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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.