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Monday, October 11, 2010

Estonia's Now-You-See-Me Now-You-Don't Inflation Rate

Just to follow up on my recent long Estonia post, a couple of new data points have caught my attention recently: the sharp rise in Estonian inflation and the ongoing goods trade deficit.

In the first place it is worth noting that Estonia's trade deficit went UP again in August. Of course, the countries ongoing services surplus takes some of the edge off, by, since Estonia is now an export driven economy, to return to stable growth and create that much needed employment Estonia needs a trade surplus, not a deficit. Of course, the headline catcher is that August's export were up 37% over August 2009. The number looks a little less impressive when you notice that imports were also up by 34%, and take in that a significant proportion of exports are imports which are re-exported, and then you look at the chart (below) and see that both are still running at levels well below their pre crisis peaks.

To add insult to injury, despite the rapid export rise, Augusts trade deficit - some 71 million euros - actually increased slightly when compared to August of the previous year.

And here's the smoking gun which can help us understand why, despite the legendary "internal devaluation, the underlying Estonian trade deficit continues: the ongoing surge in inflation, itself in large part a by-product of the tax increases and energy subsidy reductions made to keep the fiscal deficit under control .

According to Statistics Estonia, the consumer price index was up by an annual 4.0% in September, and by 0.8% when compared to August this year. Goods were up 4.5% and services 3.0%. Food prices were part of the problem, since they were up 7.0%. But, as the statistics office report informs us, government administered prices of goods and services were up by 8.1% while non-regulated prices were only up by 2.7% - that's the giveway datapoint, I think.

Two fifths of the inflation was the result of a 6.6% price increase in food and non-alcoholic beverages, but the 10.2% price increase of electricity, heat energy and fuels accounted for 25% of the total, and the 8.2% excise duty induced price increase in alcoholic beverages and tobacco also had a significant impact on the consumer price index.

So inflation is rising, but even worse, so too are inflation expectations.
Inflation expectations by Estonian consumers continued to rise in September, according to Konjunktuuriinstituut, an economic research institute in Tallinn. The outlook is “certainly” affected by the prospect of euro adoption, the institute said.

Thirty-five percent of consumers polled by the institute this month expect inflation to accelerate in the next 12 months, compared with 32 percent in August, and 5 percent a year earlier, it said.

So, if those taking the policy decisions aren't careful Estonia may be about to loose its "poster boy" image, and find itself added to the ranks of the "fallen angels". The above comparison of Euro Area 16 and Estonia CPI inflation makes it look awfully like the timing of the tax and subsidy changes was calculated to get good inflation readings during the key euro decision window. It is hard to believe that neither the central bank nor the ECB couldn't see the current surge coming - or if they couldn't, then the best you could say is that they were extraordinarily incompetent in their handling of the issue. And if you look at the competitiveness loss the price index reveals since the start of 2007 (even) the short period of deflation has nowhere near compensated for it, and the current price surge will soon eat it what little competitiveness improvement there has been all away.

Of course, the central bank has expressed some concern, “There is a threat the present price and wage levels will not sufficiently support new investment and job creation,” it said in its latest economic report, although it stressed that it considered the increase in ongoinginflation due to rising food prices is likely to be temporary.

All of which only confirms my impression that the Estonia entry decision was made in haste, coinciding as it did with May's sovereign debt crisis. The decision was a kind of vote of confidence in the resilience of the Euro Area: "look, we aren't about to fall apart, we're even accepting new members". In fact ECB President Jean-Claude Trichet almost said as much on a recent visit to Tallinin. Europe's economic and monetary union is committed to accepting further members, he stressed. "The euro area is not a closed shop," M. Trichet said, while attending a festive event to celebrate Estonia's upcoming accession to the eurozone. Rather, he said, it is open to any country "that fulfills any of the preconditions in a sustainable manner."

The keyword here is "sustainable". As reported on this blog, there were those within the ECB, and most notably ECB executive director Juergen Stark, who opposed the decision, by simply arguing that, in the light of Greece's inability to endure the discipline of EMU membership, future applicants should be screened more tightly. In the past, membership had rested on the ability to conform with numerical targets on inflation, public debt and exchange rate at a specific point in time. Stark spoke of the need for countries to demonstrate that their compliance with the entry criteria is sustainable beyond the snapshot moment. As we can see, at least in terms of inflation, it is very hard to argue that Estonia's economic performance is.

Jean-Claude Trichet also took advantage of his visit to stress that Estonia must remain “alert” on price developments and take “forceful” action to stem inflation after joining the euro-region economy. But, understandably, Prime Minister Andrus Andrip replied that Estonia is now going to have relatively “few tools” to control price increases. The main technique available is to run a fiscal surplus to drain demand, but with an economy which is suffering from the level of output loss that Estonia's is this is hardly contemplateable.

Basically it would have been much more advisable to resolve these issues before joining the euro, but now it is a little late for that, so, who knows, maybe Estonia will eventually become the first candidate for the recently proposed EU imbalances surveillance mechanism.

As the press release puts it: "The global economic and financial crises, followed by the so-called debt crisis, exposed the need for reinforced economic governance in the Economic and Monetary Union (EMU). Economic policies need to be better co-ordinated and surveillance enhanced".

"Surveillance would start with an alert mechanism that aims at identifying Member States with potentially problematic levels of macroeconomic imbalances. The alert mechanism would consist of a scoreboard complemented by expert analysis".

"The scoreboard would be composed of a set of indicators in order to identify timely imbalances emerging in different parts of the economy. The set of indicators should be sufficiently large to cover any possible case of major imbalance and making sure that it is sufficiently sensitive to detect imbalances early on. Possible indicators would most likely include both external (e.g. current accounts, real effective exchange rates) and internal ones (e.g. private and public sector debt). The composition of the scoreboard may evolve over time due to changing threats to macroeconomic stability or advances in data availability".

"Alert thresholds would be defined and announced for each indicator. The thresholds should be seen as indicative values which would guide the assessment but should not be interpreted in a mechanical way. They should be complemented by economic judgment and country-specific expertise".

But looking at that rising inflation profile, and thinking of Prime Minister Ansips statement that the country has few tools left with which to tackle the problem, whoever would have thought that just a few short years ago Lithuania had its application to join the Euro turned down simply because its inflation wasn't considered to be sufficiently under control. My, my, how things change.
On account of its 2.63% March 2006 inflation, Lithuania has for now failed to qualify for the euro zone, while Slovenia is all set to adopt the euro in January 2007.

Lithuania meets all the criteria for the adoption of the common European currency, except for the one on inflation. The Baltic state's latest inflation figure is only marginally higher than the 2.60% benchmark applied by the Commission and the European Central Bank to decide whether a country is fit to adopt the common European currency.

According to Monetary Affairs Commissioner Joaquin Almunia, the criteria, laid down in the EU's Stability and Growth Pact, are there to be rigorously enforced.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Estonia's Long Awaited Recovery May Still Be Delayed Yet Awhile

In a recent FT Op-ed, entitled "Estonia’s recovery defies economists and academics", columnist John Dizard argued that "the “internal devaluation” policy, which means cuts in nominal costs such as wages and rents, was very hard on the population, but appears to have worked ahead of even the Estonian government’s schedule".

But as I said to John in a very enjoyable phone conversation I had with him before he wrote the piece (where he was kind enough to descibe me as a "freelance economist", one who doesn't have to answer to a boss before expressing an opinion), perhaps we should just hold on a minute before jumping to too many conclusions, since things are still far from clear. So let's take a look.

As John points out, many macro economists, among them me myself (here, and here, and here) and Paul Krugman (here) have been arguing that if the Baltic countries stick to their policy of having a fixed exchange rate with the euro, they face a long period of low growth and serious internal deflation. At the start of this debate, I pointed out that the impact of price deflation on the bank loan books would be just the same with or without devaluation: not so, said Krugman (and he was right), the impact is worse, since even the Kroon or Lati denominated loans (which in truth are quite few) are affected.

John however, does not agree, since, he tells us, the country is "stubbornly failing to comply with the predictions of what are called the 'third generation models' for currency crises" and "is already seeing a resumption of growth and a fall in its real cost of capital".

Well, as I told John at the time, the Estonian case is a complex one, since in a country with only just over a million people a myriad of special case factors can be at work, confounding results. But still, the idea is abroad that Estonia is a kind of "black swan", a data point which tends to suggest that conventional macro economic wisdom is somehow flawed. So just how valid is this view. Let's take a look at some data.

In the first place, John is undoubtedly right, economic activity has revived (slightly) in Estonia. In Q2 2010 the economy grew by a seasonally adjusted 2%, following an equivalent contraction in Q1 and growth of 2.6% in Q4 2010 (yes these are quarterly, not annual, numbers).

So the first thing to say is that if these numbers are truly well adjusted seasonally (which make be hard given the boom bust background, and the amplitude of the movement in the data) what we have is a lot of volatility out there. And in the second place, we could well ask ourselves to what extent it is valid to use that so-oft maligned expression "recovery" at this point in the Estonian context. If we look at the GDP volume index (which I have put in 4 quarter moving average format), you have to look very hard indeed (go on, squint a bit more) to actually see the uptick.

I tell you what, I'll do you all a favour, and shorten the time series and change the scale.

Well, that's a bit clearer, isn't it. I think what you can say looking at this chart is that the Estonian economy has been stabilised (no mean feat that, with an economy in freefall), but what happens next, well that, it seems to me, you can't discern from looking at the chart. To decide on that, I think, you will probably need to go back to the initial assessment you had of the problem. If, like John, you believed that what the Estonians were trying was doable, then you will probably draw the conclusion that what comes next will (eventually) be a recovery. If, like me, you had severe doubts from the outset that this was doable, then you will probably imagine the Estonians are now in for a long period of slow, "L shaped" semi-recovery, with a lot of pain still to come, further down the road. But as I say, all of these expectations probably depend on your initial theoretical assumptions (more on this later), and in that sense nothing has fundamentally changed.

That being said, there are some things that have improved in recent months. Retail sales for example.

And then there is industrial output, which is up sharply. It even almost looks like the fist leg of one of those proverbial "Vs".

And part of the reason for this improvement in output has been the recent improvement in demand for Estonian exports.

But before we get too excited about all this, we should remember that Estonia still has a goods trade deficit. That is, on balance, the net goods trade is a drag on GDP.

The problem is that the part of Estonian industry which was internationally competitive before the bust still is, but that this part is not large enough to drive the whole economy, now that the economy is export dependent. It just doesn't have a big enough share in GDP to carry the whole economy. As the Estonian statistics office put it: "GDP growth in the 2nd quarter was supported by the industrial sector exports. Due to a small domestic demand, the sales of manufacturing production on the domestic market were in downtrend. In construction, the output of which is mainly targeted at the domestic market, the generated value added showed a continuous decreasing trend".

This is what I had always expected would be the case.

It should be noted that Estonia runs a substantial services surplus, which at the present time easily cancels out the goods trade deficit. As a result, and this IS the good news, Estonia now runs a current account surplus. Which means that each month now, instead of getting more into debt, the country is steadily paying down its international liabilities. And this is important, since as John points out, Estonia is considerably less indebted externally than many other of Europe's peripheral economies, with net external debt according to IMF data only being some 30% of GDP.

But nonetheless, achieving this positive situation still has a price, and that price is that the economy is being forced to operate at well below capacity level, and the clearest indication of this is the very high continuing level of unemployment. In fact, I think John got interested in his story when he read this report, that the registered unemployment rate in Estonia fell to 12% in mid-July. Since he was aware that first quarter unemployment was somewhere around 19%, this seemed to him like a dramatic drop. But there is a confusion here, since we are dealing with two different measures of unemployment, one of them people who sign at labour exchanges to register as unemployed (and may do so because they have entitlement to unemployment benefit), and those assumed to be really unemployed when measured using ILO compatible (and EU harmonised) quarterly labour force surveys, and as this article points out, according to the latest of these surveys (April - June) there were still 128,000 unemployed, or 18.6 percent of the workforce out of work in June.

Of course, interpreting such data presents its own problems, and the issue is a complicated one, since in the first place there seems to be a large shadow economy in Estonia. According to Professor Friedrich Schneider of Austria's Linz University, based on a study that covered 37 countries, Estonia had the second largest proportion of GDP in the informal economy, with some 40% not paying tax. Top of the list was Latvia, with shadow economy accounting for 42% of the country's GDP, then came Estonia, Bulgaria, Turkey and Greece. So of course, not all those who are not signing the registers are necessarily unemployed, or in the country even, but still people are dropping out of the statistical system, according to the Estonian Health Insurance Fund some 20,000 less people are registered for health cover today than there were in March 2008. At the very least we can assume these people are not working in the formal economy or registering for welfare benefits. Whether they are working in the informal one, or working abroad, we really have no idea.

Be that as it may, according to the Estonian Statistics Office, in the 2nd quarter of 2010 the estimated number of unemployed in Estonia was 128,000 and the unemployment rate was a - seasonally not adjusted - 18.6%. So unemployment did decrease in the quarter for the first time in nearly two years, but by 1.2% (from 19.8% in Q1), and not by the rather large amount it might appear from the labour exchange registration data.

And if you go to the details of the stats office report the situation is more complex than it seems at first sight, since while the number of new unemployed has been declining, long-term unemployment continues to grow. In the 2nd quarter, 58,000 unemployed persons had been looking for a job for one year or more (long-term unemployed), of whom 19,000 had been looking for a job for two years or more (very long-term unemployed). The share of long-term unemployed among total unemployed increased to 46%, while the share of very long-term unemployed rose to 15%. The number of persons who had stopped seeking a job or discouraged persons was also larger in the 2nd quarter than in the 1st (9,000 and 7,000 respectively).

On the other hand the estimated number of employed persons was 559,000, which was up by 5,000 (0.9%) over the previous quarter. According to the statistics office, "employment increased due to seasonal and other temporary jobs typical of the 2nd quarter". Nonetheless there was employment growth, so we should be thankful for any mercy, however small. What remains to be seen is whether this improvement in employment is sustainable as Europe's economies slow going into the second half of the year.

A further bone of contention between the parties evidently concerns the so-called “internal devaluation” policy being applied by the Estonian government. As John Dizzard explains such a policy "means cuts in nominal costs such as wages and rents, (and) was very hard on the population, but appears to have worked ahead of even the Estonian government’s schedule".

When we come to scrutinise the actual data however, the fall in hourly wages has hardly been dramatic, and they have now fallen about 7% from their peak at the end of 2008. But it should be remembered in 2008 they were up by around 7%, so they are now at about the same level as they were in January 2008, following increases of 17.5% in 2006 and 20% in 2007 - rates of increase which ultimately lead to the consumption bust which followed them, and clearly not sustainable in the longer term. So, unfortunately it is just not the case that Estonia has had a very harsh policy of wage cost reduction implemented. Living standards have fallen sharply, due to the reduced hours worked, and the rapid rise in unemployment - ie due to the recession - but that is not the same thing at all as recovering lost competitiveness.

The Real Effective Exchange Rate data on all this is very clear. Up to 2005 the rise in living standards was more or less in line with sustainable economic growth. From 2006 onwards things really got out of hand, and to date only a very small part of the competitiveness loss has been clawed back.

This intrepretation is confirmed by an inspection of the CPI data, which after 9 months of registering mild interannual deflation is now back in positive territory, and more or less a full percentage point above the Eurozone average, which for a country which is supposed to be in the throes of a substantial "internal devaluation" is pretty incredible, and could be seen as another example of someone or other falling asleep at the wheel, after passing the finishing line for Eurozone membership perhaps.

John Dizzard argues that the Estonians are in position for a relatively rapid recovery (this part I don't see at all, anywhere in the data) because they started out with much less state and private debt than the others. This latter point is certainly true, but we should not miss the fact that while Estonia's state debt is very, very small, private sector debt (at around 100% of GDP, between households and corporates) is not so small, and indeed will continue to exert a significant downward pressure on credit growth for some time to come.

Now one of the points raised by John which does have a certain validity is that of lower capital costs. Given the existence of significant quantities of land and warehouse and factory accommodation which are now surplus to requirement due to the "downsizing" which has been going on (creative destruction) employers do now have access to cheaper premisses, and this can offer them lower unit costs for a given level of technology and output. The key point to get here is where the demand is going to come from, and then we are still back with the same issue: exports.

More than the internal devaluation itself, Estonia is benefitting from the decision to grant the country Euro membership. As a result the cost of servicing oustanding debt has falling, as have credit default swap spreads. John quotes one large shareholder in several Estonian companies as saying, “At the beginning of 2009, the banks were offering our companies loans at 600 to 700 basis points above six-month euribor [the euro base rate]. That’s if the money was available at all; most of the time they were cutting lines. Now the banks are offering the same companies increased lines at 100 to 300 basis points over euribor.”

But if we come to look at the impact of this cheap credit, we will see that, as in other economies where private demand is highly leveraged (the UK, the US, Spain), the uptake on all this ultra cheap credit has not exactly been massive. In both cases the interannual rates of credit growth are still negative, which is one of the key reasons domestic demand remains so weak.

Although we can see the first timid signs of recovery in the housing market, both in terms of sales volume and in terms of prices, but at this point they are just this, timid signs.

So to go back to where we started, and John Dizzard's claim that "Estonia’s recovery defies economists and academics", I would say that rather than economists and academics (or even academic economists) who Estonia's current situation does really defy is the group of people over at the ECB governing council headed by Jürgen Stark, since, as I reported back in April, consensus thinking at the ECB was that Estonia was not coming into the common currency , due to ongoing concerns about sustainability and competitiveness issues.

But that was April, and then came May, when the ECB was forced to do a "U turn" by the crushing pressure of the European Sovereign Debt Crisis, so all these (valid in my view) concerns where simply brushed aside. And anyway, how could anyone argue for keeping Estonia out on these grounds, when you have countries like Spain and Portugal on the inside. Either internal devaluation works, or....

So maybe it was better for them to stay with the line that internal devaluation works, and whether they are right or not is what we are all about to get to see. As I said at that start the post, in this case as in so many others, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. If you believe in the neo classical (academic) theory of "steady state" growth - and the guy over at Swedbank that John cites who is forecasting that Estonian gross domestic product will grow at a 4.5 per cent rate next year evidently does - then naturally Estonia's economy has only been temporarily knocked off its path by this whole unfortnate incident, and will soon be back in it habitual orbit.

If, however, like me you suspect that neo-classical steady state growth is some sort of metaphysical hocus pocus (or what they call a "necessary assumption to get the argument going") with little empirical support, then you will not be terribly convinced by all those numbers blindly and slavishly churned out by the current generation of models, and will look more to the facts on the ground. In particular, when we come to the neo classical growth theories which normally underpin the sort of optimistic analyses we see of the Estonia situation (yes John, there are academic economists on both sides), I tend to think these are flawed due to some initial erroneous assumtions Solow himself made about the impact of population dynamics on growth (see this extended argument here), and I think it is important to remember here that Estonia, along with Hungary, Latvia and Bulgaria, is one of the countries on Europe's Eastern flank where population as well as ageing is actually falling. So I suggest you treat any analysis which talks about a steady recovery in internal demand but does not explicitly explain how this point has been taken into account....... well I suggest you treat it with more than a pinch of salt.

And then, of course, there is the idea of "export dependence" and ageing, and what this all means for the future trajectory of the Estonian economy. This argument, which Claus Vistesen and I have been advancing for some years now (and is one of the reasons so many of those famous "predictions" turn out to be valid), shot to the financial headlines recently when Dominic Wilson and Swarnali Ahmed of Goldman Sachs drew the obvious to everyone's attention - namely that balance of payments current accounts are significantly driven by life cycle savings. Maybe you can argue about the validity of the age group classifiaction they use (an empirical calibration issue), but the obvious is obvious: the relative proportions of different age groups across different countries goes a long way to explaining the pattern of global savings and capital flows. And as Claus Vistesen illustrated in the chart below, this helps us understand how societies (Germany, Japan...) become increasingly export dependent as they age.

So, as I said earlier, your expectations about the future outlook for the Estonian economy will largely depend on the initial theoretical assumptions you make at the outset. If you assume that neo classical steady state growth really exists, and that all this stuff about ageing, capital flows and export dependence is exaggerated, then you will see the recovery coming in the here and now, and if you don't.........

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The Social Impacts of the Economic Slowdown: The Latvian experience

Guest Post by Eliana Marino

The economic and financial crisis that started in 2008 seems to be on its way to being overcome by many EU member states, but the population in some of the most touched countries is still labouring under the ongoing effects of the slowdown. Latvia, which underwent an annualised decline of 18% of GDP in the first quarter of 2009 and still has the highest unemployment rate in the EU, is experiencing a veritable revolution in its population structure and is preparing to face serious demographic challenges.

The strong recession experienced in the last few years has sadly confirmed the high propensity of Latvian people to migrate for economic reasons and generated a real “exodus” of working age population.

Before 1999, a peak of emigration was registered due to the endogenous migration potential of the collapsed Soviet Union, but, from 1999 to 2002 the outflows seemed to stabilize and to show a slowing trend. This trend changed with the accession to the European Union and the immediate application of the free movement of labour by UK, Ireland and Sweden, which decided to open their borders to New Member States immigrants without any transitional restrictions. These conditions created an increase in the number of emigrants in 2006 and the “old” member states definitely replaced the Russian Federation and the ex Soviet Republics as main countries of destination.

The decline of the outflow in 2007 is linked to Latvian extraordinary economic growth which appeared to guarantee an increase in the wellbeing of the population. This situation started to deteriorate in the second half of 2008, generating a new rise in emigration decisions and increasing more and more in the following year.
Net migration has always been negative and, combined with a Total Fertility Rate among the lowest in EU, it strongly contributed to a progressive and continuous decline of the total population.

Official data, as analyzed above, cannot provide a real portrait of migration dynamics in Latvia. While the registration of immigrants is enough reliable due to the strict controls at the external borders of the EU, emigration statistics are completely unreliable because the large majority of emigrants did not declare its departure and no alternative method is adopted to catch up their real number. The gap between registered and factual data is showed by the comparison with statistics provided by the destination countries, as showed in the graph below:

More recent data were collected through the EU funded project The Geographic Mobility of the Labour Force , consisting of a survey conducted in 2007. The study arrived at the conclusion that a bit more than 40˙000 people emigrated between 2004 and 2005 (87% more than registered data). The authors forecasted that intensive emigration was expected to continue and that, looking at the number of respondents who said that they wonted to leave and at those who already did something in pursuit of this dream, by 2010 between 10˙000 and 16˙000 people were supposed to leave Latvia, thus totaling 50˙000 to 80˙000 emigrants from 2004 to 2010.

These estimates were presented in 2007 when Latvia was going through a period of sustained economic growth and no one could even imagine the economic collapse which the country is undergoing in this moment.

The survey, which I personally conducted in Riga from September to December 2009 and which involved some of the major Latvian experts on migration issues, showed that around 30,000 people are supposed to have left Latvia in 2009 and the same number is forecasted also for 2010.

These massive emigration flows from Latvia can strongly affect the future demographic and economic structure of the country, creating serious problems of labour shortage, unsustanability of the pension system and huge population decline.

Since the years of great economic growth, Latvia experienced a huge problem of labour shortage due not only to the lack of high skilled professionals but also to the general discrepancy between demand and offer of labour. In 2006-2007 this situation was one of the main topics of political and public debate and, under the pressures of the enterprises, the government approved a more liberal immigration policy in order to select labour force from abroad.

The downturn of 2008 caused an inversion of the trend: enterprises were obliged to reduce the labour force and the employment rate decreased together with the level of wages. These elements represented the main push factors for emigration and they are currently generating a real “exodus” of the labour force, creating dangerous structural problem in Latvian economy. Actually, lack of labour and especially of high skilled professionals will be a veritable challenge for the economic recovery of the country and nowadays it is one of the main reasons of concern for Latvian politicians and intellectuals.

From the demographic point of view, the impact of emigration can be considered under two different aspects:

- emigration of working age population makes the demographic burden increase: the number of inactive people (children and retired people) exceeds the number of active people, creating serious challenges for the sustainability of the welfare system;

- the most part of the outflows consists of working age population (from 15 to 65 years old) that includes people in reproductive age (from 15 to 49 years old). A huge number of emigrants in this particular age group means a further reduction of the natural increase of the population. In fact, they will probably have their children abroad or the migration decision itself will discourage the creation of numerous families.

This situation has to be combined with the low levels of Total Fertility Rate which characterize the country since more than 20 years ago. In Latvia, the first demographic transition to a rational regime of reproduction began at the end of XIX Century and the total fertility rate was lower than the replacement level already in the second half of the Century, due to repressions and harsh living conditions during the wars and the Soviet occupation. The replacement level was met only in the 80s after the introduction of partially paid child birth leave. Since then, the birth rate has decreased to unprecedented level and has represented an issue of serious concern for Latvian government. In particular, the decline of total fertility rate accelerated during the economic and political transition, since the Soviet centralized welfare collapsed and the national government opted for a shock therapy instead of a gradual and progressive transition to the market economy.

However, Latvian government recognised the need to ensure reproduction of the population as a prerequisite for the nation’s existence and started to evaluate adequate tools for family support. The adoption of successful family policies made the birth rate level stabilize since 1999 and start to increase at the beginning of the XXI Century. Anyway, the total fertility rate never reached the replacement level and it is still among the lowest in the EU (average 1.4 children per woman in the period 2005-2010 ).

As a consequence of these indicators, Latvian population dropped from 2.5 to 2.2 million people in 15 years and the negative growth rate is expected to accelerate in the next years.

The experts interviewed in the last months of 2009 proposed different solutions to both economic and demographic challenges but they agreed on the fact that a more liberal immigration policy might be really helpful to solve problems of labour shortage and pension sustainability as well as to contribute to the inversion of the negative demographic trends. However, this proposal, which is one of the main topic of public debate since the economic boom, is in direct conflict with the hostility of national population toward immigrants. Latvian critical historical experience with integration of different ethnicities is the clearest explanation of this hostility and probably some years are still needed to overcome these cultural barriers.

In definitive, the results of the survey allow to conclude that Latvia needs some important structural reforms (concerning an efficient social policy, a comprehensive population policy, a strong action against corruption and a reduction of the bureaucratic burden) to be implemented by the national government in order to prepare the country to play its role at the European and international level and to take the best advantages from the opportunities provided by the integration and globalization process. The first step to achieve this objective is the promotion of a cultural change whose main goal is to dump the “dependency from the past” and to open mental and factual borders to modernity.


1/ Latvija Statistika (Central Statistical Bureau of Latvia), www.csb.gov.lv, accessed on April 17th 2010

2/ Herm A. et Al, THESIM-Toward Harmonised European Statistics on International Migration, Country Report Latvia, Sixth Framework Programme, priority 8.1: Policy Oriented Research, Integrating and Strengthening the European Research Area, December 2004

3/ Krišjāne Z. et Al., The Geographic Mobility of the Labour Force, National Programme of European Structural Funds “Labour Market Research”, project “Welfare Ministry Research”, University of Latvia, co-financed by the European Union, 2007

4/ Eglīte P., National Policy for Increasing the Birth Rate in Latvia, in Humanities and Social Sciences Latvia, University of Latvia, Institute of Economics-Latvian Academy of Sciences, 2008

5/ UNdata, www.data.un.org accessed on January 30th 2010

Latvia: Living in the Land of Extremes

Guest Post by Morten Hansen, Stockholm School of Economics in Riga

Here in Latvia the internal devaluation continues and the debate is whether the economy is flexible enough for this experiment. I say perhaps it is, Edward says perhaps it isn’t but one thing is for sure: the Latvian economy is (possibly perversely) indeed flexible.

I would like to illustrate this point with a series of numbers for the extremes that we have witnessed in Latvia so in the following I list a series of macroeconomic variables and the times at which they were at their extremes during the boom and during the current bust. After that I try a little discussion of why the development was so extreme here.

Numbers are from the Central Statistical Bureau of Latvia and from the Bank of Latvia, I use monthly data when I can, otherwise quarterly. All growth rates are y-o-y.

GDP growth – from the biggest increase in the EU to the biggest decline
2006 Q3: +12.7%
2009 Q3: –19.1%

Inflation – the highest inflation rate in the EU becomes the biggest rate of deflation in less than two years
2008 V: +17.9%
2010 II: –4.2%

Wage growth – again both are extremes also in an EU context
2007 Q3: +32.9%
2009 Q4: –12.1%

Unemployment rate (among 15-64 years)
2007 Q4: 5.4%
2010 Q1: 20.7%

Current account (% of GDP) – has anyone ever seen a +40 percentage point turnaround in the current account balance in less than three years?
2006 Q4: –27.2%
2009 Q2: +14.2%

Credit growth, households
2003 VIII: +85.8% (an early spike but growth rates in excess of 60% continued for several years)
2010 IV: –5.1%

Credit growth, firms
2006 II: +54.7%
2010 III: –7.9%

Money supply growth (M2)
2006 X: +43.9%
2009 VIII: –12.5%

Closely linked to the three latter sets of statistics one can note that house prices dropped some 53% in 2009, see here p. 6, again the largest decline in the EU, while several years during the boom had recorded increases around 60% y-o-y.

But one variable hasn’t changed and here I am of course thinking of the exchange rate which remains at a parity of 0.702804 LVL/EUR and is managed in a narrow +/–1% band. Those who follow Latvia will know, however, that there were great market uncertainties surrounding the peg first in March 2007 then in November 2008 (at the time of the nationalization of Parex Bank) where 10-14 November was the week with the biggest ever intervention by Bank of Latvia, which sold 267.65 mill. EUR. Altogether mid-November – mid-December saw a loss of some 18% of foreign reserves – more details on interventions here. In terms of interest rates the June 2009 scare saw the overnight interbank rate (RIGIBOR) peak at 33% on 26 June.

Latvia is not the only country with a credit boom, with a housing boom or with problems of overheating but one may ask why it was so violent here, why almost all numbers were and are more extreme. I shall try to provide some explanations below.

1. The Latvian credit boom was not just a boom, it was more of an avalanche as it represented the emergence of the financial sector. Whereas loans to individuals and enterprises constituted some 16% of GDP in 2000 this reached 91% of GDP in 2008 X, when loans saw their peak.

2. There was a naïve belief in rapid income convergence both among politicians (see this story from the Baltic Times in 2006 where a goal was formulated by Latvia’s First Party to raise Latvia’s standards of living to those of Ireland in ten (!!!!!) years….). This belief must at least to some extent have been shared by the banks since it can explain why they provided large loans compared to actual income.

3. The belief – or certainly the hope thereof – was strong among ordinary people, too. For decades during Soviet rule most had been denied the possibility of one’s own flat or car. Thus it is not surprising that when something called a loan appears as a possibility, many took it. One may also call it the result of a financially uneducated people which is not to say that such do not exist elsewhere, just look at the subprime market in the US or Brits (and others) buying summer houses in Bulgaria or Turkey.

4. Latvia’s fiscal policy was highly procyclical during the boom thus exacerbating this boom; major consolidation efforts now act as similar procyclical fiscal policy, this time exacerbating the bust.

5. Too late (2007) Latvia introduced a credit register – there is a story about one person who managed to borrow from no fewer than 25 different banks….

6. Latvia has many more banks than Estonia or Lithuania and this perhaps led to more aggressive and less prudent lending to keep up market shares.

7. Some also suggest that due to the attractiveness of Riga and its seaside resort/city Jurmala to people from Russia even more froth was created in the Latvian real estate market.

8. The public economic-political debate was poor in the ‘fat years’ and it was somehow ‘unpatriotic’ to argue that problems were building up.

9. And, lastly and more speculative, but I could imagine that some of the Swedish and other foreign banks that entered brought with them a perception at the subconscious level of the Latvian market being similar to their home markets in terms of customers’ realism and honesty, features that were not always met. Some customers had unrealistic expectations of their future pay (but can you really blame them when wages were growing in excess of 30% a year?), some were most likely dodgy customers from the outset and the banks were a tad naïve. I am speculating but from conversations with bankers I am also sure I am right….

And in the end one may just wonder what the total cost of miscalculations due to an environment of extreme macroeconomic uncertainty has been for individuals, enterprises, banks and the public sector.

To end on a lighter note: At the time of writing the outdoor temperature is +32° (90F), which is hot here. Less than half a year ago we had temperatures down to –30° (–22F) so Latvia is not just extreme with respect to economic indicators.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Is Estonia's Euro Membership A Done Deal?

Well, if you read this report from Euractiv, citing unnamed EU Commission officials, it is:

"If nothing extraordinary happens, the Commission will give its positive opinion for the accession of Estonia to the euro zone on 12 May," an EU official said, clearing the way for Baltic country to join the euro in 2011.

There just one little snag here: that extraordinary, "fat tail" event seems to have just happened. For the Commission to be able to move forward on Estonia's Euro Membership, the ECB have to agree. And it is here that Estonian journalist Mikk Salu steps in (in Estonian in the newspaper Eesti Päevaleht, summarised in English here) and says "not so fast". Salu reports on a closed-door meeting of the Economic and Monetary Affairs Committee of the European Parliament held last Tuesday (April 13). The meeting had a single-item agenda: Estonia's membership of the Eurozone, and the meeting was attended by ECB Executive Board member Jüergen Stark. According to MEPs who attended the meeting (but did not wish to be identified), Stark was "stark": Estonia is not going to be admitted. The reason given was that in the wake of the recent crisis affecting the Eurozone, new criteria will be introduced - including per capita GDP and competitiveness sustainability - and on these counts Estonia will not qualify.

Salu also spoke to Estonian MEP Ivari Padar, who attended the meeting and confirmed the substance of the discussion, although Padar did try to mediate the situation slightly, saying, "you know, he is a central banker, and central bankers are a conservative lot", etc etc. On phoning the ECB itself and the Commission the only reply he got to a straight question seems to have been "no comment".

Basically, as I said, maybe the ECB are a conservative crowd, but I think it is very hard to see Estonia being admitted to the Euro without ECB backing, and indeed looking at what is happening over in Greece at the moment, and in the German Constitutional Court, I think it is very hard to see any new members at all in the immediate future. Consensus thinking right now seems to be more towards small(er) is more beautiful.

None of this surprises me, indeed when I wrote my last post on Estonia, back in February, it seemed to be an increasingly likely outcome.
But as Fitch pointed out when they raised their Estonia outlook, while eurozone membership looks increasingly possible it is not yet certain. Fitch warned in their report that even if Estonia meat all the formal Maastricht reference criteria for euro entry there is still a risk that the European authorities' interpretation of these same criteria could lead them to reject Estonia's application. According to Fitch, in Estonia's case uncertainty surrounded whether the idea of "sustainable price performance" was going to be consistent with the deflation which is to be expected from such a severe recession, after inflation had so recently been in the double digit range. The agency also added that one-off measures taken by the government to reduce the budget deficit in 2009 could also count against it in the EU authorities' judgment of whether the medium-term budget plans are credible.

The first point is an important one I think, and is reiterated by the ECB's own Jürgen Stark in an interview given to the German magazine Der Spiegel for this weekend: "But when taking on board new members, we will need to take an even closer look, concerning the data and the sustainability of convergence," he is quoted as saying.

Indeed if we go back to the 172 page EU Commission document leaked to the German magazine Der Spiegel last month, the EU Stability and Growth Pact is increasingly going to focus on issues surrounding competitiveness as well as on fiscal deficit ones. That is what the whole deabate over the Greek and Spanish economies which EU leaders are engaging in this week is all about. And any country which is not considered to be in completely good health under the SGP criteria is hardly likely to get the green light from the ECB and Ecofin.

It is obvious that the Estonian economy is still suffering from earlier structural distortions which have not yet been corrected. If we come to the consumer price index, this was only down about 2% in 2009, far short of the deflationary adjustment which will be needed to restore growth and competitiveness.

And to cap it all, for the first time since the start of the financial crisis, Moody's has chosen this, of all, moments to up its ratings outlooks for Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. The decision was apparently based on the idea that the contraction has been stabilized (which it has), but as we are unfortunately about to see, stabilization and getting back to growth are not one and the same thing. In Estonia's case the more favourable rating was a reflection of the expectation that the country "will soon be able to join the eurozone":

Estonia’s “economy and banking sector are exhibiting signs of a gradual recovery,” Kenneth Orchard, a Moody’s analyst in London, said. “Equally important, the government’s impressive fiscal performance in 2009 means that Estonia is likely to be permitted to adopt the euro next year.”

And if I'm reading this report aright, Latvia just declared a 9% general government fiscal deficit for 2009, well above the 6.7% which was originally estimated. Cry victory if you will, but perhaps it would be prudent to wait till the war is actually over before you cry it too loudly.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Too Soon To Cry "Victory" On Latvia?

"Doom-mongers" - the Economist tells us - "are licking their wounds". And why exactly are they licking their wounds? Well for two years now (apparently) they have been telling us that "the struggle to save the lat’s peg to the euro was bound to end in tears". As you could imagine right in the very forefront of these so called doom-mongers is to be found yours very truly (and here), and of course Nobel Economist Paul Krugman (and here).

But while I have never thought of myself as especially adverse to admitting defeat when faced with compelling reasons to do so, just why, we might ask ouselves, should we start to think about licking our wounds right now (and why our wounds, since it is poor old Latvia which has been subjected to all the blood-letting implied by this none-too-convincing "thought experiment" turned reality)?

Well, in the first place, given the dramatic current account correction, Latvia's outlook has been revised from negative to stable by Standard and Poor's rating agency, which means - when you get down to the nitty gritty - that they don't expect any further downward revisions in Latvia's sovereign credit rating in the next six months.

Standard & Poor’s, a rating agency, has raised its outlook on Latvia’s debt from negative to stable (ie, it no longer expects further downgrades). The current account, in deficit to the tune of 27% of GDP in late 2006, is in surplus. Exports are recovering. Interest rates have plunged and debt spreads over German bonds have narrowed (see chart). Fraught negotiations with the IMF and the European Union have kept a €7.5 billion ($10 billion) bail-out on track, in return for spending cuts and tax rises worth a tenth of GDP.
And anyway, Latvia is not as bad as Greece.

Even so, Latvia looks good when compared with Greece. It did not lie about its public finances or use accounting tricks. Strikes have been scanty. Protests are fought in the courts, not the streets. Both Greece and Latvia have had hard knocks, but Greeks became used to a good life that they are loth to give up. Latvians remain glad just to be on the map.
As evidence for just how much better Latvia is doing than Greece the Economist cite the movements in the respective bond spreads, and of course, the extra interest the Greek government has to pay to raise money (with respect to equivalent German bonds) is now marginally more than the extra interest Latvia has to pay, but then Greece has yet to go to the IMF.

But just in case both these arguments seem rather like clutching at straws when compared to the "gravitas" of the situation, there is a "clincher".

"despite a fall in GDP last year of 17.5%, Latvia seems to have achieved
something many thought impossible: an internal devaluation. This meant regaining competitiveness not by currency depreciation but by deep cuts in wages and public spending. In a recent discussion of Greece, Jörg Asmussen, a German minister, praised Latvia for its self-discipline".

Well, I'm sure that having a positive reference from a German minister in a discussion on Greece is a positive sign, but hang on a minute: just what internal devaluation is our author talking about here, and what deep cuts in wages and salaries? According to the latest available data from the Latvian Statistics Office, average wages in Latvia were down 10% in September 2009 over 2008, but since wages in September 2008 were up 6.5% over wages in September 2007, when the Latvian economy was already in deep trouble and wages and prices were already seriously out of line, then they have only actually fallen back some 4.15% over the two year period. I am sure these cuts are painful (a 20% unemployment rate, and young people emigrating is even more painful), but I would hardly call this a "deep cut" yet awhile.

The thing to remember here is the difficult characterists imposed by the presence of a peg. Latvian real wages (when adjusted for inflation) may well have fallen more, but this is to no avail (and simply makes the internal consumption problem worse), since what matters are the Euro equivalent prices of Latvian wages and exports. This is one of the reasons why in these circumstances a peg is such a horrible thing.

And if you're still not very convinced, let's try the Eurostat equivalent data for average hourly wage costs, which had in fact only fallen by 3.5% year on year in the third quarter of 2009.

Why the difference between average wages and average hourly labour costs? Well, given the depth of the recession people are obviously earning less, since they are working less, but this doesn't help overall competitiveness, since what matters here is the hourly cost of each unit of labour. I'm sorry if this is all fairly turgid economic data stuff (yawn, yawn, yawn) but if you want to cry victory, you really do need to check your facts a bit first.

In fact, as I said in my last post, additional evidence from the consumer price index suggests the "internal devaluation" is only working at a hellishly slow pace. Prices were only down by 3.3% in January 2010 over January 2009 according to the latest HICP data from Eurostat.

And while producer prices have fallen a little further - by 6.6% in January over January 2009 - there is still a long long way to go.

Basically there is no doubt that Latvia's great economic fall may be coming to an end, but as I explained in this post here, that is not the same thing at all as resuming growth. To get back to growth Latvia's internal devaluation needs to be driven hard enough and deep enough to generate a sufficient export surplus to drive headline economic growth at a sufficient speed to start creating jobs again. This is not about a fiscal adjustment, it never was, and it is little consolation for Latvia to be compared with Greece and told that they are doing just that little bit better. Cry Victory we are told, and unlease the jobs of war. Would that things were as easy done as said!

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Estonia's Economy "Only" Contracts By 9.4% in Q4 2009

Hard on the heals of yesterday's Latvian GDP numbers we now have news that Estonia’s economy shrank at the slowest annual pace in a year at the end of 2009 as a modest recovery in exports and one-time stock-building helped offset the impact of the continuing decline in consumer spending. In fact gross domestic product fell 9.4 percent, which compares with a 15.6 percent drop in the third quarter, and a 16.1 percent decline in the second one. So the recession is evidently easing.

Indeed, startling as it may sound, the economy even grew during the quarter - by a seasonally adjusted 2.6 percent when compared with the third quarter. The news caused some surprise as even the Estonian Finance Ministry had been expecting worse results - an annual contraction of something in the region of 11 to 12 percent. The critical little detail is that the numbers were skewed, since they were affected by a one-off stock- building effect, according to the Finance Ministry, since companies built up their inventories in anticipation of a January tax increase on tobacco, alcohol and motor fuels. As the ministry also added, economic growth will thus see a “negative effect” in the first quarter of 2010 as inventories will inevitably be run down again.

"The alcohol, tobacco and motor fuel excises were applied in the beginning of the year, so the stocks of those products were increased, and that gave a positive move to the GDP in the fourth quarter, but will give a negative influence in the beginning of this year,” according to Andrus Sääsk Head of Macroeconomy at the Ministry of Finance.

No Sign Of Any Real Recovery

So, as we are seeing in the other Baltic States, the recession is gradually winding down, but there is no end to the agony in sight, since structural distortions in the economies produced by the earlier boom will impede any immediate recovery. If we look at retail sales the pattern is similar to what we are seeing elsewhere, and these are now down about 28% from their February 2008 peak.

A similar situation is to be observed in industrial output, which fell back again in December (by a seasonally adjusted 2.2% from November) according to statistics office data. Industrial output is now down 32.5% from the February 2008 peak.

And while exports have picked up slightly from the first quarter 2009 trough, momentum has not been strong enough yet to reverse the deadweight drag of domestic consumption.

The goods trade deficit has improved - indeed the 2009 deficit was the smallest since 1995 - but it is still a deficit, although the country does run a healthy services balance.

And the services balance is what makes the difference in turning the current account deficit into a surplus.

On the other hand unemployment continues to rise, and is the third highest in the European Union (after Latvia and Spain), hitting 15.2% in September - which is the last month for which the Eurostat has data at this point. Indeed statistics regularity and quality is one of the issues which Estonia will need to attend to as part of its general euro ambitions, as the ECB took the trouble to point out recently.

Demographic Issues Also Need To Be Addressed

Estonia's population fell again in 2009 - by 400 - and was estimated by the statistics office to be in the region of 1,340,000 at the end of the year. A falling death rate meant the population decline slowed down over the year, but the number of live births decreased for the first time in eight years (see chart below), raising issues about the longer term impact of the crisis. Some 15,807 live births were registered in total in 2009 - 221 birth less than in 2008.

While the situation is a lot less serious than the one Latvia faces, the downturn in Estonian births is a rather bitter blow for a country where fertility had rebounded substantially from earlier lows, and while the 1.6Tfr was still a long way from population replacement level, the improvement had been a welcome one.

Credit Rating Improvement

Estonia's credit rating outlook was raised this week by Standard & Poor’s, from negative to stable. More than the improvement, what is interesting is the reason given, since the agency cited improving prospects for euro adoption next year. This has both a positive and a negative reading. The positive reading is that S&Ps think Estonia will meet the eurozone membership criteria. The negative one is that the improvement is not due to any underlying change in the country's growth prospects, which are at the end of the day the main area of immediate concern.

Indeed S&Ps have an A- rating, the fourth-lowest investment grade, on Estonia and the move to stable from negative, means the rating is more likely to be left unchanged than raised or lowered. The rating was in fact cut from A last August, and evidently losing the A- rating would give a rather negative signal given that the ECB is about to return to at least one A- as the minimum collateral condition.

“Estonia has stabilized its public finances, which significantly increases its prospects for eurozone accession in 2011,” S&P’s Frankfurt-based Kai Stukenbrock and London-based Frank Gill said in a statement. The “outlook reflects our view of Estonia’s improving economic flexibility and the prospect of near-term eurozone accession against the challenges inherent in adapting the economy to lessen its reliance on external funds.”

Fitch currently has a BBB+ rating on Estonia, and the outlook on this was also raised to stable from negative on February 5. Moody’s Investors Service has an A1 rating on Estonia with a negative outlook.

Euro adoption terms require countries to maintain fiscal deficits below 3 percent of GDP, limit debt to 60 percent of GDP and ensure inflation isn’t more than 1.5 percentage points above the Eurozone average, and Estonia has met all the criteria, according to Prime Minister Ansip speaking yesterday. Whether Ansip's optimism is totally justified or not the EU Commission and the European Central Bank will publish their report assessing Estonia’s readiness to join sometime in May, and (assuming this is favourable) the Ecofin council of EU finance ministers will take the critical decision on entry on June 8.

But as Fitch pointed out when they raised their Estonia outlook, while eurozone membership looks increasingly possible it is not yet certain. Fitch warned in their report that even if Estonia meat all the formal Maastricht reference criteria for euro entry there is still a risk that the European authorities' interpretation of these same criteria could lead them to reject Estonia's application. According to Fitch, in Estonia's case uncertainty surrounded whether the idea of "sustainable price performance" was going to be consistent with the deflation which is to be expected from such a severe recession, after inflation had so recently been in the double digit range. The agency also added that one-off measures taken by the government to reduce the budget deficit in 2009 could also count against it in the EU authorities' judgment of whether the medium-term budget plans are credible.

The first point is an important one I think, and is reiterated by the ECB's own Jürgen Stark in an interview given to the German magazine Der Spiegel for this weekend: "But when taking on board new members, we will need to take an even closer look, concerning the data and the sustainability of convergence," he is quoted as saying.

Indeed if we go back to the 172 page EU Commission document leaked to the German magazine Der Spiegel last month, the EU Stability and Growth Pact is increasingly going to focus on issues surrounding competitiveness as well as on fiscal deficit ones. That is what the whole deabate over the Greek and Spanish economies which EU leaders are engaging in this week is all about. And any country which is not considered to be in completely good health under the SGP criteria is hardly likely to get the green light from the ECB and Ecofin.

It is obvious that the Estonian economy is still suffering from earlier structural distortions which have not yet been corrected. If we come to the consumer price index, this was only down about 2% in 2009, far short of the deflationary adjustment which will be needed to restore growth and competitiveness.

The producer price index has also not moved as far and as fast as will be needed, since it was only down some 3% on the year.

So the sad truth is that, whether from inside or outside the eurozone, despite some extensive and painful sacrifices made in not having government spending to fall back on during an extraordinarily deep recession - but then, as Krugman would say, Estonia's problems were never fiscal ones anyway, they were always competitiveness ones - there is still a long hard road out there in front. Whatever the advantages and disadvantages of the chosen path one thing is for sure, it will be absolutely impossible for the country to leave the job half done.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Latvia's Economy Contracts Almost 18 Percent in Q4 2009

Well, as we say in English, it never rains but it pours. Latvia, which has had the deepest recession of all 27 European Union member states, contracted by nearly 18 per cent in the fourth quarter of 2009. 'Compared to the same period of 2008, gross domestic product (GDP) value has decreased by 17.7 per cent,' according to the national statistics office statement.

The fall was led by a 30-per-cent annual drop in the retail sector. Retail sales are now down by 36% from their April 2008 peak and there is little sign of any turnaround at this point.

Industrial output, which rose slightly over the quarter, fell back again in Deecember (by a seasonally adjusted 4.2%) following a sharp rise in November. Output is still down more than 17% from the February 2008 peak.

Latvian exports were down again in December, making for the second consecutive monthly fall. Despite all the fuss about internal devaluation the CPI was only down by 3.1% in January over January 2009. Prices are still far from being competitive, and no early rebound in export growth is to be expected. Over 2009 as a whole exports - at 3,571.6 mln lats – were down over 2008 by 19.4%, but imports - at 4,633.7 mln lats – fell even further, by 38.4% which is why the trade deficit reduced substantially, but note there was still adeficit. The deficit fell from 225.3 mln Lats in January to 69.7 mln Lats in December. Over 2009 as a whole foreign trade turnover totalled ay 8.2 billion lats, a drop of 31 per cent when compared to 2008.

Unemployment hit 22.8% in December according to Eurostat data, the highest in the European Union.

And even that famed "internal devaluation" seems to be working hellishly slowly. As I say, prices were only down by 3.1% in January 2010 over January 2009 (and probably even less on the EU HICP measure) according to the latest data from the Latvian statistics office.

Even the statistics office statement that GDP actually grew by 2.4 per cent compared to the third-quarter offers cold comfort, since this data is not seasonally adjusted, and the economy will almost certainly be back down again in the first quarter of 2010.

Meanwhile the consequences of this strong recession in Latvia - more and more Latvians are leaving in search of work elsewhere, while fewer and fewer young people feel confident enough to have children (see chart below) - will leave a long scar, which will be hard to heal, and which make the long term future and sustainability of the country even more uncertain.

As the Washington based CEPR argue "the depth of the recession and the difficulty of recovery are attributable in large part to the decision to maintain the country’s overvalued fixed exchange rate, because it prevents the government from pursuing the policies necessary to restore economic growth". Maybe next time someone will learn the lesson before tragedy strikes, and not afterwards.