The International Monetary Fund has put forward new, difficult conditions for Latvia to receive further loans, the prime minister said on Wednesday in a further sign the Fund is being tougher than the European Commission.
It isn't clear at this point what these conditions are. Rumour has it they may be an end to the flat income tax, or a hike in VAT. A hike in VAT would be more hari-kiri, since this would again hit consumption AND would boost inflation at a time when they are trying to deflate to carry through an internal currency correction. It also isn't clear whether this is a serious attempt to add new conditions (which I find unlikely, given how advanced the distemper is) or whether this is a way for the IMF to get themselves off the hook (ie leave the EU Commission to stew in its own juice) without having a public and potentially damaging break with the EU. The IMF need to find some sort of exit strategy I think (since Latvia evidently at this point doesn't have one), or it risks losing its own credibility if it puts a seal of approval (by granting the next tranche) on something which most external specialists now think could end up in a very messy grande finale. Argentina ghosts are stalking the corridors in Washington, not because of the similarities between the two countries (they are, at the end of the day pretty different), but because of the way giving a final "kiss of death" loan to a country can ultimately come back and haunt you.
The local Latvian news agency is saying that if Latvia and the IMF do not sign the new agreement by Friday, Latvia may not see the next chunk of the IMF loan and it could jeopardize the further funding from the EC. This could be brinksmanship, but even brinkmanship can go badly wrong if the other party can't concede. And who is the other party here? Latvia or the EU Commission, since they already said they are happy with progress. What a muddle!
Update Two - Thursday Afternoon
Bloomberg's Aaron Eglitis reports this afternoon that Friday may in fact not be any kind of deadline. He quotes Caroline Atkinson, head of external relations at the IMF, in Washington, to the effect that the head of the IMF mission in Riga is returning to Washington this weekend as scheduled, while the mission itself would “continue its work.” This suggests there will be no final decision this week. She also said there was “broad consensus among all the parties involved” about the goals for Latvia, declining to go into specifics.
Rumourology has it that the IMF wants the government to become more effective in revenue collection, with the fear that the current contraction may be so strong due to the fact that part of the economy is disappearing back into a "grey area" as a backdrop. Various proposals are being floated around, but perhaps it would be better to wait for some concrete information before speculating about this.
Latvian central bank Governor Ilmars Rimsevics has also been holding a press conference in Riga today, and he took the opportunity to suggest that the country’s budget deficit was likely to grow to between 9.5 percent and 10 percent this year. If this is the case, then this would obviously put Latvia outside the 60% gross debt to GDP criteria by 2010, which would make euro membership as an exit strategy non viable over the relevant horizon in my view. Just a long shot, but maybe that is what they are all arguing about. The EU clearly has to offer the four peggars more in the way of a carrot, although they themselves need to remember - looking over at Slovakia and Slovenia - that mere euro membership is no panacea to cure all ills.