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Sunday, September 21, 2008

Latvian Inflation Continues To Be A Major Problem

Consumer Price Inflation

The annual rate of increase in Latvian consumer prices was 15.7% in August 2008. Month on month the situation did imporve slightly, since prices decreased by 0.4% when compared with July. The average price of goods decreased by 0.9%, but the price of services continued to increase, and were up by 0.7%. Prices of vegetables and fuel fell, but the price of clothing, catering and rent were all up. Thus while the trend is for annual inflation to moderate, the news is far from unambiguous, with widespread secondary price shocks continuing to make their impact felt.

Food prices were down - by 2.2% - but this was mainly influenced by seasonal decreases in the price of fruit and vegetables and fruit. Bread, dairy products and cheese prices also fell. Fuel prices were down by 4.3%, as were motor vehicle prices.

The widespread presence of discounts meant that the prices of non-durable household goods, individual care goods, bicycles, sports and recreational equipment all decreased. Purchase of new cars became cheaper, as did the prices of data processing equipment, airline tickets, furniture and furnishings, carpets and floor coverings diminished.

Latvian retail sales we should remember were down again in July, both on June 2008 and on July 2007. Compared to July 2007, the seasonally and working day adusted constant price index was down by 8.5%. The largest volume decrease was in non-food products group which were down by 9.4%. There was a slighly smaller decrease in food products, which were down by 6%. The only increases were in mail order business – up by 7.2% and in retail trade in pharmaceutical and medical goods – up by 3.2%. In the face of such a decline in demand the more competition driven sectors have little alternative but to lower their prices.

On the other hand, prices in the non competition driven sectors continued to rise, and rent in municipal flats and houses, the cost of refuse collection and other publicly administered services were up, as were liquefied gas prices.

Alcoholic beverages, cereal products, meat and meat products, fish and fish products, eggs, oils and fats, sugar, sweets and non-alcoholic beverages all went up, as did clothes, textiles, household goods, and school textbooks.

Producer Prices Accelerate In August

Latvian industrial producer prices rose in August at a 13.1% annual rate, up frm the 12.4% annual rate registered in July. Month on month producer prices increased by 0.9%.

On an annual basis it has been the increase in the cost of energy components like electricity and gas, and the price of manufactured food products and beverages which have made the biggest impact on the overall level of producer prices,contributing 4.5 and 4.1 percentage points, respectively.

As can be seen in the chart below, Latvian producer prices are now up over 50% on the start of 2005, and with the Lat effectively tied in value to the euro (which is either used by, or a reference point for, nearly all Latvia's major external customers) this represents a huge loss of competitiveness for Latvian industry and service companies.

Energy Prices

In terms of the outlook for Latvian inflation moving forward we need to think about just when it will be that year on year crude oil turn negative, and when this does happen, what will this mean for Latvian inflation? An interesting question this one since it will really show us the "naked truth" about how resistant Latvian prices are to correcting themselves as the economy continues to languish in recession.

Oil prices have fallen substantially recently, even if with considerable volatility in the process. Last Friday, for example, , the first time oil had closed at over $100 in more than a week. Oil prices in fact shot up by more than $6 a barrel on Friday, with light, sweet crude for October delivery rising $6.67 to settle at $104.55 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange, after earlier rising as high as $105.25. The increase followed the announcement of the sweeping US government financial rescue plan which emboldened investors to re-enter equiity and commodity the markets.

Crude thus climbed over $13 in the space of three days, but prices will more than likely resume their downward trend, at least in the short term, since demand for energy is likely to remain weak as the economic slowdown continues to bite in the US, Europe and Japan, while key emerging markets maintain tight monetary policy (although not Latvia unfortunately, since the Lat peg means there is no monetary policy to implement) in the battle to contain inflation (I am talking here of countries like Brazil and India). So, despite the coming and going, the trend in oil is decidedly down, and crude has now fallen around $43 — or over 30 percent — from its all-time trading record of $147.27 reached July 11.

So we are now hitting prices which were reached on the way up in the middle of February, but how long will it be before we are below the same price y-o-y? Then annual inflation rates will start to notice what is called the "high base effect", and it will be interesting to examine the precise differences between those countries where secondary effects have made their presence felt (like Latvia unfortunately), and those where core inflation has basically remained low.

Latvian Wages Continue To Rise

At the same time Latvian wages, and despite the recessionary backdrop, continue their steady upward march, at a rate which is well above consumer price inflation plus productivity. Compared to the second quarter of 2007, gross hourly wages in Latvia were up by 26.1%, according to the most recent data from the Central Statistical Bureau.

The statistics office noted that the seasonally adjusted rate of increase has been reducing since 4th quarter of 2007, but this is very small consolation for a process that is effectively blowing a massive hole in the side of the Latvian economy's ability to compete internationally. And indeed they also point out that compared to the second quarter of 2007 the most rapid increases in hourly labour costs have been in economic activities like education – up 30.5%, hotels and restaurants – up 29.3%, mining and quarrying – up 27.7%, construction – up 27.4%, and trade – up 27.3%.

Unemployment Rises While Employment Stagnates

On the other hand unemplyment has started to rise, slightly, and according to the labour board there were 56333 people unemployed in August - nudging up the unemployment rate to 5.2%. To put things in perspective, the number of unemployed is still below that registered in August 2007 (57940), when the economy was, to all appearances, still booming.

Employment, on the other hand, has been more or less stagnant over the last 3 quarters, although year on year rates of employment increase have been healthy (an average of 4% during the last three quarters) and total emplyment has not started to decline in any notable form.

Household Indebtedness

Internal demand, as we have noted, has collapsed, and the Latvian economy is in recession.

So what is the answer to this mystery? How can employment be stable, real wages rising considerably, and yet the economy slumping. Well, the answer isn't too difficult to find, it revolves around household borrowing, and the rate of increase in household debt. If we look at the chart below, we can see that the Latvian "boom" was being fuelled by truly massive y-o-y rates of increase in household borrowing. So the high rates of growth were not due to large productivity gains pushing a supply side expansion, but due to rapid increases in domestic consumption fuelled by growing debt, a process which pushed the Latvian labour market (given Latvia's unusual demography) way beyond capacity limits, and stocked-up a huge inflation bonfire.

As we can see in the above chart, this all really became "one big party" after mid 2005. Now I say Latvia has no available monetary policy, but this isn't entirely the case. Had the Latvian central bank imposed very strict credit restrictions starting in 2005 (and not in the spring of 2007), and had the Latvian government operated a large (liquidity and demand draining) fiscal surplus of 5% of GDP or so starting in 2005, then maybe much of the worst of the distress which is now about to come could have been avoided.

But it is always easy to be right after the event, and I am not claiming to have had any better idea than anyone else at that point. Certainly even the IMF staff economists (who seem to me to be normally much more on the ball than their Brussels and Frankfurt equivalents) only started pushing the idea of fiscal surpluses strongly rather late in the day, and I am sure if we could rerun all this they would have acted differently. But then, you know, the owl minerva only flies after dusk, and all that.

But, as we can see, once the credit restrictions were put in place to some extent, the rate of increase in new credit did slow, and what is so remarkable is how quickly the whole economy itself slowed as this increase in credit lost steam. We are still seeing a year on year rate of increase in household credit of around 25%, and yet the economy is contracting, so what happens if credit stops growing is anyone's guess.

So what is the future? Well basically, given what we have just seen about the debt side of the equation, I think we can safely say you can forget about Latvian domestic demand as a driver of growth. And since government spending is not going to be the answer given the impending liabilities which will be hitting the Latvian state from the ageing population phenomenon (health, pension costs etc), exports would seem to be the only way out. But this is where, after all that inflation, we hit a snag.

As can be seen in the chart below, Latvian exports, far from having risen to the role which falls upon them, have rather weakened over the last six months or so.

True, in year on year terms, they have been rising, but the rate of increase has been slowing steadily, even if - due largely I think to an especially weak month in June and a low base effect in July 2007 - they did rebound a bit in July. The weakness in Latvian exports as a growth driver has been rather masked by the much more dramatic decline in imports, which have moved strongly into negative y-o-y territory despite the high level of oil costs, and this has obviouly been a headline GDP growth positive (that is GDP would have been worse had imports not shrunk so considerably). The decline in imports has also prevented the trade deficit from deteriorating further.

But of course, if exports are now to drive growth (and if Latvians are to start paying back all that foreign debt they have been accumulating) then what is needed is a surplus not a deficit. Well, Latvia needs to start selling more abroad, whatever, however, and I think that in order to do this, Latvian relative prices now need a very substantial adjustment, which either means very substantial internal price deflation, or that horrible and unmentionable "D" word. If people sit back with their arms folded and simply wait to see what happens (out of idle curiousity, perhaps?), then the former will inevitably happen, but the thing is the process could become so violent that it provokes the second inevitably in its wake, which raises the question as to whether it might not be better in the longer run to grasp the bull by the horns, and go down the second road now and dircetly. Whatever happens, none of the possible solutions for the current predicament are going to be easy.

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