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Tuesday, October 14, 2008

The CEE and the Baltics - Moving Towards the Center of the Storm?

by Claus Vistesen: Lausanne

As I peer out my window over towards the Alps and the northern entrance to Le Vallé du Rhône I can't help asking myself whether some of those experiments which are habitually conducted a mere 40 kilometers from my current habitat haven't gone terribly wrong? With every passing day getting I find it more and more difficult to avoid associating all those worthy attempts to uncover that illusive Hick's Particle with the all-encompassing black hole into which our financial markets seem to be getting sucked with a disturbing velocity, despite the numerous efforts by the global financial authorities to invent some sort of monetary equivalent to "anti-matter".

But while the current crisis is pretty much a generalised global one, if there is one region where the crisis is making its presence more acutely than elsewhere, that place is Eastern Europe, and among the ranks of the regional casualties high on the list come the three Baltics countries, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. That this is the case should not really strike us as so strange. On many occasions since the credit crisis went global back in the summer of 2007 many analysts (including yours truly) have been flagging the risk of a hard landing in Eastern Europe. This unfortunate situation has now by and large materialised and the only question which really arises is how hard is "hard" going to be? A couple of recent tentative signs suggest that the big eye of the credit crunch, not unlike Sauron with his glance toward Frodo et al., is fixing Eastern Europe fast in its gaze.

In terms of Russia, we have already witnessed the speed with which financial markets have turned the tide for the erstwhile high powered economy. Now that oil is dipping into negative on an annual basis, the screw may just get turned a little more.

In Ukraine, the market for the state's sovereign debt almost collapsed during the past week as credit default swaps (insurance against loses on debt) rose almost 40% to 1700 basis points as rumours mounted on an early election as well as the government made steps to take over one of the country's big banks. Furthermore and as could be expected the Hryvnia took another beating. A similar situation seems be unfolding in Hungary where prominent government and central officials were dipatched spent part of their Friday trying to avoid a rout on the Forint in the spot markets. Meanwhile, and as a natural bed-fellow to this the stock market, and especially financials, were pumelled. In many ways, the Hungarian predicament resembles more and more a tragedy in the making which is also why the IMF is moving in to calm things down as well as attempt to bring the boat back on course.

The situation in Ukraine and Hungary is important. It highlights the flipside of de-pegging from the Euro (and in the case of the Hryvnia, the USD) in the expectation that subsequent appreciation will help quell inflation. Such a strategy perhaps seemed clever at the time (personally, I always had my doubt), but now as the tide turns downside risk is substantial. From a macroeconomic point of view this is extremely significant. a major part of Eastern Europe's expansion has been supplied by foreign credit and more importantly with loans denominated in foreign currency (mostly Swiss and Euro loans in Hungary and Ukraine). It does not take much of an economist to see the potential abyss of downside risk in the form of translation exposure. As Edward puts it in a recent note;

Basically, the crossover we need to be thinking about in macroeconomic terms is the one between the Swiss Franc and the Hungarian Forint, given the exposure of Hungarian households to Swiss Franc denominated mortgages, and the impact on internal demand which is to be expected if the current dramatic decline continues.

To cap it all off, the significant increase in stress levels of Eastern Europe aslo appears to be sending tremors towards Austria where the banking sector is highly involved as intermediary for swiss denominated consumer and housing finance.

And in the Baltics?

While things are likely about to get very interesting in Eastern Europe the recent tumultous events in financial markets seem to have spared the Baltics from the worst repercussions. This only goes for the more theatrical "Iceland type" events however. If we look at the real economy it is evident that a sharp correction has now begun, something which was confirmed as the data from Q1 2008 rolled in. If we take a look at the most important data pieces, the Baltics have now almost entered a collective recession (even if Lihuania is performing above par).

Both in Estonia and Latvia output contracted for the second consecutive quarter in the second quarter while output in Lithuania stayed surprisingly strong. On the inflation front it finally seems that the pressure is abating somewhat even if of course this is a process that works with considerable rigidities relative to the decline in output. In this way, the Baltics still find themselves in a situation of stagflation.

One very interesting development in this regard however is the evolution of labour costs. If we look at the development up until Q1 2008 the y-o-y increase was one of 7-10% per quarter, but that changed strikingly in Q2. As such, in Estonia and Latvia quarterly labour costs fell to 2.9% and 2.4% respectively Lithuania entered wage deflation. It is still too early to gauge a trend here but it is obvious that for the Baltic economies to correct while simultaneously maintaining a fixed exchange rate regime the correction mechanism would fall entirely on the domestic sector's ability to become more competitive.

And this is now becoming more than a passing preoccupation.

In this way, and while the external deficits have been reduced (mainly due to a sharp drop in imports) the imbalances are still very much present, not least because a negative income balance remains to keep the balance in red. As I have argued before this can only go on until it can't, which is a cryptic way of saying that something at some point has got to give. Unfortunately for the Baltics, the watchdogs of global credit markets (the rating agencies) have begun to seriously turn their scent on to the contradictory fundamentals of these three economies.

Last week, the Baltics's sovereign ratings were consequently collectively downgraded by Fitch Ratings which followed an earlier decision by Moodys to lower the region to negative. The reason cited will not surprise regular observers of these economies (indeed readers of this blog's eastern europe installments). Head of sovereings in Europe Edward Parker from Fitch consequently noted that the worse than expected correction in financial markets coupled with the vulnerable macroeconomic enviroment as the main reasons for the downgrade. More specifically, the mixture of external deficits funded to a large extent by inflows of credit (e.g. some 30% for Lithuania) supplied by foreign banks lies at the root of the decision and incidentally, as it were, also at the root of the macroeconomic vulnerabilities of the Baltic economies.[1]

In this context it is interesting to initially peruse the graphs plotting cross currency exposure and overall leverage (Latvia data only for households).

The point conveyed by the graphs above is one of the main reasons for an increasing risk of a more than traditional adverse outcome from this crisis. It is thus important to understand that the Baltics are still dependent on inflows of foreign credit even as the economy slows and that this shows up, in part, through the substantially higher leverage in foreign currency relative to the total leverage ratio. Especially the extra graphs in the Lithuanian case is interesting in that it shows how the marginal increase in total leverage from 2003 and onwards almost exclusively can be attributed to an increase in leverage of foreign currency loans relative to foreign denominated demand deposits.

This is of course where things begin to get interesting because if we look at the companies supplying the credit to the Baltics, they are increasingly looking to get sucked down into the maelstroem that has fit financial markets. Most prominently is of course the Swedish bank Swedbank which perhaps has the biggest exposure to Baltic markets (through Hansabank). Analysts have persistently been voicing warnings on Swedbank's aggressive lending policy in the Baltics, but if we look at activity in Q2 Swedbank continued to expand credit to the Baltics. And this is not a mere problem of a Swedish bank potentially having to retreat from a growth market gone sour. No, this has the potential to become a full blown macro catastrophe in which the Swedish Riksbank will be faced with the rather odd dilemma of having to bail out a domestic bank, in part, in order to allow the relatively benigh unwinding of macroeconomic imbalances in the Baltics.

It is extremely important in this regard to be aware of the narrative that Swedbank and the rest of the short term credit providers effectively are the only ones keeping the boat afloat. The logic, as brilliantly detailed by John Hempton here, goes as follows. The credit needed on a flow basis to sustain the Baltics' external deficit is being supplied by foreign banks and mostly through loans denominated in Euros (this last thing being very important). Consequently, this presents Swedbank et al. with a rather delicate problem. For the Baltic currencies (or one of them) not to devalue they need funding and more importantly, they need funding on their way down into whatever abyss that may now have opened. Now, as my colleague Edward pointed out in another context it is not the most pleasant of dilemmas to be confronted with the choice of having your throat slit with the stanley knife or the chainsaw. However, this may the situation which now confronts Swedbank, the Baltics, as well as potentially the Swedish Riksbank in the current situation which increasingly resembles some of Kafka's best creations. Hempton makes it very clear when he says;

If the Lati doesn't devalue its only because people (i.e. Swedbank) are prepared to continue to fund it. This is not pretty at all. All in Hansa owes Swedbank over 30 billion Swedish Kroner – all denominated in Euro and which can't be paid. The equity capital of Hansa (roughly 7 billion Swedish Kroner) is also going to default.

The juicy point here is of course the presence of massive translation risk which would arise as the liabilities (denominated in Euros) multiplied in value relative to the asset side.[2] More importantly, this would not only potentially crash Swedbank but also potentially the Baltic economies, and this is something we should attempt to avoid.

However, it is not easy to see where to go from here. One fascinating correlation between micro and macro data is epitomized in the graphs below which shows the evolution in the total stock of loans broken up on currency denomination.

First of all, it is very interesting to peruse the graphs shown above in connection with the graphs plotting cross currency and overall leverage (Latvia data only for households). In my opinion these graphs, taken together, resemble the epitomy of the kind of risk the Baltics face. As such, it is not only a case of devleveraging which, given the multiples, would be bad enough; it is also about the crisis that would emerge if the pegs were abandoned to restore competitivness. However, whether to keep the pegs or not may not be entirely up the Baltic economies themselves. Rather we can easily imagine a situation in which the decision of whether to keep the pegs would reside within the halls of a Swedish bank and perhaps even ultimately the Swedish Riksbank.

How does this compute then?

One way to approach the answer is to look at the total evolution of loan stocks (accounted on a flow basis. One striking feature is that the growth of loans denominated in Euros continue to markedly outpace loans denominated in local currency. This is a well known story in the Baltics and one which I have discussed several times [3], but the key point here is that as the economic edifice now visibly crumbles credit flows continue to enter the Baltic economies. Given the rapid deteriration of the real economy this seems rather contradictorary. However, it is is not, and it essentially means two things.

First of all, it means that whoever is doing the credit service increasingly is throwing good (and presumably scare) money after bad money. From a standard profit maximizing point of view this would seem and odd behavior unless of course there is more to the story than meets the eye. This brings us to the second point and was detailed above in the context of Swedbank et al. and their exposure in foreign currency (with receivables in domestic currency). Ultimately, the situation in the Baltics surrounding the pegs is beginning to resemble more and more like the attempt to cling on to something which is becoming more and more unsustainable by the day. Obviously, the foreign banks could stick it out, but the question is whether they can afford it.

In fact, I believe the only scenario which we, with certainty, can say will not continue is the current one in which lending is expanded on a linerging basis. As such, we need de-leveraging and we are going to get it one way or the other. The only question is whether it will be through Swedbank et al. closing the tap or through a move by Baltic authorities to loosen the peg (in which case Swedbank would be in grave trouble). The alternative would of course be a significant bout of internal deflation which we, with the incoming wage cost data, may already be seeing. The problem with this process though is that it takes time at the same time as it is politically unacceptable. I would seriously question in this regard the usefulness of continuing to look toward the future for potential Euro membership. At some point it should dawn on market participants and politicians alike that this is very unlikely to materialize.

Finally, we may ask the question of whether it is enough? I don't think so and while it still may end up being part of the correction I think that the extent to which these economies need to shore up their competiveness will also include a tweak of the currency peg [4].

Where do We Go From Here?

At the current juncture in financial market the answer to such a question is bound to riddled with uncertainty. In Lithuania, the people just elected a new parliament and while people may be more worried about the immediate need to secure stable gas deliveries from Russia and winter approaches, it is difficult to see how the attention on the crisis can anything but increase as we move forward. In this respect, and as an aside, Lithuania does seem to somewhat different from its northern bretheren in that the leverage ratios and debt multiples are not as high as in neither Estonia nor Latvia. Obviously, this may ultimately come down to comparing one ugly duckling with a slightly less ugly duckling.

As regards Latvia, Alf Vanags and Morten Hansen recently published a detailed analysis on the future path of the Latvian economy faced with the incoming financial crisis and potential global recession. Their conclusion is rather dire with respect to the potential loss of output between and now and 2010. As the authors make painfully clear, this fact obviously brings into the question the whole idea of convergence towards the illusive EU15 living standards not to speak of the convergence towards their own steady state which we really don't anything about at this point.

I would tend to apply the same analysis to Estonia even if Estonia seems to benefit from a stronger external environment and in particular with the economy's strong affiliation with the Finnish economy.

Ultimately however the immediate challenge for the Baltics at this point in time is damage control and more specifically how to wrigle themselves out of the current vice of dependence on credit inflows at the same time as the economy needs to restore competiveness. So far, the show goes on with Swedbank in particular continuing to supply the credit. However, if the recession rolls in, in a manner predicted by most analysts the ensuing squeeze of consumers may make it difficult for Swedbank not to sustain massive losses, not to mention what would happen with the peg and households and companies' liabilities.

The end point of all this clearly appears to envision a fiscal response; at least as a part of the solution. What is critical for the Baltics at this point is consequently that the currenct economic downturn is managed in such a way to minimize the risk of a collapse of the financial system as foreign banks shut down operations. Whether this entails the maintaining of the Euro peg is a difficult question to answer. One thing is pretty certain however and this is that the kind of wage and price deflation needed to correct the imbalance would be a disaster for any political leadership.

Of the three economies Latvia clearly seems to be the most vulnerable to a rout, and given the proximity of the economies sudden unexpected events in one country could easily spread to the others. Here is to hoping that it does not come to that.


[1] - Sometimes things actually fit together.

[2] - Here the asset side would be both deposits as well as future cash flows which would be in domestic currency (for households). For Swedbank itself, main point Hempton highlights is simply the fact that Hansabank would become an immensely heavy ball and chain since the whole thing would have to be written down with the devaluation itself.

[3] - See for example Christoph Rosenberg's brilliant piece on drivers of FX loans in Eastern Europe. As per reference to my own analysis (limited to Lithuania though) Rosenberg finds that lower interest rates on Euro loans as well as the fact that these economies effectively has outsourced the developmentment of their financial system to foreign banks are strong explanatory factors.

[4] - One thing which could provide relief here would be a slump of the Euro which would allow the CEE economies to restore competitiveness at the same time as maintaining the peg to the Euro. However, I think this is rather unlikely because it would imply a level of the Euro which would be in accordance with either the US' need to correct nor the ECB's inflation focus.

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