildings would have to be paid for with state budget money anyway.

I'm sure he can't have quite put it like this - if he did then a Finance Minister actually supporting strikes against his own measures would be a first, I think (what is happening in Latvia is surreal, but not this surreal, surely) - and that the question is a translation one, but still. It does illustrate the difficult position local politicians are being put in when it comes to defending the EU Commission and IMF inspired measures in the face of their own voters - as I already forecast it would be in my post The Long And Difficult Road To Wage Cuts As An Alternative To Devaluation back in January. More to the point is this, which is real enough:
Working pensioners' pensions will be slashed 70%, all other pensioners will see their pensions shrink by 10%. Also maternity and child care benefits will be cut by 10%.

Now, I know the aim is to bring prices down, but how can a country which is effectively dying for lack of children (post coming on this later) be actually cutting child allowances. Frankly I find this even harder to believe than the idea of a Finance Minister supporting strikes against his own policies. It is nevertheless true. Everything, I see, is possibile in Latvia, except, of course, devaluation.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

More "Green Shoots" - Latvian Exports, German and Japanese Capital Goods Output

Well yesterday there was plenty of fresh news for collectors of "green shoot" negatives. Starting in Latvia, where the Statistics Office announced that exports were down by 30.9% year on year in April (the fastest rate of decline to date), while imports dropped a massive 45.6%. It looks like the Latvian Parliament is set to pass another round of budget cuts today, in the hope that these will bring back growth (how is not clear). All I can say is "these poor people", I do wish those who were advising them had a better idea what they were doing.

In Luxembourg today, Latvian Finance Minister Einars Repse told reports: "We will be cutting no less than 10 percent of our GDP over three years but this will bring our imbalances down and pave a very solid basis for recovery,". He means, of course, expenditure equivalent to 10% of GDP - which means 3.3 percent a year. The mystery is, how such cuts will help restore growth. All West European economies are increasing spending, following the normal intuition of supporting an economy in time of weakness. And remember, Latvia has not gotten into this mess by excessive government spending. Back in 2007, before all this started, debt to GDP was around 10%. It's the money lost by the banking sector (with Parex in the forefront) which is causing all this. Oh, I know, I know, they are following the new orthodoxy:

In emerging market countries with debt overhangs, the “Keynesian” effect of fiscal adjustment is likely to be outweighed by “non-Keynesian” effects related to expectations and credibility. Non- Keynesian effects have to do with the offsetting response of private saving to policy-related changes in public saving. In particular, if fiscal adjustment credibly signals improved public sector solvency, a fiscal contraction could turn out to be expansionary, as private consumption rises based on the view that future tax hikes will be smaller than previously envisaged.
IMF - Hungary, Request for Stand-By Arrangement, November 4, 2008

But I still have no idea of the exact mechanics of quite how people imagine all this can work in the current environment, when the private sector is also totally loaded up with debt. Meanwhile exports go down and down, falling from 288 million Lats in March, to 274.2 million in April.

The only saving grace here was that the goods trade deficit was also down, and fell from 124.6 million Lat in March to 96.9 million Lat in April.

Basically I agree with the following from Morgan Stanley's Oliver Weeks:

We continue to think that devaluation in Latvia is eventually almost inevitable. The timing seems largely to depend now on the EU, but may not be quite as imminent as the market seems now to expect. We believe the IMF is likely to be reluctant to keep funding the peg, but the EU is paying for most of the support programme, and may choose to accelerate disbursement to delay this another few months while Estonia shores itself up, and perhaps agrees on a loan as protection.....

The government and central bank do not appear quite ready to capitulate yet, and technically fx policy is a decision for the central bank alone. We agree with the views of the advisor that helped to trigger the latest panic but would not make too much of his interview since such views are not uncommon and the government has many advisors.....

We think the government will eventually accept the EU s position has not been to Latvia s benefit, encouraging maintaining the peg but also not allowing EUR entry, hence effectively prolonging the pain. There are also signs that politicians are positioning themselves not to be too damaged by devaluation. Note Scandinavian banks are already positioned short local currencies they will be affected by the wave of defaults to follow but these were eventually likely anyway. We think devaluation is inevitable and obviously getting closer, but this is still not an open market where foreign consensus on devaluation is immediately irresistible.

Which is effectively to say that a move which now has many advantages for Latvia, and few evident disadvantages, is being postponed due to fear of the impact on other countries (and not just Estonia and Lithuania). Latvia is being sacrificed at this point to the "greater good", but the support she is receiving is in the form of loans (to be repaid), not gifts.

First Mover Advantage?

One additional and highly relevant argument to consider is raised by Variant Perception's Jonathan Tepper:

One final point worth making is that defaulting - for a country on the verge of it - is often, paradoxically, not always a bad idea. If you have two countries, both of whose finances are in a fractious state, and one decides to renege on its debt while the other struggles on and tries to meet its commitments, then the former country is generally able to return to financial health more quickly. They can start again and are able to get their economy back to a situation that nurtures growth, while the non-defaulting country struggles on with the damaging spending cuts and tax rises necessary to pay back their creditors. Markets have short memories, and often misprice the risk of the defaulting country once it starts to borrow again. Argentina, for one example, after its default in 2001/02, had to wait only 3 years for its cost of borrowing to return to a level commensurate with a typical emerging market economy (see chart below - click on image for better viewing).

German Capital Goods Output Falls

Let's start with the story so far. According to GDP data for the first three months of this year, German companies invested 16.2% less in machinery, equipment and vehicles in Q1 than they did in the last quarter of 2008.

But perhaps this fall in investment bottomed out after the first quarter? Well, apparently not, since according to the Economy Ministry in Berlin today, German industrial output declined again in April (over March) with the lead role being taken in the fall by investment goods. Manufacturing output was down 2.9 percent from March (when it rose 0.6 percent), and from a year earlier by 24.2 percent (when adjusted for working day changes).

Output of investment goods such as machines slumped 6.4 percent in April from the previous month, and by 29.6 percent year on year (following a 23.9 percent drop in March). Production of intermediate goods fell 1 percent and manufacturing output slipped 2.9 percent from March. Output of consumer goods rose 0.5 percent in April from the previous month. Energy production was up 5.8 percent and construction output rose 0.5 percent.

And despite the fact that many were putting a brave face on yesterday's April industrial orders data, orders for investment good were down month on month by 4.4 percent in April (following a 5.6 percent rise in March over February.

German industrial orders, a key indicator in Europe's biggest economy, were stable in April compared with the previous month, the economy ministry said on Monday. Orders had risen strongly in March, their first rise in six months, and the ministry said the latest reading, a change of exactly zero percent, showed a "noticeable improvement in the medium-term perspective" for German industries. The March figure was revised slightly higher moreover to a gain of 3.7 percent from a previous estimate of 3.3 percent. Analysts were divided on what the steady result meant, but most saw the glass as half-full as Germany struggles to pull out of its worst post-war slump.

Export orders for investment goods were down 5.1 percent following a 9.1 percent increase in March. Year on year, export orders for investment goods were down no less than 46 percent (down from only a 34.9 percent annual drop in March). Anyone who can see signs of a developing recovery here - the German Technology Ministry said they saw signs of a "noticeable improvement in the medium-term perspective" (see citation above) - might like to explain to me how, since I certainly can't see it.

Similar results were found in a survey by Frankfurt-based trade association VDMA. German plant and machinery orders dropped an annual 58 percent, the most since data collection started in 1950, after falling an annual 35 percent in March, according to the association. Export orders were down 60 percent while domestic demand dropped 52 percent. The VDMA is forecasting a decline in orders of between 10 percent and 20 percent for the year as a whole.

“Signs of a trough aren’t recognizable yet,” according to VDMA Chief Economist Ralph Wiechers.

Japan A Similar Picture

Japan’s economy - just to remind ourselves - shrank at a record rate in the first quarter as exports collapsed and businesses drastically cut back on investment spending (an almost identical picture to the German one). Gross domestic product fell by an annualized 15.2 percent in the three months ended March 31, following a revised fourth- quarter drop of 14.4 percent. The economy contracted 3.5 percent in the year ended March 31, the most since records began in 1955.

As in Germany, employment and consumer spending held up reasonably well - only dropped by 1.1 percent year on year. But business investment was down a record annual 10.4 percent, and a massive 35.5% over the last quarter. And companies are likely to keep cutting spending because the decline in external demand has left factories operating well below capacity level, and semi idle workforces can only be retained for so long.

While industrial output bounced back a bit in April, general machinery products continued to fall, and were down 14.5 percent month on month, a sign that managers remain wary of upgrading factories and equipment before they are convinced an economic recovery has taken hold. If you look at the chart below (click on image for better viewing) you will see that the year on year drops (indicated by black triangle) in machine output continued to be massive in April, with production of general machinery down almost 50 percent on the year.

And the future continues to look very bleak. Japanese companies plan to slash capital-investment spending by 16% in 2009 according to the business daily Nikkei, the steepest drop in the history of their survey. Companies suggested they expect to spend 22.7 trillion yen ($230 billion) on capital investments in fiscal year 2009, a 4.28 trillion yen decrease from a year ago, according to the survey which covered 1,475 firms.

Previously the steepest cut in spending was a 12% decline in 1993. This year's decline marks the second year in a row that capital-investment spending dropped.The Nikkei reported that with 15 of 17 manufacturing sectors planning capital-investment cuts, spending by manufacturers overall is expected to drop a record 24% to a total of 11.7 trillion yen.

According to the survey, electronics firms will spend 3 trillion yen, a 29% drop from a year ago, and automakers said they'd spend 2.3 trillion yen, a 33% decrease. Among manufacturers, only the food and pharmaceutical industries intend to increase spending.

And the conclusion of all this? Well it is clear that there will be no recovery lead by export dependent economies like Japan and Germany. But this is not the big problem. The big problem is who is actually going to lead the world forward with a new round of import growth? At the present time this is a question without an answer.

And talking of which, I can only agree with this sentiment from Brad Setser:

"Like everyone else, I am curious to see what China’s May trade data tells us. If China truly is going to lead the global recovery, China needs to import more – and not just import more commodities for its (growing) strategic stockpiles."

Brad, you will find if you follow the link over, has been busy digging for green shoots over in the Korean trade data, but he had a hard time finding them.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

A Week On the Wild Side (Latvian Edition)

By Claus Vistesen,

Peering out of the window on a rainy and cold Sunday (election) afternoon in Copenhagen it is difficult not to paraphrase, yet again, one the Economist's many classic cover stories but really; it sure has been one hell of ride this week in Latvia. One wonders whether politicians and economists in the central bank really want to see what happens come tomorrow as markets and the flow of news re-commence. The truth however is that they really do not have a choice. Consequently and what actually started a little more than a week ago has now steadily turned into the well known story of politicians and official authorities doing their best to maintain a crumbling edifice. Markets, analysts, and commentators, on the other hand, are beginning to smell a rat and this particular rat looks set to gnaw its way right to the core of the Latvian economic edifice in the form of the Latvian peg.

Surely, the pressure has only piled on since I last wrote about this only a few days ago. The Financial Times' blog Alphaville in this case personified by Izabella Kaminska has steadily been supplying us with the latest on the unravelling in Latvia. A particularly good piece hammers down the point that it is not only freelance bloggers such as yours truly who are questioning the Baltic (Latvian) currency peg but also, now, most professional analysts close to the situation. This is a called a market discourse and although the commitment to maintain status quo may be there one cannot make the waters go back.

However and to be fair to all parties it does seem as if the Latvian authorities got the best of the discourse this week if, that is, being the last one to shout constitutes an upper hand in this case. Consequently, both the central bank and the premier minister Valdis Dombrovkis issued strong statements to suggest that the peg will hold simply because Latvia is committed to seeing this correction through.

Latvian Prime Minister Valdis Dombrovkis pledged to push through budget cuts and ensure the inflow of international loan payments as speculation grows the Baltic state may devalue, threatening the economy of Sweden. “These rumors and speculations should finally be stopped” about the devaluation of the lats, Dombrovskis, 37, said in an interview with Latvian Independent Television today. The currency will not be devalued, he said, and the country will pass budget cuts needed to get the next tranche of money.

This is of course all well and good, but one has the distinct feeling that all this merely constitutes the inevitable last launches before the opponent finally lands the kidney blow to send you crushing into the canvas.

In terms of a more thorough look at the Latvian situation which goes beyond the immediate plethora of market jitter you could do a lot worse than visit Edward's latest post on this issue. As he sets out pointing towards, overnight interbank rates rose to a record of 20% this week and it suggest more than anything the stress being levied on the system.

Another particular issue Edward deals with is the risk of contagion and essentially fallout from a devaluation in Latvia. Certainly, this is an important question in itself but I also agree with Edward in the sense that the immediate plunge in other CEE currencies not to mention the Swedish Krona following a Latvian devaluation is not really the main issue here.

For the record, I see no decoupling and a Latvian devaluation would clearly force others to do the same, most notably I would think Lithuania and Estonia. As for the ripple effects towards the entire CEE edifice, they are likely to be substantial although not necessarily catastrophic. The real issue we need to understand I think is that that IMF program has problems and that this will become clearer and clearer as we move forward. Edward points to one very important data point in the form of a real effective exchange rate where numbers have just been published in 2008 format. This gives a very clear image of the amount of down scaling the Baltics, and indeed many of the Eastern European Economies, need. It is important to understand that there is a level effect and relative effect here in the sense that one thing is to correct relative to one's own past level, and quite another to correct relative to others.

Consequently, this is a chronic problem all across Eastern Europe and thus everybody has to correct. In this sense, the IMF are submitting those with pegged exchange rates to a dose of "medicine" which is simply too strong and which the domestic "system" cannot muster. So, my feeling is that all this goes beyond whatever effect currency speculation would have in the wake of a Latvian devaluation/default. There are clear signs that the "exit strategy" from this crisis is not working and it is next to scandalous that the IMF/EU do not realize that while these countries certainly need a strong dose of "stick" to get themselves on the right track we need to ensure that they are not obliterated over the course of the next year. I mean, this talk about Euro adoption in 2012 is just so silly and counterproductive since who the heck knows where we are in 2012. Who knows, for example, where the Eurozone itself is in 2012. Really, I cannot stress enough how these road maps of convergence need to be rethought since there has been a structural break. We need a new plan and one which factors in the change in environment.

Moreover, I think we have established by now that the Eurozone is no magic potion and in fact faces a series of very severe tests on Spain, Italy not to mention the mental crush it will be when Germany does not recover because I can tell you; in terms of domestic demand she won't. Basically as I see it, the option has always been to "let the CEE in", but that would also take a much stronger coordination on the fiscal side and essentially joint European financing through Euro bonds. At the moment, this is far to big a step for the gents in Frankfurt and Brussels to consider. So, no decoupling in an immediate devaluation context, but more importantly, I tend to look at this more structurally than a simple question of how much the e.g. Forint and Leu will fall in the context of a Latvian devaluation.

At the end of day, this is a question of swallowing those camels and accepting the idea that the current solution being applied is out of touch with reality. Essentially, I don't think the parties involved quite understand the structural damage many of the CEE, and Latvia in particular, have suffered. As per usual I am implicitly referring to the importance of factoring in demographics but then again; it is absolutely amazing that none of the presumed experts here has added this variable to the equation yet. As Edward says towards the end in his entry ...

That is, the simple fact of the matter is that there is no exit strategy. The programme simply doesn't work. It is "over determined", since whichever way you look at it, there is always one more problem than there is solution. Gentlemen. I think its time to give up. Honourably, but to give up. Come on out of the bunker, white flags and hands in the air will not be called for. There's a world out here waiting for you, it's on your side, and there will be a tomorrow.
I couldn't have put it much better myself, I really couldn't.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Latvia - Devalue Now or Devalue Later?

The Latvian economy is certaily stuck in a hard and not especially pleasent place at the moment, and really one chart tells it all, since as we see above the local interbank overnight interest rates have been storming upwards and through the roof over the last two weeks. As a result of this unfortunate state of affairs the country has attained a higher profile in the international news media than most Latvians would ever have dreamt possible, or even, probably, considered desirable. Ever since Claus Vistesen's last post, my inbox hasn't stopped filling up with reports, analyses, forecasts etc. (apart from Claus, FT Alphaville's Izabella Kaminska has had a steady stream of posts - here, here, here and here - while RGE analyst Mary Stokes is a regular follower of the issues - and see again here for some thoughts on the contagion question).

The first issue that hits you is, can such a small country really be that important? The answer is, yes it can, and for a variety of reasons, although among these one is paramount, the so called "contagion" risk. As Danske Bank put it in their latest Emerging Markets Europe analysis:

Increasing concerns regarding a possible devaluation in Latvia yesterday spilled over into other countries in CEE. Although the direct link between the Baltic markets and others such as Poland, Hungary and Romania is very limited it is only natural that concerns over the situation in Baltic States triggers renewed concerns regarding the position in Central and Eastern Europe where many countries to a greater or lesser extent face problems similar to those in the Baltics. Those most at risk from negative spill-over effects are Latvia’s neighbours Estonia and Lithuania although we would expect contagion to affect countries in the region most like Latvia in terms of macroeconomic imbalancessuch as Romania and Bulgaria.
Personally, I think it possible that the immediate contagion risk may be being a little overdone at the present time. Certainly there will be immediate implications from any eventual Latvian devaluation for Baltic neighbours (and co-peggers) Estonia and Lithuania, and well as for more distant Bulgaria. A Latvian decion to break loose will, effectively, be the end of the road for the pegs, even if the unwinding may not necessarily be immediate. And beyond the Baltics and Bulgaria pressure will inevitably mount on other countries facing longer term economic and financial difficulties like Hungary and Romania (which may leave you asking just who exactly there is left inside the EU but outside the Euro - Poland and the Czech Republic to be precise), but my personal feeling is that while we may see everyone placed under stress we are unlikely to see dramatic short term "negative events". If I were looking for these it would rather be towards Russia I would be looking, and to the future path of oil prices, since if things were to go the wrong way on that front then the shock waves from Russia could easily destabilise all the rest of Central and Eastern Europe at one foul swoop.

But then, my relative lack of alarm on the contagion front stems from my perception of the present crisis in the East as less one of short term liquidity and balance of payments pressures, and more one of a longer term sustainability issues, given the relative poverty of the region when compared with West European neighbours, and the rapid population ageing and decline issues it is facing.

Ideological Lock-in?

Latvia is certainly hemmed in on all fronts at the moment, what with the 18% year on year GDP contraction registered in the first quarter, the projected 9.2% of GDP fiscal deficit for 2009 (if more cuts are not made), the rise of overnight interbank interest rates into the high teens, soaring credit default swap rates - Latvia's five-year credit default swap rose to a high of 721.1 basis points on Thursday - and almost vanishing Lati liquidity inside the country.

But over and beyond the immediate concerns, and contagion risk Latvia is currently a test-bed for a number of issues with implications which extend well beyond the borders of this small Baltic country. In particular three questions stand out.

a) The rather counter intuitive idea - which I call the new orthodoxy in this post - that even during strong recessions a fiscal contraction could turn out to be expansionary, if it signals a long term determination towards fiscal rectitude. The IMF put the idea thus:
In emerging market countries with debt overhangs, the “Keynesian” effect of fiscal adjustment is likely to be outweighed by “non-Keynesian” effects related to expectations and credibility. Non- Keynesian effects have to do with the offsetting response of private saving to policy-related changes in public saving. In particular, if fiscal adjustment credibly signals improved public sector solvency, a fiscal contraction could turn out to be expansionary, as private consumption rises based on the view that future tax hikes will be smaller than previously envisaged.
IMF - Hungary, Request for Stand-By Arrangement, November 4, 2008
b) The idea of "internal devaluation" as a viable strategy for carrying out a substantial correction in relative wages and prices for a country with a currency peg and large balance sheet exposure to foreign exchange loans. Now it may well be that currency peggars are likely soon to become an extinct species, given the difficulties they tend to produce when such pegs unwind, but the Baltic countries may still be considered as test cases for others who don't (for whatever reason) have an independent currency and thus a serviceable monetary policy. Countries like Ireland and Spain, for example, who are facing a sharp correction, but being inside the eurozone currency area have no local currency of their own to devalue and are hence now destined to follow a similar path to the one being pioneered in the Baltics.

c) The idea that structural reforms can - in the context of a country with long term low fertility, declining working age populations and rising elderly dependency ratios - free up sufficient growth potential to offset the underlying population dynamic and, as the IMF put it in the above citation, credibly signal the possibility of future public sector solvency.

So Latvia is at the heart of a massive experiment, of the kind which lead me to lament on my about page that "Economists hitherto have tried hard enough and often enough to change the world, the real difficulty however is to understand it." Since the question I cannot help asking myself in the Latvian context is: to what extent do we really understand what we are doing here?

The thing is, all of the above mentioned theories - "internal devaluation", "stimulatory fiscal tightening" and structural reforms to offset declining working age population - sound splendid enough, but are the the theories themselves actually valid? How do we test them? And do the measures adopted on the basis of "believing" in them actually work? And are there sufficient grounds for accepting both the validity of the thoeries and the efficacy of measures based on them to ask for sacrifice on the scale that is currently being demanded from the Latvian people? And do we have any consensually agreed benchmarks which would enable us to decide whether the measures are working? Do we indeed - and by "we" here I mean the EU Commission and the IMF - have any inspectable performance indicators against which to measure progress?

Certainly, for every inch of success that is painfully clawed forward (the positive CA balance, for example), we seem to be constantly thrown back a yard by a host of additional problems (the growing fiscal deficit issue, etc), and not for the first time, we - the economists - find ourselves playing with fire, when we, of course, aren't the ones who risk getting burnt in the process!

Plethora Of Statements.

Both the European Commission and InternationalMonetary Fund (IMF) have been busying themselves over the last week making extensive statements on Latvia's 2009 budget amendment process - which is, after all - what lies at the heart of the issue. What has been notably absent however in all these public declarations, is any indication about when exactly the much needed money will arrive. And this is not a request for information simply at the convenience of Latvian lawmakers, it is the sort of information market participants badly need to receive in order to take the kind of decisions which would bring the situation more back under control for the Latvian authorities, and meantime the ambiguity continues.

European Economic andMonetary Affairs Commissioner Joaquín Almunia said in his prepared statement he believes the new budgetary proposals to be a step in the right direction. But how much of a step are they, since he also stressed that more was still needed to contain the rapid increase in the budget deficit. So again, just how much more is needed, and are Latvia's politicians capable of delivering? Or is the pain simply too much to stand?

"Sadly, the economic recession is proving more severe than expected inLatvia
bringing hardship for many and increasing the deficit to higherlevels than
expected. Latvia needs to reduce the deficit in asustainable way with
significant budgetary and structural measures,although I acknowledge that the
original fiscal targets in thegovernment's economic program are no longer within
reach. I alsounderstand there are limits on how much the deficit can be reduced
toallow some breathing space for the economy and for the people ofLatvia,
especially the sections of population most in need. I takenote that the
authorities want to control government debt and maintaintheir exchange rate peg.
The supplementary budget presented this weekis a first step. The Commission
wants to support government's efforts.I am looking forward to seeing additional
steps adopted during the second reading of the budget, as announced by the

On the other hand, Caroline Atkinson, the IMF's director of external relations, restricted herself to saying the fund agrees with the comments made by Joaquin Almunia to the effect that the supplementary budget presented by the government this week represents an initial move in the right direction. "The government's budget is a first step, and there is more work to be done," she said. Again, how much more work?

When directly asked the key question as to whether the IMF would support a depegging of the lat from the euro, she simply stated that the fund hasn't changed its stance. "We have commented before that the situation is challenging and that there is a need for action, and I think the authorities have stressed the importance of controlling the government debt and deficits and maintaining the peg," she said. That is to say, the Fund's position is that on this topic the government decides. On the other hand, with Latvia's financial and currency markets coming under increasingly evident stress, and Prime Minister Valdis Dombrovskis saying the country needs the second portion of the loan by early next week, the Fund remains meticulously silent on when exactly the next tranche will be paid, and on what it would take for them to release the money. Of course, negotiating in public is not the most desireable of things, but then having hoardes of market participants speculating on what you might be saying isn't exactly a comfortable situation either.

Marek Belka, head of the European Department at the International Monetary Fund, also limited himself on Friday to saying Latvia may need to make further spending cuts as well as increase taxes if it is to stabilize the economy.

The Latvian central bank, for its part, noting all the emphasis on "the government decides" side, and obviously not wanting to be forgotten, issued, for its part, a statement openly defending the currency peg, and warning of "dire losses" for Latvian citizens should the currency be devalued. The bank effectively ticked off public officials and advised them to be more careful what they say when speaking and the national currency and its stability in future. It also took the unusual step of underlining that the central bank was an independent institution, and is the only body empowered to take decisions about changing the currency rate. This was notable, as it could be seen as suggesting that someone else thought they had the ability to take such decisions, and it could also be read as a warning to anyone tempted to think they had such powers.

Meantime the recession goes on, and on.........

Industrial Output Stabilises

Latvian industrial output was in fact up in April over March - by 4.8% on a seasonally adjusted basis. Mining and quarrying were up by 1.8%, manufacturing by 5%, and electricity and gas by 4.6%. Some sectors were up sharply, clothing output, for example, rose 14.6%, pharmaceuticals by 11.6%, and chemicals by 9.7%. On the other hand electrical equipment was down on March by 19.5%, while other transport equipment (defined as ships and boats, railway locomotives and rolling stock) was down 13.2%. Such stabilisation was consistent with what we have been seeing in other countries, and at this point does not enable us to draw and longer term conclusions.

As a result of the improvement in April the year on year output drop fell to 16.9% (after adjustment for calendar effects). The fall was thus weaker than the 23.4% year on year drop in March and a 24.2% one in February.

The core of the problem is exports, since with domestic demand now sunk into a deep hole, and fiscal austerity the "ordre du jour", exports are the only hope for growth. I mean, this is evident from a simple formula:

Changes in GDP = Changes in private domestic demand + changes in government spending + changes in the net trade impact (exports minus imports)

Clearly Latvia's economy is not condemned simply to shrink forever, but it can come to rest at quite a low level, and for it to rebound something needs to drive growth. What I am arguing is, other things being equal, and relative prices being right, that a combination of new investment for greenfield sites directed to axports (which is a plus for private domestic demand) plus the exports themselves could provide the stimulus which starst to turn the motor over. Devaluation is half of the answer here, with the other half coming from having a responsible government, a serious reform programme which encourages confidence in the country and economic and political stability. End all the speculation which surrounds the continuation of the currency peg would be one way to move forward on the second half of the agenda.

The Latvia statistics office have yet to give us detailed data for Q1 GDP, but they initially reported that the 18% annual decline was broad-based, with manufacturing down 22%, retail trade down 25% and hotel and restaurant services output 34% lower (all from a year earlier). "The economic situation is of course very serious," Latvian Prime Minister Valdis Dombrovskis reportedly told a press conference in Stockholm recently, and who could disagree.

Latvian exports are also well down, falling 23% year on year in March, an improvement on the 29% drop in February, but still substantial. Going by the April industrial output numbers we could expect a further improvement in April too, nonetheless far, far more will be needed to start to turn this situation around.

In fact, Latvia still ran a goods trade deficit of just under 400 million Lati in the first three months of the year, down significantly from the 650 million Lati in the last three months of 2008, but still large, especially since GDP is shrinking fast.

Lavia's current account has however improved spectacularly, and was back in surplus (although only marginally) as of January this year according to central bank data. This transformation is entirely logical and anticipated (even if the speed of the correction was not), since Latvia is now about to become a net saver, with a current account surplus, and with an economy which is driven by exports, which at the end of the day is what the whole devaluation debate is all about.

In fact, the headline current account surplus number is a bit illusory, since it has been produced by a combination of two factors, neither of which are totally desireable in and of themselves. This is why we could say that the surplus is a forced one, and that Latvia is being forced to become a net saver. In the first place there is the improvement in the goods trade deficit, which as I say, is more produced by a the fall in imports (which follows the decline in domestic spending power and living standards) than it is by any improvement in exports (which have of course been falling):

And secondly we have movement in the income balance, from deficit to surplus, and this, ironically, is produced by the fact that the internal collapse in economic activity means that the income return on Latvian investments (equities, profitability of enterprises etc) has dropped much more than the return on investments made by Latvians outside the country (where things may also be bad, but not as bad as they are in Latvia). Thus ironically, Latvian's who have had the foresight to borrow funds from the Latvian branches of Swedish banks to invest in economic activities in Sweden may well be faring rather better than those very banks themselves who lent money to be used in Latvia.

Retail Sales

Apart from the drop in imports, perhaps the best short term indicator of the contraction which is taking place in internal demand is to be found in the retail sales numbers. These were actually up slightly in March compared to March - by 0.3%, on a constant price seasonally adjusted basis. The improvement was largely in the sale of food products, which increased by 2.7% on the month, while sales of non-food product fell by 1.1%.

Compared to April 2008 however sales were down by 29.6% (working day adjusted, constant price data), following a 27.3% fall in March. Since April last year seems to have been the peak month, we can expect the annual drops to reduce, although the actual level of sales may well keep falling (see chart below).

Apart from the credit crunch and the consequent difficulty in borrowing money, the other factor which is producing the slump in retail sales is the dramatic rise in unemployment, which according to Eurostat data has surged from a low of 6.1% in April 2008 to the present 17.4%. And it continues to rise.

The Eurostat numbers are rather different from the Latvian Labour Board ones, since the latter is based on a different methodology (and is thus not part of any "sinister conspiracy" to hide the facts - for a full discussion of the issues involved see my recent post on the same issue in Spain), but if you compare the charts, the undelying trend is evidently similar, a sharp upward climb.

Restoring Competitiveness

The principal conclusion we can draw from all this then is that it would be foolish to expect any recovery in economic activity to come from Latvian domestic demand, and this problem will only be added to by the impact of debt deflation on houseowners who, according to Global Property Guide, have just seen their properties fall at the fastest rate anywhere on the planet - it wasn't that long ago that Latvia and Estonia were leading everyone up - with prices down by 50% year on year in the first quarter, and the drop over the last quarter of 2008 being an incredible 30%.

So we need to look to exports. But this is where we hit a problem, since all the inflation which took place during the boom side of the boom-bust have made Latvian prices and industries totally uncompetitive when it comes to its main trading partners. If we look at the latest Real Effective Exchange Rate Data (curiously enough released by Eurostat last Friday), it should not surprise us to learn that the worst loss in competitiveness occured in 2008.

The above chart compares Finland and Latvia, and gives us an idea of just how much competitiveness the Latvian economy has lost since the index was set in 1999. In fact the graphs are even more interesting, since we can see that there was a period - between 2002 and 2005 - when, despite the fact that living standards were rising, productivity was rising faster, and Latvia actually improved its competitiveness vis-a-vis Finland. It is that earlier dynamic which now need to be recovered.

But as we can see from the sharp upward rise the the Latvian REER post 2006, the structural damage has been substantial, and this large scale of the correction needed makes the "internal devaluation" path - even if it were working, and even if markets were accepting it, which in neither case is true - particularly onerous. Prime Minister Dombrovskis himself estimated only last week that any devaluation would need to be of the order of 30% (and looking at the chart it is hard to disagree), and this is already much larger than the 15% "adjustment" in the trading band the IMF were considering during the original loan negotiations.

Ideally improvements in competitiveness can be achieved in two ways, through productivity enhancements which can be attained via structural reforms, and through changes in the wage and price level. Unfortunately the former needs time to work, and time is now absolutely something Latvia hasn't got, with the recession biting deeper by the day, and the markets hot on the heels of the government. So we need the wage and price correction. Well, people have supposedly been working on this for some six months or so now, so just how far have we got? Let's take a look.

Well, if we look at average gross wages and salaries, they fell 1st quarter of 2009 by 6.2% over the last quarter, but when compared with the first quarter of 2008 they are still up - by 3.5%. Of course, given the rise in unemployment the actual volume of wages and salaries paid is down even more - by 10.9% on the year, and by 17.2% over the last quarter. But this is a dop in living standards produced by the recession, and not a fall in unit labour costs.

In fact, according to data from the Latvian Statistics Office, the level of gross wages and salaries has so far only fallen back to the level of August 2008. This contrasts with a lot of anecdotal evidence I have been receiving in comments which speak of far larger reductions, but there you are, that is what the data says.

But restoring competiveness via internal devaluation is about reducing wages and prices in like measure, it is not simply about reducing wage costs, since slashing wages without reducing prices is only to cut living standards, and this in and of itself serves no evident purpose, and indeed causes untold hardship.So how are things going with prices?

Well, not much better. According to the statistics office, as compared to March, the average consumer price level in April was down by 0.4%. The average prices of goods decreased by 0.3%, but compared to April 2008, consumer prices still increased, and were up by 6.2%. In fact both the general and the core idexes (by core I mean ex energy, food, alchohol and tobacco) were still above the January level, so on the consumer prices front we have yet to take even the first step into attacking the loss of competitiveness reflected in the 2008 REER.

What about producer (or factory gate) prices then? Well, here the situation is a bit better, since as compared to March, April producer prices were down by 0.9%, while as compared to April producer prices fell by 2.6% (the first month of year on year drop). In the case of export prices, the situation was even better, since these were down by 9% year on year in April. In fact in both cases (domestic and export) prices have been falling since last July, which is hardly surprising since energy costs (which were a major component in the recent producer price spike) have fallen sharply. And remember, what interests us here is competitiveness, and energy prices have been falling everywhere. What Latvia needs is to improve its relative prices vis a vis its main reference markets.

Money Supply Problems

One indicator of the degree of stress which the Latvian economy is currently experiencing is the way in which bank lending (which fuelled the earlier boom) is now falling across the board. Year on year the numbers are still in positive territory, but the annual lending growth rate is steadily heading for zero - it decelerated to 4.3% in April (of which lending to non-financial corporations fell to a 9.2% growth rate while lending to households was down to 1.3% year on year). But month on month lending is contracting, and has been so doing since October. Loans to resident financial institutions, non-financial corporations and households contracted by 115.9 million lats or 0.8% in April alone.

Commercial credit and mortgage lending are both falling (by 3.4% and 0.8% respectively) and the negative momentum continues.

Money supply data show a similar tendency, even if in April M3 increased by 67.4 million lats and M2 by 63.6 million lats over March. Nevertheless the annual rate of decline in both measures of money supply continued to accelerate (to 8.2% and 8.1% respectively).

M1 - which consists of currency in circulation + checkable deposits (checking deposits, officially called demand deposits, and other deposits that work like checking deposits) + traveler's checks (ie assets that can be used to pay for a good or service or to repay debt) - has been falling now since December 2007.

Net foreign assets held by the Bank of Latvia fell by 218.7 million lats in April. According to the central bank the decrease in foreign reserves was a result of Bank of Latvia interventions (selling euro) and a reduction in foreign currency deposit held by the government as it drew down what remained of the last tranche of the international loan. Latvia has now spent about 503 million euros buying lats so far this year to support the currency. The bank had previously spent about 1 billion euros in 11 weeks last year defending the currency prior to the 7.5 billion-euro IMF-lead bailout.

Reserves had to some extent been boosted by currency swaps made available by the Swedish and Danish central banks. Indeed only in May Sweden’s central bank raised the amount of euros available for its Latvian counterpart to swap for lats to 500 million euros and extended the term of the agreement. The swap agreement dates back to last December, and allowed the Latvian central bank to borrow up to 500 million euros for lats. Under the original agreement the Riksbank was to provide 375 million euros and the Danish cb 125 million euros. However, according to the most recent statement from Swedish Finance Minister Anders Borg the Swedish government have now decided: so far and no further (see below).

Deteriorating Liquidity Conditions

As noted at the start of this post, Latvia is now suffering from a major Lat liquidity squeeze. And the shortage of lati on the internal market lifted has steadily been lifting interbank rates. One indication of the shortage was the inability of Latvia’s Treasury during the week to sell bills at a first auction at which 50 million lati (35 million euros) were offered. The Treasury did finally manage to sell a much smaller quantity (2.75 million lats - 4 million euros) . The problem is not one of price (yield) but of liquidity - there is simply a shortage of lati in the system overall as those who have the local currency sell and buy euros to protect against possible devaluation.

The lack of liquidity pushed Latvian interbank lending rates to their highest levels on record on Friday as the central bank removed lati from the market in an attempt to stem speculation. The six-month Rigibor rate rose to 16.00 percent. The three-month rate rose to 17.92 percent while the overnight rate rose to 19.6 percent. Obviously with levels like this devaluation becomes inevitable, but as Dombrovskis stresses: “This was a momentary situation and the moment when we have an agreement with the international lenders the market will calm down,” - for the time being at least. The critical question at this point is not whether a new agreement with the EU and the IMF is possible (it surely is), but rather whether it is worth the effort, since the government may well be in a situation were it is forced to agree to a series of extremely painful cuts only to find itself in the very same position three or six months from now.

Deficit Connundrum

As we can see, the Latvian people are being asked to make a bet in support of an economic idea, the idea (as presented above) that a fiscal contraction under present circumstances could turn out to be expansionary. Personally I am absolutely not convinced of the validity of this argument. What will convince lenders and investors to return to Latvia is:

a) a convincing commitment to structural reform and fiscal rigour in the longer term
b) a serious adjustment in relative wages and prices which converts Latvia once more into an attractive destination for export oriented investments.

At the present time we have the worst of both worlds here, since all the government's time, energy and attention is being focused on short term fiscal objectives, while the rate of price adjustment is far too slow. That is, the existing programme is NOT working, and I find myself wondering, do the IMF representatives have performance criteria, and if so what are they? And are these (assuming they exist) being in any way fulfilled, since the only visible positive outcome at this point is the recovery of a current account surplus, but if this is being achieved at the price of generating a massive fiscal deficit, then it is hard, really, to cry victory.

The general government consolidated budget showed a deficit of 190.8 million lats in April, with an accumulated deficit since the start of the year of 332.8 million lats). According to the central bank, the deterioration in the general government consolidated budget was largely the result is two processes: a) a revenue fall of 24.7%; and b) an increase in expenditure of 15.9%. Tax revenues were sharply down in all tax groups, with corporate income tax, VAT and personal income tax revenues dropping most (by 84.9%, 26.9% and 15.5% respectively).

The expenditure surge was primarily fuelled by payments of subsidies and grants which expanded by 70.3%. Rising expenditure for social benefits (by 26.2%) and the growth in interest expense (84.7%) were other significant contributors. General government gross debt increased by 143.2 million lats in April (to 3 119.0 million lats).

The consensus is that the current budget as agreed in a first reading before Latvia’s parliament last week implies a deficit of 9.2% of gross domestic product. It is anticipated that spending will be cut further via ammendments in the second reading scheduled for June 17 and that these should be sufficient to obtain additional disbursements from the European Commission and the International Monetary Fund. The question is not really (at this point) whether the Latvian parliament will pass the ammendments, but whether Latvia can hang out that long in the absence of stronger verbal and substantive support, and whether the measures if implemented will have the anticipated results.

On the latter point, as I have already indicated, I am extremely sceptical, and on the former, as we have seen statements from both the EU and the IMF have been much softer than might have been hoped for, while one leading ally (the Swedish banks and government) have now taken a much more ambiguous stance.

Swedish Finance Minister Anders Borg described the situation in Latvia as “markedly worrisome” in a statement on the Swedish government website at the end of last week. However, when it came to practical measures Borg was a lot less forthcoming, limiting himself to stating that Sweden would not offer Latvia any additional bilateral loan over and above the current contribution to the international bailout, adding the in his opinion the most important step forward was a show of determination by the government to rein in the budget gap. “They have to show that they have control over their public finances”. It is of the “utmost importance” that Latvia take “concrete and well-defined” additional measures to limit its public deficit to ensure that the IMF and the European Commission resume loan payment, he told reporters last week.

Swedbank, the largest bank in the Baltic states, has also stressed that they are fully prepared for a possible currency devaluation in Latvia. “We feel comfortable about our action preparedness regardless of which way the Latvian government chooses to go,” Chief Executive Officer Michael Wolf wrote in a statement published on the bank’s Website last week. As he also indicates, he gets the main point about the debt default problem:

“It’s not given that an external devaluation, over a longer period of time, will lead to larger credit losses for the banks,” Swedbank said. “But an external devaluation would give bigger credit losses during a shorter period of time as it directly hits the payment capacity for the many customers who have loans in euros.”
So What Happens Next?

Well , this is very hard to say, but certainly the omens - and especially Friday's Rigibor overnight reading - do not look good.

There is now evidently a growing consensus among observers that some sort of devaluation is well nigh inevitable, with the only real question being when. Certainly the trading community seem to be anticipating such a move, and forward contracts now price the lat some 53 percent below its current spot rate of 0.7073. Bloomberg quote fund manager Paul McNamara , from Augustus Asset Managers, as stating that “There seems to be a reasonable market consensus that Latvia will devalue", and I think this is a fair view.

Caroline Atkinson, director of external relations for the IMF, limited herself to describing the economic situation as “challenging", adding that there was clearly "a need for action.” She also pointed out the need for flexibility, which could refer to the IMF and the budget limit, or could refer to felixility on the part of the government, given the fact "the authorities have stressed the importance of controlling the government debt and deficits in maintaining the peg."

The problem is not that the IMF and the ECB would cease to support the Latvian government if they choose to continue down their chosen path, the question is really will they be able to continue down their chosen path, and indeed does it any longer make sense for them to do so?

No Exit Strategy

During this whole process one thing has become abundantly clear from the IMF statements, for the Latvian government's chosen path to be viable, there needs to be an exit strategy. Really it is very well worthwhile everyone reading the recent interview with IMF Survey Magazine (end of May) given by the IMF’s new mission chief for Latvia, Mark Griffiths, and Christoph Rosenberg, advisor in the IMF’s European Department and coordinator of the IMF’s work in the three Baltic Republics, since it makes a number of things very clear.

Particularly of note are Rosenberg's insistence (which has been a constant on his part throughout the process) that ownership of the adjustment program rests with the Latvian government:

"Let me first stress that this is the authorities’ program—they have very strong ownership of the policies that underpin it."

and secondly, having a viable exit strategy is central to success.

"The alternative strategy—abandoning the peg—would also be associated with large economic short-term costs. That is clearly one reason why there is such a strong preference in Latvia for maintaining the peg. Latvia also has a clear exit strategy in place: meeting the Maastricht criteria and adopting the euro by 2012."

But really, we now need to ask, is this exit strategy still viable? Certainly on the current path it may be possible (on the back of very considerable sacrifices on the part of the Latvian people) to bring the deficit down below the 3% limit in 2011 (although whether the EU Commission and the ECB would regard this as a sustainable process is another issue), but what about the 60% gross debt to GDP ratio? In their April forecast the EU commission pencilled in debt to GDP at 50.1% in 2010 (up from 9.0 in 2007 and 19.5 in 2008). That is debt to GDP is rising very fast (indeed some might say exploding). At the same time this 2010 estimate, which already makes being within the 60% limit in 2011 a reasonably close call (too close for my comfort anyway) is based on GDP contractions in 2009 and 2010 of 13.1% and 3.2% respectively, and we already know that the contraction in 2009 will be significantly greater than the EU forecast.

But it is worse than this, since not only is GDP contracting, prices are also falling (in fact, under the "internal devaluation" scenario this is what we want). But what this means is that nominal (or current price) GDP will fall faster than real GDP, with consequent negative consequences for the debt to GDP ratio (since as GDP falls, the money value of the debt remains constant). In fact the more successful the price correction the higher short term debt to GDP will rise. At the present time the EU forecast GDP deflators of only minus 2.2% in 2009 and minus 3.6% in 2010. But as we have seen above, for growth to return to the Latvian economy prices need to correct by far more than this, and hence debt to GDP will inevitably rise more than forecast - either because prices don't correct fast enough, and hence GDP contracts more (worst case) or that they correct rapidly (but with negative consequences for debt to GDP. This looks suspiciously like a Maastricht lose-lose to me.

That is, the simple fact of the matter is that there is no exit strategy. The programme simply doesn't work. It is "overdetermined", since whichever way you look at it, there is always one more problem than there is solution. Gentlemen. I think its time to give up. Honourably, but to give up. Come on out of the bunker, white flags and hands in the air will not be called for. There's a world out here waiting for you, it's on your side, and there will be a tomorrow.