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Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Travelling Through Latvia In Good Company

Well, it seems I'm not the only one who thinks that the IMF have made a bad decision here, this year's economics Nobel Prize winner Paul Krugman seems to agree. From his New York Times blog:

I’ve been saying this for a couple of weeks, but Edward Hugh has the goods.

Hugh puts his finger, in particular, on one gaping hole in the logic of the opponents of devaluation. We can’t devalue, they say, because the Latvian private sector has a lot of debts in euros, and a devaluation would make it very hard for borrowers to service those debts. As Hugh points out, the proposed alternative — sharp wage cuts, and basically a major domestic deflation — will also make it hard to service those debts. In fact, I’d be a bit more specific than Hugh: other things equal, a nominal devaluation and a real depreciation achieved through deflation should have exactly the same effect on debt service (unless some of the debt is in lats rather than euros, in which case devaluation would do less damage.)

This looks like events repeating themselves, the first time as tragedy, the second time as another tragedy.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Why The IMF's Decision To Agree A Lavian Bailout Programme Without Devaluation Is A Mistake

The IMF finally announced it's Latvia "bailout" plan on Friday. The plan involves lending about €1.7 billion ($2.4 billion) to Latvia to stabilise the currency and financial support while the government implements its economic adjustment plan. The loan, which will be in the form of a 27-month stand-by arrangement, is still subject to final approval by the IMF's Executive Board but is likely to be discussed before the end of this year under the Fund's fast-track emergency financing procedures, and it is not anticipated that there will be any last minute hitches (although I do imagine some eyebrow raising over the decision to support the continuation of the Lat peg). The Latvian government admits that some of the IMF economists involved in the negotiations advocated a devaluation of the lat as a way of ammeliorating the intense economic pain involved in the now inevitable economic adjustment. But the government in Riga stuck to its guns (supported by the Nordic banks who evidently had a lot to lose in the event of devaluation), arguing that the peg was a major credibility issue, and the cornerstone of their plan to adopt the euro in 2012.

"It (the programme) is centered on the authorities' objective of maintaining the current exchange rate peg, recognizing that this calls for extraordinarily strong domestic policies, with the support of a broad political and social consensus," said IMF Managing Director Dominique Strauss-Kahn.
In return for the loan the IMF have agreed a "strong package of policy measures" with the Latvian government and these will involve sharp cuts in public sector salaries, and a tight control on Latvian fiscal policy. The IMF have insisted on a substantial tightening of fiscal policy: the government is aiming for a headline fiscal deficit of less that 5 percent of GDP in 2009 (compared with a anticipated deficit of 12 percent of GDP in the absence of new measures) - to be reduced to 3% in 2010 (thus the Latvian economy will face not only tight effective monetary policy in 2010 - via the peg - but also a less accommodating fiscal environment, frankly it is hard to see where the stimulus to economic activity is going to come from here) . Structural reforms and wage reductions will also be implemented, led by the public sector, and VAT will be increased, all with the longer term objective of further strengthening Latvian competitiveness and facilitating the external adjustment. The problem is really how the Latvian population are going to eke it out in the shorter term.

"These strong policies justify the exceptional level of access to Fund resources—equivalent to around 1,200 percent of Latvia's quota in the IMF—and deserve the support of the international community," Strauss-Kahn said.
The loan from the IMF will be supplemented by financing from the European Union, the World Bank and several Nordic countries. The EU will provide a loan of €3.1 billion ($4.3 billion), the World Bank €400 million ($557.6 million), and several bilateral creditors [including Denmark, Estonia, Norway, and Sweden] will contribute as well, for a total package of €7.5 billion ($10.5 billion).

The stabilization program forecasts that the economy will contract 5 percent next year, the Finance Ministry said in a statement yesterday. Revenue is expected to fall by 912 million lati ($1.7 billion) next year and spending will be reduced by 420 million lati.

Strangely the IMF statement was not very explicit the key topic - the currency peg - in the sense that it was a little short on argumentation as to why it considered - despite its well known waryness about such approaches, and having got its fingers very badly burnt in Argentian in 2000 - that it would be best to continue this arrangement in the Latvian case, despite the Fund's strong emphasis on the need to current the large external balances which exist (see Current Account deficit in the chart below).

All we really know about the background to this decision is contained in the statement the IMF posted on its website on December 7:

Mr. Christoph Rosenberg, International Monetary Fund (IMF) Mission Chief, issued the following statement today in Riga :

"Following the IMF's statement on Latvia on November 21, 2008, good progress has been made towards a possible Fund-supported program for the country.In cooperation with the European Commission, some individual European governments, and regional and other multilateral institutions, we are working with the authorities on the design of a program that maintains Latvia's current exchange rate parity and band. This will require agreement on exceptionally strong domestic adjustment policies and sizeable external financing, as well as broad political consensus in Latvia In this context we welcome the commitment made today by the Latvian authorities. All participants are working to bring these program discussions to a rapid conclusion."

So there seems to have been a trade-off here, between the IMF agreeing (reluctantly I think, but this is pure conjecture since there is little real evidence either way) to accept the peg, and the Latvian government agreeing to exceptionally strong adjustment policies. But the question is: was this agreement a good one, and will the bailout work as planned? I think not, and below I will present my argumentation. But before I do, I think it important to point out that the kind of internal deflation process the Latvian government has just accepted is normally very difficult to implement, which is why economists tend to favour the devaluation approach.

Just how large the competitiveness issue is in Latvia's case can be guaged by looking at one common measure of competitiveness, what is known as the country's real effective exchange rate. The REER (or Relative price and cost indicators) aim to assess a country's price or cost competitiveness relative to its principal competitors in international markets. Changes in cost and price competitiveness depend not only on exchange rate movements but also on cost and price trends. The specific REER prepared by Eurostat for its Sustainable Development Indicators is deflated by nominal unit labour costs (total economy) against a panel of 36 countries (= EU27 + 9 other industrial countries: Australia, Canada, United States, Japan, Norway, New Zealand, Mexico, Switzerland, and Turkey). Double export weights are used to calculate the REERs, reflecting not only competition in the home markets of the various competitors, but also competition in export markets elsewhere. A rise in the index means a loss of competitiveness, and as we can see, Latvia has suffered a huge loss of competitiveness since 2005. There is a lot of "correcting" to do here.

The problems of loss of external competitiveness Latvia faces are not new, nor are they unique. Russia may be a lot larger than Latvia, and Russia may also have oil, but Russia's internal industrial core has become uncompetitive, and there is really only one sensible way of attacking this problem, and that is through devaluation, as Standard & Poor's Director of European Sovereign Ratings argues in the extract I cite below. One of the unfortunate side effects of the fact that currency policy has become almost a matter of national strategic importance in Latvia has been that the necessary open-minded discussion of the pros and cons of the situation has not been possible.
Accompanied by generous government spending, the credit boom also fueled inflation, which weighed on the competitiveness of Russia's noncommodity sector. As wage growth averaged nearly 30 percent over the last two years and the ruble-denominated cost of production rose, domestic manufacturers found it very difficult to compete with cheap high-quality imports. As a consequence, entrepreneurs logically avoided manufacturing and, instead, invested in much more profitable and more import-intensive sectors, such as banking, retail and construction.

The resulting structural imbalances were well camouflaged by the extraordinary growth in energy and other commodity prices. For six straight years, the earnings from Russian oil and commodity exports on world markets have increased much faster than the cost of imports, offsetting the less flattering volume effects. From 2003 through this year, the cumulative difference between export and import price inflation in Russia was a fairly remarkable 74 percent. This put upward pressure on the ruble, encouraging borrowers to take loans in dollars or euros at negative real interest rates, under the assumption that the ruble would appreciate indefinitely. But it also provided an important source of financing.
Frank Gill, director of European sovereign ratings at Standard & Poor's in London, writing in the Moscow Times

So the Latvian competitiveness problem has become evident to everyone, and perhaps the best indication of the severity of the problem is the way that people almost laugh at the suggestion that Latvia must now live from exports (exports, what exports?, they say). However it is clear, and especially given the force of the agreed internal adjustment, that domestic demand is now dead as far forward as the eye can see as an effective driver of GDP growth, and, as can be seen in the chart below, exports are going to have a hard time of it, even after growth in other European countries picks up in 2010 (or whenever).

The competitiveness problem can be seen quite clearly in the above chart, as Latvian wage rises became detached from productivity improvements in the second half of 2005 and the rate of increase in exports shrank rapidly, while imports began to enter at a much faster rate. This process eventually itself in the first half of 2007, with import growth at first increasing rapidly, only to subsequently decline, giving in the process some positive increment to GDP from the net trade effect - as exports once more began to accelerate (creative destruction impact) even while imports fell through the floor. However as the external trade environment has darkened, even this expansion in exports has petered out, and inflation adjusted exports are currently hardly growing, and may even turn negative in the coming quarters. 2009 promises in any event to be a very hard year, but without a truly massive correction in relative prices there will be no recovery in 2010 either, and probably not in 2011. Remember, wages are now about to start falling, unemployment is about to start rising, and government expenditure is about to get pruned, so the only possible area for growth is external trade, and any inbound FDI that can be attracted to build productive capacity for exports. On top of which the correction in the current account deficit means that Latvians collectively - government, companies and households - are going to have to start saving, and a rise in net aggregate savings is basically tantamount to a brake on internal demand. So whichever way you look at it, exports are now the name of the game.

Why Keep The Peg?

Given all the problems that having the peg are likely to create, what then are the arguments for maintaining it? Well frankly, such arguments are hard to find at this point, in the sense that there are relatively few people, at least in the English language, who are willing to stick their neck out and try to justify what, in my humble opinion, is virtually the unjustifiable, and the implicit consensus among thinking economists would seem to be that this is a bad idea. The decision does, however, have its advocates, and Anders Aslund of the Peterson Institute has been bold enough to have a try, so, in the interests of balance and try and get some purchase on what the arguments might be, I am reproducing his argument in its entirety.
Why Latvia Should Not Devalue
by Anders Aslund December 9th, 2008

Latvia has a severe financial crisis, the preconditions for which have long been evident. A fixed exchange rate to the euro led to an excessive speculative influx of capital, boosting Latvia’s private foreign debt to 100 percent of GDP. Inflation soared to 16 percent, and the current account this year to 15 percent of GDP. Latvia’s budget has traditionally been almost in balance.

For most countries, devaluation would appear inevitable, and some argue that Latvia has to devalue its currency, the lat. But Latvia’s circumstances are peculiar, making the standard cure not only inappropriate but harmful. A severe wage and social expenditure freeze would be a better prescription, along the lines of a preliminary agreement on macroeconomic stabilization reached on December 8 among the Latvian government, the European Commission, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and the Swedish government.

Now the questions are how much financing Latvia needs, who will give it, and on what conditions? The key outstanding issue has been whether Latvia should devalue or not. But given that Latvia—and Estonia—are experiencing high inflation with close to balanced budgets, devaluation is neither necessary nor desirable. A freeze of wages and social transfers would be preferable for both economic and political reasons.

First of all, thanks to Latvia’s limited GDP, $27 billion in 2007, sufficient international financing can be mobilized. The combination of IMF, EU, and Nordic funding should be sufficient.

Second, devaluation is likely to aggravate inflation and it could start a snowball effect of higher inflation and repeated devaluations. A devaluation would not be less than 20 percent and it would cause greater social and economic disruption.

Third, the great number of mortgages held in euros would force a massive blow-up of bad debt and mortgage defaults, which in turn would seriously harm the population, the housing sector, and the banking sector and thus the economy as a whole. Such a banking crisis is not necessary. One of the three big banks, Parex Bank, has already gone under, but the other two, the Swedish banks Swedbank and SEB, are strong enough to hold, if no devaluation occurs.

Fourth, Latvia’s main macroeconomic problem is inflation. Devaluation would initially aggravate inflation, while a wage and social expenditure freeze would sharply reduce inflation. High inflation has led to the excessive current account deficit. Latvia does not suffer from any structural terms of trade shock

Fifth, a freeze on wages and public expenditures would strengthen the budget, while devaluation is likely to lead to severe budget strains.

Sixth, the Latvian population seems politically committed to the fixed exchange rate, and it seems prepared to take a freeze of incomes and public expenditures, and if necessary even cuts. Therefore, devaluation could lead to undesirable and unwarranted political convulsions.

Finally, devaluation in Latvia would inevitably drag down Estonia as well, and all the effects would be doubled, while Estonia might hold its own without Latvian devaluation. Lithuania, which does not really have any serious financial problems, could also be harmed. I would have recommended that the Baltics abandon their fixed exchange rates a few years ago, but this is the wrong time to do so.

The argument I am making applies only to very small economies with basically sound economic policies. Russia and Ukraine are in a very different situation. Both suffer from major structural changes in terms of trade because of slumping commodity prices, and they should let their exchange rates float downward with their terms of trade.

The main arguments in favour of the peg would thus seem to be as follows:

1/ Latvia's situation is exceptional (is that also true of Bulgaria, Estonia and Lithuania?). It is hard to know what to make of this. Certainly the comparison with Ukraine and Russia does not seem appropriate, since these are ultimately competitor countries as far as manufacturing industry goes, and they are devaluing not because of their raw material exports (agriculture and energy) are too high, but because the price of the products from their manufacturing industries are too high due to all the earlier internal inflation, and the attempts to maintain the currency value via the controlled "corridor".

2/ A severe wage and social expenditure freeze would be a better prescription than devaluation. Well they would be a good prescription, but they simply are not possible, since simply freezing things where we are won't work, the imbalances are too large, so we are talking about sharp reductions in wages and public spending (as nominal GDP goes sharply down, then even a 5% fiscal deficit will mean spending has to contract - by 420 million lati according to the budget forecast - although the IMF has agreed to a policy of protecting social expenditure as much as possible).

3/ Then there is the forex mortgage situation. This I agree is a major problem, as devaluation implies default, and an oncost for Sacndinavian banks. But if we are sending the entire Latvian population through all this simply to attempt to avoid defaults on mortgages we are making a mistake, since obviously the sharp rise in unemployment we can expect and the sharp fall in wages can have a similar impact. I mean, one way or another the REER (see above) is going back to the 2005 level, so the mortgages will be just as unaffordable, and in my view the best solution to this would be for the Scandinavian (and Italian - Unicredit) banks to take a haircut, and receive compensation via their domestic bank bailout programmes. This would be a much more equitable sharing of the costs of the forex lending programme having gone wrong. To take another example, Spain is not devaluing from the euro, yet a hefty round of mortgage defaults (and builder bankruptcies) is now expected. So it is really a case of default through one door, or default through the other one. Which way would you like to go, sir?

4/. That devaluation would provoke inflation. Well this is just the point, devaluation would only provoke significant inflation IF Latvia still didn't have an independent monetary policy (to restrain domestic demand), but since part of the reason for devaluation is precisely to recover control over monetary policy again, this argument seems to me not to be completely valid, and it seems to be forgetting the other problem, deflation, which is much more likely to become Latvia's real problem over the next two or three years. Trying to run some form of Quantitative Easing (which is the new "in" term for how best to handle monetary policy in the midst of a liquidity trap, which may well be where Latvia and several other CEE economies are now headed) without independent monetary policy is quite frankly, completely impossible. If we look at the chart for the producer price index I reproduce below, we will see that the PPI (which is normally regarded as an indicator of coming inflation) is no longer climbing, and seems set to start to come down., and this could easily be an early warning signal for forthcoming deflation.

5/. The Latvian population seems politically committed to the fixed exchange rate, and appears prepared to take a freeze of incomes and public expenditures. This may well be true, and is an impression I get when I look at some of the comments on my blog. Many Latvians (and citizens of other Baltic states) have accepted the peg as some indication of "post-independence" indication of national "seriousness", and that any stepping-back from it would be seen as some kind of defeat. I understand this view, but I think it is a mistake, since sometimes it is better to accept defeat in order to live to fight again another day. I think Latvian politicians are to some extent reacting to this kind of pressure, to some extent thinking about their own invested social capital, and to some extent under pressure from Nordic banks. In any event all three of these seem to have more influence than the rational arguments about the advisability of the peg. There is no doubt in my mind that the coming recession will be longer and deeper if the peg is maintained. Indeed I am almost certain that the attempt to sustain it will fail (and that we will see some kind of rerun of Argentina 2000 - in all three Baltic countries and Bulgaria) and really the sooner the population become aware of this the better. Basically what we witnessed in Argentia in 2000 was basically a process of growing battle fatigue and war weariness, as the population were asked to make one sacrifice after another in support of a policy which couldn't work, and only lasted as long as it could. The end product is that when the peg finally breaks the local population will be severely disillusioned, and the politicians will totally lack credibility, which is a sure recipe for chaos, as we saw in Argentina in 2001.

Indeed, if anything the position is arguably worse in Latvia at the present time, since the optimum conditions for a free and open debate about the alternatives aren't exactly in place at the moment it seems very hard to know what the population at large would decide if they had complete access to all the arguments.

6/. Finally, devaluation in Latvia would inevitably drag down Estonia as well. This is undoubtedly a consideration in the mind of the IMF (and Lithuania, and Bulgaria) but really all of this will have to be faced by all four countries sooner or later, especially since the only way out of their recession will be, as I am saying, through exports, and most of the other competitor countries (look even what is happening to the Polish zloty and the Czech Koruna as I write) will see the partities of their respective currencies well down on the euro as we enter the recovery.

Where Is Growth Now Going To Come From?

Basically the key argument for devaluation is that it is easier to manage an economy with a low level of inflation (please note I am saying low, very low, certainly below 2%, ask Ben Bernanke or the Japanese is you don't believe me) than it is to manage an economy which is in deflation freefall. The big danger in Latvia is not only that there can be a real (ie price adjusted) contraction in the economy of 5% in 2009 (or more, the economy is down 4.9% year on year in Q3 2008, and things are certainly going to get worse), but that this contraction may be accompanied by price deflation (ie actually falling wages and prices) which means nominal (current price) GDP would decrease by the size of the real contraction plus the fall in prices. Thus we could see a very large drop in nominal GDP in 2009 and 2010. If realised this would be a very difficult situation to handle, and I doubt the people currently taking policy decisions in Latvia are fully aware of the implications (although the IMF economists should know better). In particular the deflationary debt dynamics would be very hard to control, and again, especially without independent monetary policy.

It is important to remember that these loans which have been agreed to are simply that, loans, to guaranteee the external financial stability of the country during the forthcoming correction, but they do not, in and of themselves solve any of the real economy problems. And they will need to be repaid if they are used, and will nominal Latvian GDP heading down, the cost of repaying them effectively goes up in terms of real Lat earnings. This is what debt deflation means.

The International Monetary Fund on Friday said it now expects a net income of
about $11 million in fiscal year 2009, and not a shortfall of $294 million as
previously forecast, as more countries turn to it for rescue loans in a
deepening financial crisis. "The improved income outlook reflects new lending
activity that is estimated to generate additional fund income of about $247
million, assuming all disbursements under the recently approved arrangements are
made as scheduled," the IMF said. Since early November, the IMF has approved
rescue packages for Hungary, Iceland, Ukraine and Latvia as the global crisis
spreads to more emerging economies.

I am citing the above Reuters report, not as a criticism of the IMF - they are simply doing their job as best they can, and under very difficult circumstances - but to remind people that the IMF is effectively a bank, and these are loans, and interest is paid, and there are no "freebees" here, and definitely no "free lunches" - not even in the newly established Latvian soup kitchens.

So we should ask ourselves where growth is going to come from - the growth that will now be needed to repay the capital and interest on these loans. Certainly not from household consumption if we look at the chart below, or from government consumption given the restraint on public spending. The private consumption position can only deteriorate as wages fall and unemployment rises.

Not from manufacturing industry in the short term (until prices correct, and the external recovery starts), and again look at the chart.

And finally don't expect an investment driven recovery (again see chart) until the demand for Latvian exports picks up, and it becomes attractive to start expansing capacity.

Basically I feel the biggest condemnation which can be made of the package which has been announced is that it doesn't seem to contain one single policy for stimulating the economy, and stimulation and a return to growth is what Latvia badly needs by now.

And the worst case scenario outcome of the way all this is being handled (and the issue that actually concerns me the most) is the possibility that young people decide to start migrating out of the country again, in order seek a new future and to start sending money home to help their families confront the difficult circumstances. Since Latvia's population is already declining this would be the cruelest cut of all, and one would have to then ask just what kind of future really awaits this unfortunate country?

Monday, November 24, 2008

Are Baltic Devaluations Now In The Works?

Now this is a very interesting question, isn't it? The only honest answer I can give is that I don't know, and indeed I haven't the faintest idea. The government of Latvia (the Baltic state which is currently most rife with "rumours" about imminent devaluations) works in its own wondrous ways, and neither we (nor Latvia's citizens) have any idea at all how they plan to lift their country out of the deepest depression they have experienced in many a long year.

What I do know is that, economically speaking,the present situation is simply unsustainable, and something is going to have to be done. Indeed the country's government is in talks with both the IMF and the EU Commission about this very topic as I write. My own opinion is that domestic consumption is now dead (as a growth driver) for as far ahead as the eye can see (and maybe even further), that the country's citizens now need to start to save rather than borrow more, and that the only way Latvia can turn itself around is by exporting more than it imports. But for a country which ran a 23% current account deficit in 2007 this is going to be very difficult objective to achieve, since after two years of very strong inflation Latvia's relative prices with the rest of the world are completely uncompetitive.

Historical experience has taught us that it is not an easy thing to tell people "we are going to cut your wages by between 5 and 10% this year, next year, and then possibly the year after". Apart from the fact that voters don't like to hear this kind of talk, you can also enter into a deflation dynamic which then comes to be very hard to break out of. Hence, according to conventional economic wisdom, devaluation tends to be the preferred option. And it is my opinion that, despite all the attendant difficulties, devaluation is the best option among the unappetising list of unpleasant options presently available to Latvia (and the other Baltic states, and Bulgaria). Unfortunately, having reached this point there are simply no "pleasant" options available.

The curious thing is that for voicing this opinion I could go to prison in Latvia.

According to the Baltic Course online newspaper Ventspils University College lecturer Dmitrijs Smirnovs was detained for two days recently on suspicion of spreading rumors about the devaluation of the Latvian currency. He was detained in connection with an opinion that he had expressed during a debate about the development of the Latvian economy and the future of the Latvian banking and credit system. His arrest followed the publication of his opinion in Ventspils' local newspaper Ventas Balss. According to the newspaper report he said the following:

"The U.S. problems are trifling, compared to what awaits us. They have now reached the bottom and will start to recover. Problems in the European Union have only just begun and we may be hit by a crisis that is ten or maybe twenty times worse than that in the United States. The Swedish banks will no longer be able to offer inexpensive loans through their subsidiary banks in Latvia. They will tell us to pay back the debts! How will we pay them – with the real estate? We have no assets to pay back the debts! [..] The pyramid has been built and now we have to wait until it collapses. [..] The only thing I can suggest now: first of all, do not keep your money in banks, second: do not save money in lats, as it is very dangerous at the moment."

Dmitrijs Smirnovs appears to have been detained by members of the Latvian Security Police, who seem to have been charged with the special mission of protecting the integrity of the Lat at this very delicate point in Latvian history. And while some of the advice Smirnovs offered to his audience may have been ill-advised (given the delicate nature of the problems involved), they are opinions, and in a free and democratic society he should be at complete liberty to express them.

In fact Smirnovs is not the only such case to have arisen in recent days, and Baltic Course report that two more people are "under investigation" by the State Security Police. According to Latvian newspaper the Telegraf Latvian police previously detained a journalist under suspicion of spreading rumors about the Baltic nation's financial system during the global market crisis (also see this report and debate in comments about the same issue in Baltic Business News, while the same source reports that in the Finish newspaper Kauppalehti - which is evidently not controlled by the Latvian Security Police - they are simply discussing whether the Lat will be devalued before Xmas or in two to three months time).

The police held a journalist working for a Latvian newspaper yesterday evening in an investigation that started on Oct. 6 due to ``rumors about the Baltic country's financial system,'' police spokeswoman Kristine Apse-Krumina said, according to the Russian- language newspaper. She gave no details on what rumors the journalist is accused of spreading. Another investigation has been started following a run on currency exchange booths in the capital Riga last weekend that was caused by rumors about a devaluation of the lats, she added.

One of the other cases under investigation by the State Security police appears to be a member of the Latvian pop group "Putnu balle" based on statements made during a pop concert in Jelgava on November 9. Kristine Apse-Krumina, aide to the Security Police chief, stated that the cases was opened following a complaint from a bank, which alleged that lead singer Valters Fridenbergs had urged the people to withdraw their money from Parex banka and Latvijas Krajbanka during the warm up to the concert. According to band manager Anete Kalnina what actually happened was:

"As it often happens at concerts, the band members communicated with the public, telling jokes about themselves as well as many other things. The band had performed two songs when the guitarist Karlis Bumeistars had to tune his guitar, which is when Valters Fridenbergs started talking to the public," Kalnina said. Commenting the current situation in Latvia, Fridenbergs said that the audience had better hear the concert to the end, and only then rush to ATMs. "The people at the culture center got the joke, and laughed. It was not an encouragement" to withdraw money from banks, said Kalnina.

Evidently State Security Police charged with the investigation of seditious devaluation rumours have no such sense of humour, although maybe having to attend a few more pop concerts wouldn't be a bad therapy for them.

I myself received what could be termed a "mild threat" on my Latvian blog, following my publication of an opinion by Bank of America analyst, David Hauner, about the need to devalue:

``They will keep the pegs at the current exchange rates well into 2009, but reset the rates to devalue against the euro later, when markets have calmed,'' Hauner said.

This attracted the following warning from unidentified commenter LV, who would seem to me to quite possibly be a member of the above mentioned "Keystone Cops" group.

Apparently you are disseminating false information about the Latvian financial system. Please note that this may constitute a crime under Latvian law. In order to prevent the spreading of false rumours regarding the Latvian financial system the Latvian Security Police has also opened a telephone hot line so that false rumour spreaders can be reported and tracked down.

He then cited some rigmarole in Latvian which he invited me to use a Google translator to understand. I replied as follows:

Well I don't know what the Latvian law says, and quite frankly I don't especially care. You stopped having a dictatorial system when the old Soviet Union broke up, and there is a UNIVERSAL right to express an OPINION under any concept of democracy I know.

Actually the extract you cite comes from an analyst from Bank of America, and it is an opinion and not a fact. As far as I know he has no priviledged information, but if you have any doubts better you contact him direct.

My OPINION is also that the peg is impossible to hold in the longer term (ie it needs to be corrected before euro entry, for the reasons I explain), and logically since there is then a further delay in entering the euro after the devaluation it is better to do it sooner rather than later.

This is my opinion as a mecro economist and specialist in the Latvian economy, if expressing this opinion is illegal in Latvia, then really I don't know what Latvia is doing in the EU, let alone thinking about euro membership. For tyhis kind of thing you'd be better off with Putin and Medvedev. Open economies don't work that way, or didn't you notice, 22 world leaders just met to affirm that the best way out of the present financial crisis is to have the maximum TRANSPARENCY possible.

As I say above, this is all a very delicate issue, and university lecturer Dmitrijs Smirnovs was undoubtedly ill-advised to use the specific wording he did, not because he committed any known offence, but simply becuase he could have provoked a run on the banks, and this would only make the matter worse. On the other hand - and assuming they do have to devalue - it is a very unfortunate state of affairs that all those who actually know and understand what is happening have already changed their money over, while "ordinary Latvians" (like those in Smirnovs' audience) who have no idea what is happening, but (ill-advisedly perhaps) like to trust their leaders will simply lose a significant part of their savings.

Better never to have come to this point, but then, saying that doesn't help very much, does it?

Back in August 2007 I was asked the following question by a reader of my Latvian blog:

I want to thank you for your continuing efforts to explain what is happening in the Baltics in general and Latvia in particular. I live in Latvia and will be heading to the bank tomorrow to move our family's savings out of Lats and into Euros while the peg is still intact. (Or is there a better idea?).

To which I diplomatically replied as follows:

I wish I could be the bearer of better tidings. I think history has been so unkind to all the peoples of Eastern Europe, they really do seem to be entitled to be dealt a kinder set of cards than the ones they actually have. Really, I think you will appreciate that, even if I could hardly claim to be widely read on this blog, I do want to be responsible, and thus am unlikely to say anything which I feel could be in any way damaging to the Latvian outlook.

However, if you ask me this question:

"Or is there a better idea?"

Then I have to say that I personally can't think of one. For the rest, at this point, you will have to read between the lines I'm afraid.

I will try, when I find the time, to treat the currency peg issue in a somewhat theoretical fashion, but I fear it is reality itself which will put it back on our collective agendas in a much more practical one. I simply don't see how you can have the level of cost inflation (and the wage increases have still to feed through to producer prices and the end customers over many months) and still hope to sell exports. And if you are going to cut domestic demand, which is what they are doing, then selling exports is the only effective way to live.

Basically, as the observant reader will note, my core discourse has not changed very much over the last 18 months or so, nor will it - Latvian State Police or no Latvian State Police.

Will They Be Investigating The EU Commission?

One of the very sad and ironic aspects of the present case is that the Latvian government is currently, as I indicate at the start of this post, in discussions with both the EU Commission and the IMF about the future of the Latvian economy, and I think it is hardly a closely kept secret that both these institutions favour a floating currency, and thus logically a "flexibilising" of the Lat peg as a way forward out of the present crisis,

The European Union was really as explicit as it could be at the end of last week when it make clear that it is more than ready to provide financial assistance to Latvia, but that any aid will be conditioned on a programme to underpin balance-of-payments stability. And what could bring more stability to the Latvian balance of payments (ie induce more exports and suck in less imports), well evidently a change in the relative values of the Lat and the Euro - really at this point there are no other alternatives.

The EU, in their statement said they were "in close consultations" with Latvian authorities, and with the International Monetary Fund in order to develop a joint response to what were described as the "growing tensions'' in Latvia's financial markets.

``The EU stands ready to participate in a coordinated financing package with the IMF conditional upon a strong commitment by the Latvian authorities to implement a rigorous and credible adjustment program in order to underpin balance-of- payments sustainability in Latvia".

The statement did not specify when the aid would be granted or the amount involved. As regards the Latvian extenal position, the chart below of the current account deficit says it all. There is a whopping imbalance, and even though the deficit will be less this year, this is largely due to a collapse in imports as domestic demand has collapsed, and the need to export competitively issue still remains to get to grips with.

And Maybe They Should Check Out The IMF While They Are At It

Also it looks more and more likely that the International Monetary Fund is insisting Latvia abandon its currency peg in return for a bailout.

“Eventual Fund help might…be conditional on giving up the currency board regime and allowing faster real exchange rate depreciation to rebuild competitiveness,” according to economists at BNP Paribas SA in a research note.

And as Citigroup economist David Lubin notes: "The IMF’s own credibility was severely damaged as a result of its decision to continue financing Argentina’s currency board in the run-up to that country’s December 2001 devaluation, and we think it is unlikely that the IMF will want to repeat that mistake".

So maybe the lads and lasses of the State Security Police better hop on an airplane over to Washington, with a notepad and well sharpened pencil handy perhaps, just to see if they can gather any signs or sedition, or even, who knows, even "conspiracy" over at that end.

Dwindling Reserves

Meanwhile Latvia's foreign exchange reserves continue to dwindle, since the Latvian central bank announced today that they bought 130.3 million lati ($232.7 million) in the domestic foreign exchange market last week to support the currency after it weakened to the limit of its trading band. The lats fell to 0.7098 against the euro for the eighth consecutive week, prompting the bank to step in and buy it. Under the Lavian currency board system the currency is allowed to rise or fall 1 percent from a midpoint with the euro. The previous week the central bank acted to support the currency when it bought 189.8 million lati, which was the biggest weekly purchase it has made in at least two years.

The central bank has now bought 613.4 million lati over the last eight weeks. Foreign currency reserves have fallen about 18 percent since the end of September to around $5.4 billion at the end of October, it said. This month's moves have decreased the reserves to about $4.9 billion.

And Latvia's three-month interbank lending rates surged to their highest in a decade today as banks effectively stopped trading with each other, according to Kaspars Jansons, head of money markets at Parex Banka. The three-month RIGIBOR, Latvia's interbank lending market, rose to 13.5 percent, the highest since November 1998 when Russia defaulted on its debt, and up nearly 20 percent from 11.18 percent on Nov. 14. Janson is quoted by Bloomberg as saying "There is a lack of credit lines in between banks......Banks are not really trading with each other." He also said that a need for lati has driven some banks to raise deposit rates to as high as 10 percent for lati-denominated accounts.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Estonia's Recession Deepens As Latvian Finances Struggle To Find Air

Estonia's economy shrank again in the third quarter - by an annual 3.3 percent, thus clocking up the second-worst performance (after Latvia) in the 27 nation European Union, and offering us plenty of signs that the country's worst economic recession since 1994 is set to deepen. The contraction fulfils the basic technical criterion of recession since it follows a 1.1 percent fall in the second quarter according to data released by the statistics office yesterday (Thursday).

With the global market crisis and credit crunch weighing on the world's leading economies, and especially with Germany - the eurozone's largest economy and principal economic powerhouse itself entering recession, the prospects for any export driven recovery have definitely now faded off into the distance. Estonia and Latvia now lead the Eastern European slowdown, following repeated warnings over the past year of about the risks of an economic "hard landing'', warnings which were not unfortunately headed due to hopes that the eurozone itself would hold out against the US downturn (the United States is still not technically in recession) and that Scandinavian Banks would have little trouble funding growing forex debts (these banks are themselves now seeking support from the Swedish government). As I said, Estonia's economy is contracting the second fastest, since Latvia's economy shrank 4.2 percent in the third quarter, and currently has the worst growth rate in the EU.

``The effect of the financial crisis on the real economies of our main trading partners remained modest in the third quarter but will definitely increase,'' according to Martin Lindpere, an economist at the Estonian central bank. ``External demand is therefore expected to weaken in the coming quarters, and unfortunately, the contraction of the Estonian economy will accelerate.''

The central bank forecast suggests the Estonian economy may shrink between 1.8 percent and 2.7 percent this year, and between 2.1 percent and 4.5 percent next year. Really there is a high degree of uncertainty attached to next years forecast, since nobody is really sure at this point how bad things can get, either inside or outside the Baltics (Russia's economy is unwinding fast even as I write), or when exactly recovery will commence.

Quarter on quarter the economy contracted by 1%, following a revised 1.1% contraction in the second quarter.

All the signs are that the contraction may even accelerate in the fourth quarter. Estonian industrial output, which dropped 3.8 percent in September, has fallen in six of the seven months up to September, and looks almost certain to contract further in October-December . Likewise retail sales which have also been down for six of the past seven reported months.

More Trouble On The Way As The Currency Pegs Come Under Pressure

Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia mayall need to devalue their currencies over the next year as they seek to stave off a recession, according to a recent report from Bank of America Corp. With inflation still running at around three times the average rate across the 15-nation euro region and a slump in domestic demand that looks like it will be very hard to turn around amid the need to export may leave the Baltic states with little alternative but to abandon their currency pegs in the second half, on the view of David Hauner, a Bank of America strategist based in London.

``They will keep the pegs at the current exchange rates well into 2009, but
reset the rates to devalue against the euro later, when markets have calmed,''
Hauner said.

The Lithuanian litas and Estonian kroon have been little changed over the past three months based on their currency board systems that peg them to the euro at fixed rates. The Latvian lat is allowed to rise or fall 1 percent from a midpoint to the euro. The countries also participate in the European Union's exchange-rate mechanism, under which central banks must keep currencies within a 15 percent trading band against the euro.

Andres Sutt, deputy governor of the Estonian central bank, said the kroon's peg
to the euro will remain unchanged and that a devaluation would ``lack any
economic rationale.''
"The competitiveness of Estonian exporters has remained good; wage growth,
inflation and loan growth have declined very rapidly, as has the current account
deficit, lowering Estonia's dependence on external financing,'' Sutt said "The
finances of banks operating here are also strong. All this characterizes the
flexibility of the Estonian economy and its ability to adjust.''

In fact Estonia and Latvia continue to run a goods trade deficit, making it impossible to drive headline GDP growth from exports. Latvia's central bank Governor Ilmars Rimsevics also said ecently that "devaluation is an absolutely unrealistic scenario,'' while the Lithuanian central bank Governor Reinoldijus Sarkinas was cited by the Baltic News Service on August 19 as saying that the exchange-rate system "shouldn't change at all.''

Nonetheless the economic rationale for devaluation becomes more compelling by the day, as the Baltic countries if they are one day to enter the euro will need to do so at a much lower partity than the current one to be able to get growth in the longer term.

There are obviously two principal drawbacks to devaluation against the euro, the first of these is that foreign exchange debts will suddenly rise, and this is why the Baltic countries will undoubtedly need EU aid in sorting out the mess. Secondly there will be a delay in euro membership. Countries aiming to adopt the euro must spend at least two years in the Exchange Rate Mechanism, or ERM-2, to demonstrate the stability of their currency. Lithuania and Estonia began participating in the system in 2004, the same year they entered the European Union. Latvia joined a year later. If the Baltic countries devalue then the clock will need to be reset, but then again, eurozone entry with the economies in an economic slump (rather than a mere recession) does not seem to be an attractive proposition either. These economies will need time to get things straight again, so the delay in euro entry does not seem to be an inordinately large obstacle, in and of itself.

Lithuania's ambition to be among the first countries in eastern Europe to adopt the common currency was thwarted in May 2006 as inflation accelerated. Estonia and Latvia were also forced to delay the changeover, and of course it has been this whole process of delay that put the spanner in the works and has lead to the whole boom bust cycle taking the form it has, as euro membership ebbed off into the distance.

``If your real exchange rate is overvalued, there are two options: either
devalue, or accept a recession to make inflation fall relative to the trading
partners,'' Hauner said. ``So the Baltics have the choice between a deep
recession or postponing euro-zone accession. I think they will choose the

EU Readying-Up Aid

The Baltic States now have some hard decisions to take, but the EU and the IMF are there ready to support. The European Commission hopes to come to a decision on providing financial support for Latvia "fairly soon", according to European Commission spokesman Jonathan Todd.

``We've been in close touch with the Latvian authorities for the past week and those contacts are continuing. We hope to be able to adopt a decision fairly soon,'' Todd told journalists at a Brussels press conference today.

Latvian authorities also themselves reported on Wednesday that they were in talks with the European Commission about possible financial assistance following the decision to take over Parex Banka AS, Latvia's second-biggest bank, as liquidity tightened and depositors withdrew funds. Following the nationalisation Latvia added about 200 million lati ($357.8 million) in liquidity to Parex to shore up its finances.

``We don't need the money now,'' said Edgars Vaikulis, a spokesman for Prime Minister Ivars Godmanis, yesterday. ``We are just in consultations,'' he said. Turning to the International Monetary Fund for support in the future was also a possibility, he said.

Latvia's 26 banks lost about 461 million lati, or about 4.6 percent of their total deposits, during October, according to a statement from Latvia's Financial and Capital Markets Commission. Latvia would prefer to turn to the commission and not the IMF, according to Karlis Leiskalns, head of the Latvian Parliament's budget and financial committee, speaking on Latvijas Radio this week.

``I can't say that Latvia won't go to the IMF for help,'' he said. ``The IMF will come with conditions, and one of the basic conditions will be to cut the social budget. I'm completely against taking from the IMF, unless the state becomes bankrupt.''

More Credit Agency Downgrades In The Works

Moody's Investors Service have announced that they may cut their ratings on Latvijas Krajbanka AS and Norvik Banka, citing concerns about the Latvian lenders' asset quality due to the worsening recession in the Baltic country. Moody's have assigned a negative outlook to both banks' D- bank financial strength ratings and Krajbanka's Ba2 long-term deposit rating and Norvik Banka's Ba3 long-term deposit ratings.

``The economic downturn, which is already under way, is now likely to be more acute than previously anticipated and thus have a negative impact'' on both banks' asset quality ``in the near future,'' Moody's said.

Earlier in the week Fitch cut Latvian debt to the lowest investment- grade rating of BBB- and signaled it may reduce again to the category of high-risk, high-yield or junk.

``In the absence of substantial and timely international financial support, Latvia faces the likelihood of a severe financial and economic crisis and a further downgrade of its ratings,'' Eral Yilmaz, associate director for Fitch's sovereigns group in London, said in a statement.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Latvian Government Nationalises Parex Bank

Latvia's government announced today that it has decided to take over the nation's second most important financial institution after the bank ran into liquidity difficulties. The Latvian government apparently decided late yesterday (Saturday) to take a 51 percent stake in Parex Bank, Latvia's second largest bank by total assets, following the preparation of data that indicated the bank was headed toward insolvency.

Prime Minister Ivars Godmanis stated that Parex was functional but in need of liquidity. He also said the government had faced a choice of either taking control of the bank or allowing it to enter bankruptcy. The government also suggested that there were no plans to rescue any of Latvia's other 25 banks at the moment, but that the possibility could not be excluded in the future.

The government bought the majority stake in Parex for 2 lats ($3.70). Another 34 percent stake in the bank will be held as collateral by the state-owned Hipoteku Bank. Obviously the fact that they have had to nationalize Parex bank was yet was another blow to Latvia's deteriorating economy, and to the governments present strategy for addressing the crisis. On Friday we learnt that gross domestic had fallen by an annual 4.2 percent in the third quarter.

Parex Bank was almost unique in both the Latvia and Baltic context in that it was homegrown. Founders Valery Kargin and Viktor Krasovitsky established the bank in 1992, one year after Latvia split from the Soviet Union and achieved independence.

A majority of the banking industry in the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania are owned by Scandinavian financial institutions, and hence, up to now, have been somewhat shielded from the downturn.

This is obviously the first, and not the last, piece of news of this kind we are going to get during the present economic slump, and the nationalisation decision is sure to heat up the debate about whether or not to seek IMF protection, and indeed whether (or when) to break the Lat-Euro peg.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Estonia's Inflation Falls Back Again In October

Estonia's inflation rate fell to 9.8 percent in October, the lowest level in 10 months, as the growing recession cut consumer demand and excess capacity started to grow. The annual rate fell below 10 percent for the first time since January, (and down from 10.5 percent in September) according to data from the national statistics office. Prices rose a monthly 0.4 percent.

Everyone is agreed that the drop in domestic demand will help bring inflation down substantially, although some are still only focused on whether or not this will be enough to qualify for adopting the euro by the end of 2010. Unfortunaely much larger questions than this now loom on the agenda. Basically we will now start to follow a new chart for inflation purposes on this blog - the monthly index itself (see below). As can be see the monthly upward march is now quite small - and getting smaller. At some point it will peak, and then start turning down. At that point one of two things can happen (there really aren't too many choices at this point, it would have been better had we never gotten here, but then, to put the best interpretation on things, people were simply deaf): either the kroon-euro peg can be abandoned, or the index will start to march downwards and Estonia will simply fall deeper and deeper into deflation. I think I know which one of these I would prefer (coming off the peg), and neither is going to be easy - either people are going to have to start paying those euro mortgages in a much cheaper currency, or the value of their wages in euros is going to drop as wage deflation savages the whole economy. Which do you prefer, the devil or the deep blue sea?

EU Banks To Take the Hit

The other important detail here is the way in which banks based in other EU countries are going to be asked to get their home governments to step in and fork out to make up for all the inevitable defaults. I am not an avid Swedish bank watcher, but I have been following what has been going on in Austria, and especially the recent government decision to move and help the Austrian banks with state funds, since this move seems to be aimed less at shoring up troubled domestic lending and more at boosting credit and growth in emerging Europe, where Austrian banks dominate and the country could well lose heavily in the coming downturn.

Essentially, what used to be a lucrative grip on the financial markets of central and Eastern Europe - which contributed 42 percent of Austrian bank profits in 2007 - has now been transformed into a strong risk. The situation has even made it relatively more expensive for the Austrian government to borrow - since the spread over 10 year German bund has been sriven up - and has also driven up costs to insure against the seemingly unlikely even of an Austrian sovereign default.

Austrian banks are owed $290 billion by borrowers across the CEE, from Albania to Russia. Its exposure is much higher than that of Italy, Germany and France, and almost on par with what Spain has lent to Latin America, according to the Bank for International Settlements.

Relative to Austria's size, the exposure - roughly equal to its entire gross domestic product - is daunting.

Put another way, should the recent central European hiccup turn into a crisis of Asian or Latin American proportions, with currencies devaluing and debtors defaulting en masse, Austria would be in trouble, and more so than any other western country.

This underlying reality has evidently shaped how the Austrian government is using its 100 billion euro ($129 billion) banking package. The finance ministry last week agreed to boost the capital of Erste Group Bank by 2.7 billion euros, even though the bank, emerging Europe's third-biggest lender, is well-capitalized and funded.

The state money came cheaper and with fewer strings attached than similar deals in Germany or Belgium. There are few rules on how to use the capital - just enough to allow the government to present the measure as boosting domestic credit.

In reality, most of the capital is going to underpin lending in countries including Romania, where Erste owns the biggest bank, or Hungary, where it is number 6.

"That this is about providing credit to Austrian companies is just a pretense," said Matthias Siller, who manages emerging market funds at Baring Asset Management. "This move is a clear commitment to eastern Europe......But this has nothing to do with charity. Those (Austrian) banks are system-relevant banks in central and Eastern Europe, and if they had to withdraw capital from there, this would set off a landslide," he said.

A number of emerging countries in Central and Eastern Europe share the problem of having a gaping hole in their current accounts - one which they currently fill to a considerable extent through the funding that Austrian, Italian, French, Belgian and Swedish parent banks provide. Fears that they were about to choke off this lending simply because the parents themselves had trouble refinancing played a big role when investors dumped Hungarian assets in droves last month.

By tapping their home governments, the banks effectively lean on taxpayers in their home countries for refinancing countries with large current account imbalances - countries which apart from Hungary also include Romania, Bulgaria and the Baltics.

"If there is no EU-wide plan then it will be left to Sweden (in the Baltics) and Austria (on the Balkans) to take care of this," said Lars Christensen, an analyst at Danske Bank. "Obviously you can't have the Austrian government bailing out central and Eastern Europe," he added. "The problem in this situation is a lack of coordination between European Union governments about a stabilization plan for Eastern Europe."

Well, don't feel especially discriminated against in the CEE I would say, since there is no plan for Southern Europe either, and the problems in Italy, Greece and Spain are every bit as large. Indeed I would say that those responsible for policymaking across the CEE would do well to look at what happened to the Spanish economy after the external funding for the Spanish banks was effectively cut off in September 2007, or for that matter to what has happened in the Baltics. Canaries in the coalmine, anyone?

Incidentally, and quite coincidentally, Moody's Investors Service cut Latvia's credit ratings and lowered the outlook for both Lithuania and Estonia to negative, citing the worsening economic slowdown and the global liquidity crisis. Given what I have been saying above, it seems to me they might also like to take a long hard look at their Austrian and Italian sovereign ratings at this point too.

Latvia's Economy Contracts By 4.2% in Q3 As Moody's Downgrades The Credit Rating

Latvia's economy shrank an annual 4.2 percent in the third quarter, the fastest drop since at least 1994, according to today's flash estimate from the Riga-based statistics office (Friday). This follows a 0.1% year on year expansion in the second quarter.

We do not have quarter on quarter statistics at this point, but if we apply the minus 4.2% calculation over last years Q3 2007 constant price number, then what we get is 2.147 billion Lati, and a GDP graph which looks like this:

Which may have little analytic value (since the data is not seasonally corrected), but does enable us to form a pretty rough and ready visual impression of what is going on, where the annual contraction data remains rather abstract. The economy definitely peaked and started to enter contraction mode after the summer of 2007, and now we need to keep watching and waiting to see just how far it is we go.

The statistics office will release constant price and seasonally adjusted data for the third quarter on Dec. 9. The last time Latvia's economy contracted on a year on year basis (by 2.2 percent) was in 1994, according to data from the Latvian central bank.

Coincidentally Moody's Investors Service today downgraded Latvia's credit rating to A3 from A2, the third-lowest investment grade level, citing a worsening global liquidity crunch and economic slowdown.Moody's warned today that tighter global liquidity could affect some of Latvia's 26 banks, many of whom rely on syndicated loans to finance operations.

``The global liquidity crisis will probably cause a shock to the Latvian banking system, which will reverberate throughout the rest of the economy,'' Kenneth Orchard, a senior analyst at Moody's, said before the report. ``Unless there are major improvements in the European syndicated loan market by early 2009, the government and central bank will be forced to take remedial action.''

Friday, October 31, 2008

In Search Of The Bottom - Estonia's Economy Continues To Drift Aimlessly

The Estonian recession continues to deepen, month by month. The most recent evidence comes to us in the form of a decline in both Estonian retail sales and industrial production, which fell in each case for the fifth consecutive month in September, leading us to expect the rate of GDP contraction to accelerate further in Q3.

Retail Sales Fall An Annual 8%

Retail sales, excluding cars and fuel, fell by an annual 8 percent in August, the largest such decline registered since at least 2001. This follows a 6 percent in August. The year on year chart (see below) couldn't be clearer.

Sales were also down month on month (ie with respect to August), this time by a non seasonally adjusted 7%. In fact, on a seasonally adjusted basis retail sales peaked in February 2008, and have been trending down since. We still don't have the seasonally corrected data from Eurostat for September, but looking at the uncorrected data we do have from the Estonian statistics office, it does seem that retail sales were down again in Q3 over Q2.

Thus retail sales turned negative in March and the trend simply continues. The decrease in the retail sales of goods was most influenced by the stores selling manufactured goods where sales decreased by 12% compared to September 2007. Sales in non-specialized stores selling manufactured products and shops selling household goods and appliances, hardware and building materials were the worst hit.

Sales in grocery stores have, as might be expected, been rather more stable, with sales only down 3% . As had been the case in previous months, the decrease in food sales was largely influenced by the rise in food prices and the resulting decline in consumption.

Industrial Output Down 3.8%

Output adjusted for working days decreased an annual 3.8 percent, compared with a revised fall of 3.7 percent in August.

If we look at the seasonally and working day adjusted output index, then we can see that the level of output is now meandering downwards, and we now are way off the highs reached during last October and November. With this in mind we should expect the year-on-year percentage drops to start to decline after December, but it will then become much more interesting to follow the evolution of the absolute levels indicated by the general output index.

The main reason for the decline in output is evidently the lack of demand. The fall in manufacturing output was greatest in food, wood and building materials production. Food output was especially hit by the decrease in consumption resulting from this years large price increases. Although the rate of price increase has decelerated in recent months, food product prices are still up by 12% compared to September 2007.

The other area with big output drops is the manufacturing of wood and wood products, where the drop in sales in both domestic and external markets continues. The Estonian market is influenced by the construction slump, while in the external market Estonian manufactures are having a hard time due to the competitive environment and their own weaknesses in price competitiveness. Compared to September 2007, 22% less sawn timber and 9% less glue-laminated timber were produced. The largest drop (32%) was in the production of building materials which is directly connected with the decline in the construction market.

Some export-oriented industries have been continuing to expand - even in this difficult environment - especially enterprises involved in the manufacture of metal products, chemical products, and electrical machinery. Output was also up in the manufacture of machinery, radio and communication equipment, precision instruments and motor vehicles, since again a lot of the output is for export. The export share is 97% in the manufacture of radio and communication equipment and 91% in the manufacture of precision instruments.

Both Wages and Unemployment Still On The Rise

Wages continued to rise rapidly in the second quarter, up by 15.2%, even if this was the slowest pace of increse in more than two years, while the unemployment rate rose - to 3.1 percent in September - the highest level in more than three years.

Estonia's jobless rate, based on the number of unemployed registered with labor offices, rose to 3.1 percent, the highest since July 2005, from 2.9 percent in August, according to data from the Estonian Labor Market Board. The number of people signed on as seeking a job rose 6.6 percent from the previous month to 20,015. This number is of course, incredibly low by any comparable international standard, and is hard to square with a country in the midst of a very deep rcession (even after all the ritual genuflections towards the labour marekt being a lagged indicator). In order to understand how this situation is possible it is important to take into consideration Estonia's special demography and migration history.

However, it is also true to say that unemployment does normally follow changes in economic output with a time lag, se we should expected it to rise considerably in the coming months and quarters. Indeed the unemployment rate as measured by the Estonian statistics office in quarterly labor surveys is nearer to 4 percent in the second quarter (and the EU harmonised rate which is based on the survey shows 4.2% for September in the Eurostat database), and may rise as high as 10% according to recent estimates from Erkki Raasuke, head of Baltic research for Swedbank AB (not that they have been getting too much right of late, but still).

Despite the fact that unemployment will undoubtedly rise further as the recession deepens, it is the very tighness of the labour market (which is, as I say, in part a product of Estonia's demography) which prevents wage increases slowing down more rapidly, and thus the entire Estonian price system adapting to the slowdown (this phenomenon is often called "sticky wages and prices", and as we can see, the degree of viscosity here is almost treacle like). So Estonia's low earlier fertility fuelled the initial wage craze which along with the credit boom got us to the present point, and now the same lack of strength in depth in the labour market blocks the downward adjustment. In both cases the net by-product is massive pressure on the Kroon-Euro peg as Estonia struggles to find export competitiveness.

Consumer Confidence Falls Again

Unsurprisingly Estonian consumer confidence fell again in October, hitting its lowest level in more than 9 years, a sure sign the that the economy is about to shrink again, as domestic demand continues to search for a bottom. The Tallinn-based Konjunktuuriinstituut consumer confidence index declined to minus 27, its lowest reading since June 1999, and down from minus 22 in September. The institute cited worsening expectations for personal and state finances as the key drivers behind the drop.

And of course, consumer confidence is not only falling in Estonia, it is also falling among potential consumers of Estonian products in all Estonia's export destinations. Indeed general European economic confidence saw its biggest ever fall in October as the global bank crisis generated the bleakest outlook since the early 1990s, at least these are the findings of this months European Commission economic sentiment survey. The survey results give us just one more dramatic illustration of the devastating impact the financial turmoil is having on Europe's real economy. Pessimism has risen dramatically on all fronts - from manufacturers' expectations about exports to consumers' fears about unemployment.

The European Union executive's "economic sentiment" indicator for the 27-country bloc fell by 7.4 points in October to 77.5 points. The latest index reading was the lowest since 1993 and marked the largest month-on-month decline ever recorded.

And even as confidence deteriorated sharply in key EU economies like Germany, Italy and Spain, the increasingly-worrying outlook for all those previously fast-growing eastern European economies is now hitting business and export opportunities pretty hard, and this is plain from the survey. All three Baltic economies registered another sharp lurch downwards, with Lithuania, as has now become almost traditional, hanging back slightly from the Ocean depths currently being combed by her Estonian and Latvian neighbours.

The Outlook Darkens

And just to add to all these woe's Eastern Europe is currently experiencing what amounts to its biggest credit rating downgrade in at least a decade, adding to evidence that the region far from avoiding the impact of the global credit crisis, may well find itself at the very heart of the next stage.

“We expect the EU and the IMF to announce additional rescue packages for other Central and Eastern European economies in the coming days and weeks. Top of the list are the most imbalanced countries in the region - the Baltic States, Romania and Bulgaria."
Lars Christensen, Danske Bank, Copenhagen

Both Standard & Poor's and Fitch Ratings have responded over the last month to mounting risks from the global credit crunch by downgrading or revising credit rating outlooks to negative for a number of CEE economies including the Baltic states, the Balkans, Hungary and Ukraine. Moody's Investors Service has also revised its outlook to negative for Latvia and downgraded Ukraine.

S&P and Fitch both downgraded long-term sovereign ratings to Latvia and Lithuania on Oct. 27, citing recession risks and the growing need for external financing, while Estonia, had its rating cut by Fitch and outlook revised to negative by S&P. Basically, the crunch is biting in terms of both the cost and the availability of credit. This tightening in credit conditions is not, of course, new in Estonia, and in many ways we could say that the credit conditions should never have been allowed to get so "loose" in the first place. As can be seen from the chart below, the year on year rate of increase in peaked at the end of 2006, and since then the slowdown in Estonian domestic demand has been driven by the slowdown in the availability of credit (strictness off the terms, documentational requirements etc). Evidently, if such criteria had been applied much earlier, and the rate of annual increase never approached 80% all this may well have been a much less dramatic process.

The Estonian central bank said last week revised it's forecast for the economy, which has already made the turn around from being the second-fastest growing one in the EU in 2006, to being one of the most rapidly contracting ones in 2008. According to the bank the Estonian economy may shrink 1.8 percent in whole-year 2008 and 2.2 percent in 2009. As we have noted above the economy sank by 0.8% q-o-q in Q2 and by 1% year on year.

The decrease in GDP in Q2 was mainly a result of weak domestic demand, but the drop in both imports and the rate of increase in the export of goods and services meant that the contribution from external trade was negative. About the only item which maintained some momentum was government spending - buoyed by the tax income from an earier and better epoch. Compared to Q2 2007, total domestic demand was down by 2.8% , largely as a result of adecrease in private consumption and capital investments ( down by 2.0% and 2.5%, respectively).

Private consumption decreased mainly due to the decrease in expenditures on transport and clothing and footwear. The growth of expenditures on food and non-alcoholic beverages decelerated. Capital investments decreased in both the financial and the household sector. Investments in manufacturing industry were almost stationary year on year. At the same time public sector construction investments accelerated.

The decrease in exports and imports since the second half of 2007 which had been noted in Q1 went even further in the 2nd quarter. Compared to the 2nd quarter of the previous year, exports of goods and services decreased by 4.9% and imports by 8.2% (at constant chain-linked prices).

Goods exports were down by 3.2% primarily due to the decrease in exports of refined petroleum products. At the same time, exports of basic metals and electrical machinery (electrical motors and appliances), which significantly influence export movements, increased. Exports of services decreased by 8.9% primarily due to the decrease in exports of services for railway cargo, airway passengers and cargo transport and trade related exports services. The decrease in imports of goods was influenced mainly by the decrease in imports of refined petroleum products and motor vehicles. While imports decreased faster than exports, the deficit of net exports in GDP has increased since the second half of 2007 and amounted to -4.6% of GDP in the 2nd quarter. In the 1st quarter the impact of net exports was -7.1% (so the negative impact slowed vis a vis Q1).

Fiscal Crunch Coming

Basically, as the economy slows, and government income increases even while counter cyclical spending policies add to expenses, the government is moving into tricky fiscal deficit territory. Mindful of this the Estonian government approved on September 25 a draft 2009 budget which attempted to balances overall finances, including local government and the social insurance funds. The budget, which is still to be finally approved by the Estonian parliament, will fall into a deficit and need to be covered from government reserves, according to former Prime Minister Vaehi in a recent interview with the Maaleht newspaper Maaleht.

A deficit of 10 billion krooni would equal 3.5 percent of the expected gross domestic product of 283 billion krooni forecast by finance ministry in August. SEB have forecast a deficit of 1 percent of GDP in Estonia's overall finances next year.

Falling tax revenue has forced the Estonian governemnt of Prime Minister Andrus Ansip to cut spending and seek out new financing in an attempt to maintain a balanced budget, formerly a linchpin of the country's fiscal policies. The Finance Ministry have already forecast the budget will fall into a deficit of 3.1 billion krooni, or 1.2 percent of gross domestic product this year, after running surpluses in each of the last 6 years.

Two Questions In Conclusion

Basically then, it is hard to call the exact impact of trade on Q3 data without having the September trade data in front of us, since although the July and August export numbers are well below the April and May ones, we also need to take into account the accompanying drop in imports (which helps net trade, and thus is GDP positive). On the other hand the general impression you should get from all the data is that we are in for another shocker in Q3. Which leaves us with two questions:

1/ Where do we go from here?
2/ Just how long will it be before we hit generalised price deflation?

Let's take the second one first. Possibly for many people the question will appear to be a ridiculous one, but it isn't. If you look at the CPI index itself (this now becomes much more important than the year on year inflation rates, since what we need to watch for are the price movements from month to month. Now in the rate of increase from one month to another has been slowing, and in September the index was barely up over August (less than 0.5%, following a virtually stationary reading in August over July) so we should not be surprised to see the index hit a ceiling at some point, and then start to come down. Basic economic theory leads us to expect this (on the back of falling commodity and food prices and in a situation where internal capacity is way above the sum of internal and external demand available to the Estonian economy at current prices). Thus there is only one way for prices and wages to go: down. Although people may struggle with all this yet awhile before they accept the inevitable.

So what about the future of the economy in general? Well, let's take two quotes from the most recent Eesti Pank growth forecast. First, a recognition that they got it wrong in the past:

According to the base scenario of Eesti Pank's 2008 autumn forecast, Estonia's gross domestic product will decline by 1.8% in 2008 and by 2.1% in 2009. So far the economic correction has been more abrupt than expected primarily due to decreasing domestic demand. In addition to the cessation of the rapid real estate market expansion, also private consumption dropped in spring more than forecasted.

and now a forecast which, it seems to me is based on the same faulty methodology that lead the current deline to be "more abrupt" than they expected earlier.

According to Eesti Pank's estimate, the economy should pick up again either at the end of 2009 or at the beginning of 2010. The average economic growth rate of 2010 will be 3%. Private consumption growth should recover in 2010 along with the revival of household confidence, whereas 2009 will be characterised by slowing wage growth and increasing unemployment.

As I say above, I expect wage declines, and not slowing wage growth, but this is beside the point. Household consumption will undoubtedly decline in 2009, but I am not expecting any significant recovery in 2010. And the reasons for this expectation are based on some of the main tenets of economic theory as I understand them. Basically Estonia is in the midst of the transition from being a domestic consumption driven economy to being an export driven one. This, in part, has something to do with the demographic transition which Estonia is currently passing through.

Estonia is, if you like, about to become more like Germany and Japan, and less like the UK, or the US, or France, in terms of a basic typology of economies. And if you look carefully, you will see that the one thing that doesn't recover (ever) in Japan or Germany is household demand. The reason for this is obvious, and it has to do with the demand for credit. Proportionately less people in the age groups which drive the demand for credit increases means that credit (and with it domestic consumer demand) becomes less of a driver of economic growth and exports become proportionately more important. This is why German and Japanese banks have relatively less exposure to their own domestic property booms, but have been carrying losses from housing liabilities elsewhere.

Unfortunately, this is not some strange opinion I have acquired from some distant planet or other. It is based on, and supportable by, fact, and by what is going on right in front of our noses. We are not playing some sophistocated intellectual game here to see who is right and who is wrong. People's livelihoods and those of there children depending on getting a hold on this, and the sooner that the economists over at Eesti Pank (and elsewhere) get the underlying dynamics straight, the better.