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Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Is It Hot In Latvia In August?

Well the big news this morning is that the IMF mission to Latvia has finally reached agreement with the Latvian government on a new policy package that will give the country access to about $278 million in new financing. Details of the deal are scant at the moment, since the Letter of Intent will not be published until the IMF board approves the agreement, but it seems the terms of the IMF deal are (on the face of it) tough: additional budget cuts worth a reported 500 million lats ($1.02 billion) for 2010, a progressive income tax with the possibility of an increase in VAT if the cuts do not reduce the budget deficit to the stipulated level.

Really, this agreement changes very little in my opinion. As Capital Economics' Neil Shearing points out, many people are assuming that with the rapid Current Account adjustment in many CEE countries, the threat to external financial stability has largely gone away. But as Neil argues, while theoretically, it should be enough for the countries just to move back to balance, practical experience from Argentina etc suggests that as recovery arrives the CA tends to move from large deficit to large surplus. And this of course means exports growing at a much faster rate than imports. This is the only practical way to pay down the debt.

And as Afoe's own Claus Vistesen puts it:

This is all about the composition of the external balance and what kind of extensions foreign creditors give. Now, the benefit of the peg is of course that you can begin to accumulate foreign assets at reasonable valuation to your liabilities. HOWEVER, the only way to reasonably begin this process is of course to actually begin accumulating those assets and in order to so so, you need productive investment targeted at foreign operations and this is very difficult unless the "internal devaluation" has run its course. Essentially, domestic investment to serve foreign markets are not productive until deflation has taken its toll.

So basically the message is, whatever the final details of the new agreement, stay tuned and keep watching, since all of this is far from over.

Edward Will Not Be Going To Latvia In August

The little news of the day is that I will not be attending the conference on Latvia's economic future which members of the Peoples Party are trying to organise for August, even though I was invited. As the Latvia Daily Diena (Latvian only I'm afraid) which reports on the preparations for the conference puts it "E. Hugh, who declared himself a defender of the lat devaluation, however, declined to participate, adding he'd like to maintain political neutrality." Well, this is fair enough as a presentation of my opinion, but, just for the record, here's what I actually did say.

First of all I would like to say thank you very much for thinking of me and inviting me to your conference....

....while I think a decision to accept the original IMF proposal of a 15% devaluation of the Lat, and pressure the EU Commission into euro entry was the best option last autumn, this is now no longer the situation. So while I was advocating devaluation back then, what I am saying now is that in my opinion devaluation is inevitable at some point, but that it will now be an unholy mess. Serious contagion problems will most likely ensue, and so in this sense I am no longer "advocating" Latvian devaluation. Ideally it needs to take place as part of a much more general solution to problems in the economies of the Eastern European countries who are members of the EU.

If Latvia is simply forced off the peg, then we should all watch out. I am in Spain, and I am expecting consequences here.

Thirdly, I am not in basic disagreement with the IMF, and would not wish to do anything which may make their work more difficult. Basically, from where I am sitting the issue is to put pressure on the EU institutional structure in an attempt to get them to recognise some of the basic ABCs of economics.

Lastly, I would emphasise that I am an economist, a mere technician of economic systems, and not a politician. I am explicitly non politicial, and am maintaining this stance both vigourously and adamantly.

Basically, as I said, I consider devaluation inevitable..... tomorrow, in August, after Christmas, in 2011, I don't know when. I also know that the longer it is in coming, the more serious the consequences will be, due to the continuous degradation in the credibility of the associated institutions (IMF, ECB, EU Commission, EBRD etc). This is all now quite likely to eventually become (via the other Baltic states, Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania and even Ukraine and Serbia) a very serious problem, with potentially major global implications.

So there will be a before and after. After devaluation there will need to be a major rethink about where Latvia is going. Devaluation is not an end in itself, it is simply a means to an end, a begininning. We also need to think about how Latvia will earn its living, pay off its debts, and find its way in the world.

Long term structural, and strategic economic thinking are needed.

Here I think I do have a part to play. As you may well have noticed, my view is that the ongoing demographic deterioration of your country lies at the heart of your macro economic problems.

I think this deterioration needs to be addressed as soon as possible, and I see three large issue.

i) Productive capacity needs to be increased substantially. This means increasing the labour force, and this means (as outlined in the World Bank Report, From Red To Grey) facilitating large scale inward migration. Given the serious political implications of encouraging ethnic Russian migration into your country, I see only two viable source regions, the Central Asian Republics in the CIS, and Sub. Saharan Africa. Possibly this solution will not be widely popular with Latvian voters. Well, they do have the right to choose. Your country can take the measures needed to become sustainable, or you can watch it die, as the economy shrinks, and the young people leave. That, I think, is your choice.

The other two measures you need to take are contingent on the first being implemented, since without the first measure you will simply not dispose of the economic resources for the other two.

ii) A serious policy to support those Latvian women who do wish to have children. But with major financial advantages, not half measures, and propaganda stunts. You need policies that can work, and I know plenty of demographers with ideas.But this needs money. Important quantities of money. And gender empowerment, right across the economy, at every level. We have formal legal equality in the labour market, but evident biological and reproductive inequality, in that only one of the parties gets to bear the children. The institutional resources of the state need to redress this imbalance.

iii) Major reforms in the health system to address the underlying male life expectancy problem. You can only seriously hope to raise the labour force participation rates at 65 and over if people arrive at these ages in a fundamentally healthy condition. In economic terms, simple investment theory shows why this is the case. A given society spends a given quantity of resources on producing a given number of children, those who have citizens who live and work longer evidently get a better return on their investment. If you want to raise Latvian living standards, you have to raise the life expectancy. And this apart from the evident human issues.

OK, I am saying no for the moment, but I would like to stress that when conditions change, I would be more than willing to come to your country to try to help. But not for a day, for a month, and not to give a talk, but to work with some serious people who are willing to roll their sleeves up and do the serious spadework that will be needed to find those solutions you so badly need.

Basically, my feeling is that the issues you face are so complex that public debate is unlikely to produce a very fruitful outcome at this point. You need a long term education process, and for the time being more or less technocratic solutions, but not the technocratic solutions you are being offered by the EU now (which basically won't work), technocratic solutions which get to the heart of the problem and set your country on a sustainable path.

Friday, July 24, 2009

It Isn't Only Canicular Heat They Are Suffering From In Latvia

Maintaining the peg also requires substantial political commitment. If this commitment were to falter, there is a risk that the execution of the difficult but necessary policies required under the authorities’ program could also weaken. However, all political parties are strongly committed to the exchange rate peg.
How the world changes in six months. The above lines come from the IMF "Republic of Latvia: Request for Stand-By Arrangement - Staff Report" of January 9 2009. But just today we can read in a Baltic newspaper:

"Reliable sources tell LETA that the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has stipulated that the loan agreement document must be signed by all ruling coalition parties in Latvia, thereby showing their resolve to implement it."
The reason the IMF are now so edgy is spelled out by Reuters Political Risk Correspondent Peter Apps:

A string of other countries are also facing stark cuts, and analysts say in many - like Latvia - domestic politics could well intervene as elected politicians are unwilling to face the political consequences of cuts demanded by the IMF and wider financial markets.
So what the IMF are evidently worried about is the possibility that some coalition members may support the agreed measures just long enough to get the payout, and then effectively disown them. This seems to be a far cry from the substantial political commitment that was earlier considered to be so essential to maintaining the peg.

And the issue goes well beyond Latvia, since as Apps points out, a string of other countries are in a similar if currently marginally better condition, including Bulgaria, Romania, Lithuanis and Hungary, all busily making cuts while coming to rely more and more on multilateral lenders.

So if there is no clear resolution to Latvia's growing dispute with the IMF, the European Union could end up facing a dilemma - whether to bail out troubled emerging European countries who won't make cuts or face the consequences of not doing so. As Lars Christensen, head of emerging markets research at Danske Bank in Copenhagen says:

"This could be a test case for Europe....In Latvia, it's domestic politics that really become the driver. The question is what the EU would do if the IMF walks away."
A good question.

In the above quoted IMF document, they also make the following point:
Correcting currency misalignment without nominal depreciation is extremely difficult, as experience from other currency board and fixed exchange rate countries continues to show. Large external financial support and sustained wage and fiscal discipline by both the private and public sectors are required. Failure could entail substantial reputational risks for both the authorities and international institutions.
The last sentance is important, failure could entail substantial reputational risks for the international institutions involved, in particular in this case for the IMF and the EU Commission. This loss of credibility should the peg eventually collapse in chaos is one of the considerations that lead some of us to argue strongly from the start against going down this road. But few would listen.

Beyond the immediate issues of the peg, there are also serious structural considerations which make this kind of "body-with-two-heads" approach less than desireable in delicate situations such as this. Even if all we have here is - as some would suggest - a soft-cop hard-cop duet, the policy of letting the EU Commission permanently play the role of soft cop is hardly desireable, especially for the message it will be sending to Southern Europe, where our improvised duo may soon find themselves once more forced into action. And especially also for financial markets where nervousness about the ability of Europe's complex institutional structure to handle the evident continuing weaknesses in the banking system is still highly evident. Leaving the impression that the EU itself is not able single handedly to deal with its own recalcitrant offspring is not exactly the best way to convince the sceptics.

Today's Latvia Roundup

The exact state of play in the negotiations with the IMF is still far from clear. Latvia's Prime Minister Valdis Dombrovskis said on Thursday that talks with the IMF were making progress on issues of pensions and taxes and results of the talks are expected early next week, but since we have been getting news like this for some days now it is hard to draw conclusions.

Izabella Kaminska at FT Alphaville thinks the analyst community is increasingly interpreting the deadlock as yet another (and possibly decisive) chink in the armour of Latvia’s euro-peg defence, citing in particular the latest research note from the RBC Capital Markets’ emerging markets team. While Capital Economics' Neil Shearing is even more explicit:

Relations between the IMF and Latvia are deteriorating quickly, raising the prospect that the loan programme that is vital to maintaining the country’s currency peg could collapse altogether..... with relations between both sides souring, and the pain in the real economy intensifying, it remains to be seen how long a new agreement will hold. Indeed, there is a growing risk that the programme could collapse altogether, which would spell the end of the currency peg and trigger a round of debt restructuring.
As for me, I agree with Neil, this situation has now become so unstable, while the internal devaluation is working so slowly, that the Fund really need to think about how to handle the damage containment issue. The crisis is far from over in the East and South of Europe, and the risk of a spark from this whole fiasco setting either Athens or Madrid alight is most certainly non-negligable. I advise all concerned to think very carefully at this point about the implications of what they are doing, for the sake of all our well-being. The Maginot line may still be far from broken, but a distant fortress on our outer defence ring may well be about to fall. Let's just learn the lessons shall we?

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Why Latvia Is In Such A Mess

Hat Tip to Aleks Tapinsh - "No wonder this country is in such a mess. Someone posted this video of a payday at the Elkor electronics chain in Latvia. The paycheck as you can see comes in an envelope, in cash. No one pays any taxes. And everyone happy. Or not".

Second example: Prime Minister Valdis Dombrovskis cited in a press conference in Riga yesterday the fact that some companies, including state-owned companies like Latvian Railways, had tried to cheat the social security system by significantly raising the wages of some of its employees (in his example from 1,000 lats a month to 12,000 lats a month), thus apparently raising their pay into the social security system. That way, if a person gets laid off, they'd get 70 percent of the new and improved wage.

Now two recent quotes from my blog interpreting yesterday's comment from the Economy Minister - (Viz: "Representatives sitting in Washington and educated at Yale do not fully understand what is going on in Latvia”)

"To provide with logic behind quote of the economics minister, I believe he thought that the EC and IMF does not realize the scope and importance of grey economy in the country. With that figure hard to estimate (ranging from 15%-40%). Any increase of Tax base will only push the economy on the gray side both for individuals (tax exemption on income earned) and for companies (unaccounted cash revenue, forgone taxes,etc). Thus resulting in even less tax revenue that initially had and larger budget deficit to balance. As for VAT tax, as a sign of protest, some of the local companies have publically annouced the full closure of their business if the VAT is raised to 23%."

"Yep, stupid comment when at the same time you are reaching out your hands to receive their money... That said, the IMF does not really fully understand if they think they can introduce e.g. a progressive income tax and raise more revenue. Very hard to do in a country that does not believe that higher taxes will benefit the population and where tax avoidance is an art mastered by most."

As one wise woman said yesterday "Not everything in Latvia is what it appears to be".

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Danskebank's EMEA Daily Latvian Quote Of The Day

Quote of the day: "Representatives sitting in Washington and educated at Yale do not fully understand what is going on in Latvia", Latvian Economics Minister Kampars yesterday on the Latvian TV programme 900 sekundes.

As they point out, when the borrowers publicly criticise the lenders in this way, something must be going on.

While Mr. Kampars might be right on his assessment of the IMF staff, it is certainly unhelpful for further negotiations (if there are to be any) to bad mouth the institution that is supposed to give Latvia a loan. In our view it increasingly looks like the IMF will not pay out the next instalment on Latvia’s loan. This not only has ramifications for Latvia, but should also be a reminder to investors that the IMF is not just a “money machine” that automatically bails out all countries with funding needs.

Also Danskebank provide some simple calculations to illustrate the extent to which Latvia does still need the IMF funds:

A back of the envelope calculation illustrates this. In June, central government spent about EUR 125m more than came in revenues and funding. Assuming that this “burn rate” continues for the rest of the year (August-December) then that adds up to EUR 625m for the rest of the year. Furthermore, during the rest of the year EUR 715m worth of t-bills are maturing which need to be rolled over. Hence, the refinancing of maturing debt and the monthly cash burn adds up to EUR 1,340m. In our assessment the Latvian state treasury probably has EUR 540m in liquidity at the moment. That leaves the Latvian central government with a funding need of EUR 799m. This is why it is important that the EC in the Supplemental MoU ties up half of the EUR 1.2bn instalment for the financial sector, as the amount that will be “free” to cover the budget deficit will be less than the funding need (EUR 600m vs EUR 799m).

Thus, according to Danske the Latvian government will be around 200 million euros short by the end of the year – unless it is able to roll over more than half of the maturing debt, something which would require sustained perfect conditions for issuance in the local money markets for the rest of the year, unlikely given that the international markets are more or less closed to Latvian debt, and that non receipt of the IMF share would hardly increase the risk appetite.

Parex Update

The situation at Parex bank seems to be giving rise to all sorts of speculation at the moment. It has been suggested that the Banks owners have been systematically taking advantage of the bailout to line their own pockets. Some support for this view can be found in the statement of the Latvian Finance Ministry last Friday that it had asked the state prosecutor's office to probe Parex takeover last year.

RIGA, July 17 (Reuters) - Latvia's Finance Ministry said on Friday it had asked the state prosecutor's office to probe the state takeover last year of a major bank that helped trigger the need for the country's IMF-led bailout.

The IMF has delayed its latest share of lending in the bailout, though the EU has decided to give a further 1.2 billion euros. The prime minister said he would hold more talks next week with the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Some local media reports and politicians have criticised the wisdom of taking over the country's second largest bank, Parex, and the way it was done. Most recently the media has reported that some former employees left with big handouts. Finance Minister Einars Repse said he had asked the prosecutor's office to investigate the takeover to clear up such controversies

What the connection is (if any) between the "Parex affair" and all the other unknowns we have in our equation set at the moment still remains to be seen.

And finally, to close, here's yet another Latvia quote, this time from former IMF chief economist Ken Rogoff:

“It is so clear that Latvia’s peg is ultimately unsustainable, all protestations by Latvian government officials notwithstanding,” said Kenneth Rogoff, a former chief economist at the I.M.F.. “But ultimately unsustainable pegs can go on for years before crashing and burning, and Brussels seems to be willing to pay a lot to get past the financial crisis before cutting the cord on Latvia.”

Monday, July 20, 2009

Brief Latvia EU Loan Update

Well, there is still effectively no word from the IMF. But The EC did today release an addendum to its memorandum of understanding with Latvia identifying a number of economic and fiscal policy measures it wants the country to enact before it receives next chunk of funding. The document, which is a pretty rough-and-ready PDF photocopy, can be found here. Reading the document, one thing seems certain: the upcoming tranche of 1.2 billion euros will not now be sufficient to cover the budget deficit for 2009, since the EC requires half of the money to be set aside for the financial sector - which prompts the question, is the nationalized Parex bank really as healthy as the government and the bank's leadership have previously said it was?

Other items of interest in the document are the proposal to raise VAT in 2010 from 21% to 23% if other forms of revenue raising cannot be identified. The impact on already very hard pressed retail sales is not too hard to imagine. The introduction of a residential real estate tax is also proposed with local authorities being empowered to increase the real estate tax to 3% of cadastral values. If implemented, this will do only one thing: further reduce Latvian real estate values which are already down 50% from their peak, and on whose bottoming-out any hope of ultimate recovery depends.

Which is another way of saying that in macro economic terms the document leaves rather a lot to be desired, and essentially it is hard to find any item which is actually going to stimulate rather than flatten a recovery.

Also worthy of note is the requirement that Latvia now has to closely coordinate policy with the EU and the IMF.

"All significant Cabinet decisions or other decisions with a fiscal impact, including on social security or any guarantee scheme, shall be announced and undertaken only after discussions with the EC and the IMF,"

The document also stipulates that the government will have to report every month on all key aspects of spending and revenue, including providing a breakdown for each ministry as well as for local governments. These performance criteria, given the now near total dependence of the country on external support - de facto, as a sovereign state Latvia has effectively ceased (at least temporarily) to exist, some 19 years or so after its foundation - are not surprising in and of themselves, but it could have been hope that the country would have been better served in terms of the kind of advice which is being offered. The document repeated that Latvia should aim to reach a budget deficit of 10 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) this year, 8.5 percent in 2010, 6 percent in 2011 and 3 percent in 2012, numbers which, if my back of the envelope calculations are not totally awry mean that Latvia's debt to GDP will be outside the EU 60% limit by the time the deficit comes down under 3%, depending on GDP performance in 2010 and 2011. In any event it will be touch and go. So you enter by one door, only to leave by the other.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

IMF Imposes New Conditions On Latvia

Izabella Kaminska at FT Alphaville has the story (via Reuters):

The International Monetary Fund has put forward new, difficult conditions for Latvia to receive further loans, the prime minister said on Wednesday in a further sign the Fund is being tougher than the European Commission.

It isn't clear at this point what these conditions are. Rumour has it they may be an end to the flat income tax, or a hike in VAT. A hike in VAT would be more hari-kiri, since this would again hit consumption AND would boost inflation at a time when they are trying to deflate to carry through an internal currency correction. It also isn't clear whether this is a serious attempt to add new conditions (which I find unlikely, given how advanced the distemper is) or whether this is a way for the IMF to get themselves off the hook (ie leave the EU Commission to stew in its own juice) without having a public and potentially damaging break with the EU. The IMF need to find some sort of exit strategy I think (since Latvia evidently at this point doesn't have one), or it risks losing its own credibility if it puts a seal of approval (by granting the next tranche) on something which most external specialists now think could end up in a very messy grande finale. Argentina ghosts are stalking the corridors in Washington, not because of the similarities between the two countries (they are, at the end of the day pretty different), but because of the way giving a final "kiss of death" loan to a country can ultimately come back and haunt you.

Update One

The local Latvian news agency is saying that if Latvia and the IMF do not sign the new agreement by Friday, Latvia may not see the next chunk of the IMF loan and it could jeopardize the further funding from the EC. This could be brinksmanship, but even brinkmanship can go badly wrong if the other party can't concede. And who is the other party here? Latvia or the EU Commission, since they already said they are happy with progress. What a muddle!

Update Two - Thursday Afternoon

Bloomberg's Aaron Eglitis reports this afternoon that Friday may in fact not be any kind of deadline. He quotes Caroline Atkinson, head of external relations at the IMF, in Washington, to the effect that the head of the IMF mission in Riga is returning to Washington this weekend as scheduled, while the mission itself would “continue its work.” This suggests there will be no final decision this week. She also said there was “broad consensus among all the parties involved” about the goals for Latvia, declining to go into specifics.

Rumourology has it that the IMF wants the government to become more effective in revenue collection, with the fear that the current contraction may be so strong due to the fact that part of the economy is disappearing back into a "grey area" as a backdrop. Various proposals are being floated around, but perhaps it would be better to wait for some concrete information before speculating about this.

Latvian central bank Governor Ilmars Rimsevics has also been holding a press conference in Riga today, and he took the opportunity to suggest that the country’s budget deficit was likely to grow to between 9.5 percent and 10 percent this year. If this is the case, then this would obviously put Latvia outside the 60% gross debt to GDP criteria by 2010, which would make euro membership as an exit strategy non viable over the relevant horizon in my view. Just a long shot, but maybe that is what they are all arguing about. The EU clearly has to offer the four peggars more in the way of a carrot, although they themselves need to remember - looking over at Slovakia and Slovenia - that mere euro membership is no panacea to cure all ills.

Monday, July 13, 2009

The IMF/EU Commission Rift On Latvia Seems To Be Deepening

Two weeks ago I drew attention to a revealing press conference given by IMF First Deputy Managing Director John Lipsky and European Central Bank governing council member Christian Noyer where it seemed a rather different posture was being taken on the Latvian question than that which is being transmitted from Brussels. Then P O'Neill found a message on Twitter which suggested the topic of the Latvian budget had been unexpectedly added to the EcoFin agenda.

Today Bloomberg report that Barclays Capital’s chief economist for emerging Europe Christian Keller thinks that the IMF's posture of continuing to withhold funds even after the approval of the spending cuts “signaled that the rift between the IMF and EU has widened” .

Now I don't want to see connections were there are none, but it is a coincidence that Christian Keller works for the same Barclays capital whose Head of Emerging Markets Strategy Eduardo Levy-Yeyati recently published a lengthy analysis on the influential Is Latvia the new Argentina? - where he argued that: "The strategy of engineering an “internal” depreciation under a peg in Latvia (via contractionary fiscal policy, wage cuts and price deflation) implicit in the IMF program is proving too painful, if not self-defeating as in the 2001 collapse of Argentina’s currency board"

Now the publication of this article was interesting since Eduardo Levy-Yayati is not just any old economist. Previous to joining Barclays Capital, as his Voxeu biography informs us, he was

"a Senior Financial Sector Advisor for Latin America & the Caribbean at The World Bank. Previously, a Senior Research Associate at the Inter-American Development Bank, the Director of Monetary and Financial Policies and Chief Economist for the Central Bank of Argentina, and the Director of the Center for Financial Research and Professor of Economics and Finance at Universidad Torcuato Di Tella. He has also worked as consultant for the IMF, the World Bank, the Inter-American Development Bank, the Japan Bank for International Cooperation, among many public and private institutions. His research on emerging markets banking and finance has been published extensively in top international economic journals. "

That is, Señor Levy-Yayati is an extremely experienced economist, an old Argentina hand, and enjoys some considerable influence over emerging markets issues in Washington. So was the appearance of the article in Voxeu at the end of June totally coincidental? He certainly is experienced enough to know what he is doing in these matters. And was it also a coincidence that only a week later former chief economist at the International Monetary Fund Ken Rogoff - surely another person who knows perfectly well what he is doing - gave an interview where he said that "Latvia should devalue the lats to avoid a worsening of its economic crisis" and that "the IMF made the wrong decision when it allowed Latvia to keep its currency peg"?

The IMF cannot say what it really thinks for obvious reasons, but could we construe Levy-Yayati and Rogoff as thinking out loud on the funds behalf?

The clash between the two institutions (should such a clash exist) derives from “ideological differences” according to Keller. "The IMF is focused on economic questions such as the sustainability of the currency peg, the use of economic stimulus or the idea of fast-track euro adoption......The EU’s main concern is political, such as euro-adoption rules and the implementation of convergence programs".

This all rings pretty true, and it rings even truer when you note that the Latvian Prime Minister Valdis Dombrovskis said only last week that the country "may not need the IMF share of the financing". As Keller says, “The Latvia program has become a headache for the IMF.”


Latvian foreign trade was down again in May, at 618.3 mln lats it was 4.2% (or 27.1 mln lats) lower than it was in April (no green shoot here) and 38.5% (or 387.6 mln lats) down on May last year, according to provisional data of Latvian Statistics Office. May exports were down 30.1% over May 2008, while imports were down an incredible 43.7%. Over the January – May period foreign trade was down by 35.4% on the same period in 2008. Exports were down by 27.7% and imports by 39.9%.

Industrial output fell back again in May over April, by 0.4% on a seasonally adjusted basis according to the statistics office. Year on year it was down 19.3%.

And domestic demand continues to weaken. Retail sales were down 0.48% in May over April, and 24.14% year on year, according to Eurostat data.

Latvia’s inflation rate fell to 3.4 percent in June, the lowest annual rate since October 2003, from 4.7 percent in May. Prices were down 0.5% on the month, but this is way too slow for the kind of internal devaluation process which is underway. At this rate the loss of GDP will be truly massive before the internal currency correction has taken place.

There were 206,000 people unemployed in Latvia in May, or 16.3 percent of the labour force, according to the latest Eurostat data. This is slightly down on earlier data, but since these results are survey based, and such rapid changes make it difficult to apply such methodologies, I don't think we need suspect any kind of "foul play". The rise is dramatic enough as it is, as can be seen in the chart below. This makes me wonder were we will be by mid 2010.

One area where the central bank has had some success has been in getting overnight interbank lending rates down again, and the overnight Rigibor is now back around 3% (13 July), but the 12 month rates are still very high (20.2% 13 July) which does suggest that while market participants are fairly sure the peg is safe in the short term, they are not at all convinced about what is going to happen in the longer term. And in this they seem to be making a valid judgement, since this is the situation at the time of writing.

Meatime Latvia's natality continues to suffer under the weight of the crisis, there were 1750 live births in May, down 15.3% on May 2008. Thus, not only are we playing with the countries short term future here, we are also putting the possibility of having a long term one at risk.

Where Is The Endgame?

When it comes to the short term dynamics of the looming currency crisis in Emerging Europe, one of the Baltic Three, probably Latvia, will most likely be the first to concede its peg, as Eduardo Levy-Yeyati says this is just too painful, and the loss of GDP which is taking place while the politicians are dithering is fearful.

But when Latvia does leave its peg, then others are almost bound to follow. Everything depends on whether the EU Commission and the IMF are proactive or limit themselves to a mere reactive, problem-containment role. If the Latvian currency realignment is done in an organised and systematic fashion, then it may, even at this late date, be a containable process. For this to happen the EU Commission have to stop playing with the politics of the situation, realise that the Maastricht criteria were not written in tablets of stone, and start to formulate a reasonable exit stratgey for all the Eastern members of the EU. They need, that is, to start thinking practical economics, the way the IMF now seem to be doing. The macro economics of this was always clear and straightforward.

But if the Latvian situation is simply left to fester, and the country falls into the grip of a growing political anarchy, then containment will be much more difficult, since panic will more than likely set in.

A similar situation pertains in Bulgaria (see my latest post on Bulgaria, since the similatities are evident). Absent a Latvian devaluation, it is not unthinkable that the Lev peg may be maintained in Bulgaria for another year or so. But if the Bulgarian authorities do go down this road, then we face the severe risk of a a further raggedy ending, since the problem is not one of sustaining the peg, but of restoring competitiveness and economic growth, and this is much more difficult without a formal devaluation. And if Bulgaria does go hurtling off that cliff on which it is currently perched, then just be damn careful it doesn't drag half of South Eastern Europe careering after it. The EU Commission need to begin to resolve this mess, and the need to begin now!