Friday, March 09, 2007

Eastern Europe's economies

Hot and bothered

Mar 8th 2007
From The Economist print edition


Overheating economies, slow reform and messy politics make a grim mixture


NEVER before has eastern Europe enjoyed such good fortune. Most of the region is anchored in NATO and the European Union; it is prosperous, stable, democratic and secure. GDP growth is surprising everyone. Even a supposed sluggard such as Macedonia is growing at 4%, much faster than “old Europe”. In most other countries growth is above 5%; in the Baltic stars of Estonia and Latvia it is over 10%.

Yet the mood is surprisingly gloomy. Across the region, millions have left to work abroad, sending wages soaring, threatening competitiveness and worrying investors. Countries not yet in the EU fear that even rapid reforms may not help them join. In the ten ex-communist countries already in the club, reform has largely stalled. In Romania the political discipline that preceded accession has ended spectacularly. In Slovakia reforms may be reversing. As for the euro, nowhere in the region looks likely to follow Slovenia's example and join soon.

The immediate fear, stoked by choppy markets and memories of financial crises in East Asia in 1997 and in Latin America more often, is of an economic crash. It might start in the Baltics. This week Fitch, a rating agency, warned Latvia that it faced downgrades if it did not get its economy under control. In 2006 Latvia's current-account deficit was 20% of GDP, the highest in the EU. That reflects a ballooning in foreign banks' mortgage lending to locals, denominated mostly in euros, which has fuelled a property boom. The story in Estonia and Lithuania is similar—and looks equally unsustainable. For all their gorgeous architecture, it is hard to see why the Baltic capitals should be pricier than Berlin, Vienna or Frankfurt.

It is also easy to imagine how the property bubbles might pop. Construction firms are finding it hard to hire the workers they need to finish the apartments that the property companies have already paid for, using money their customers have already borrowed from abroad. In a bizarre sign of overheating, some Estonian firms are even importing workers from Finland. A harder question is what might happen next. The Baltic banks are largely foreign-owned by solid Scandinavian banks. They can afford to bail out their local subsidiaries if they need to. Only Latvia has a big locally owned bank, Parex, but it has been a relatively cautious lender.

All three countries have fixed exchange rates (currency boards in Estonia and Lithuania, a currency peg in Latvia) fully backed by foreign-currency reserves. It is reassuring that none of them has much foreign debt, and that their currencies and securities are only lightly traded, creating little scope for a speculative attack. Less reassuring, however, their exchange-rate regimes leave little room for monetary tightening. And weak coalition politics undermine hopes of a tight fiscal policy or of structural economic reforms that would maintain competitiveness as costs rise.

Edward Parker of Fitch says that a Baltic crash might mean that some countries have to follow the example of Portugal, which has been stuck with high costs and low growth after an unsustainable boom. That would be sad for the Balts. But need it spread to other east European countries?

On the face of it, no. Only Slovakia has Baltic-style growth (an annual rate of 9.6% in the fourth quarter of 2006, with industrial production up by 17.4% year-on-year in January). It is more flexible (with a floating exchange rate) and its central bank is still soundly run. The government insists that it wants to join the euro in 2009. But some in the euro area mutter that Slovakia's low inflation will be deemed “unsustainable” when the time comes.

A bigger worry is Hungary. The government is trying to regain control of public finances after a splurge to win last year's election. Hungarians have borrowed hugely in foreign currency, assuming the euro is a certainty. That creates all the conditions for a nasty crunch, with devaluation, possible default and recession. After some perilous wobbles last year, the government's austerity programme has won plaudits from bankers. But planned reforms of public spending have yet to bite, and the government has been timid in conceding higher public-sector pay.

The underlying failing is weak and indecisive government across the region, which needs years of good government if it is to catch up. Romania, the second-largest east European EU member, is paralysed by a political feud between the prime minister and president. As a by-product, the upper house of parliament has voted to dismiss the justice minister, Monica Macovei. In sunny economic weather, such political shenanigans would be mere details. In a chillier climate, they make east Europe's future more worrying.


8 comments:

La Russophobe said...

Hey Edward, nice redesign! You are moving up in the world, I see. Excellent!

Martin said...

Edward,

Perhaps the cart of high growth economic reform was put before the horse of stability.

With everything presumably privatised off to foreigners, it's hard not to see how a 'Domino' effect wouldn't crash the whole lot.

Ah, neoliberalism! Don't you love it?

krksr said...

Martin,

I have to confess that your words make no sense to me, other than giving me a general feeling that what you say is negative.

Could you please explain what you think has been done wrong in various Eastern European countries, and why you think that a "crash" is now inevitable (if that is, indeed, what you're saying)?

Kristjan in Tallinn, Estonia

Edward Lucas said...

Kristjan, I agree with you and disagree with Martin. Estonia has been a historic success story of economic transformation, for the reasons given in the article. Would it have been better with a "softer" monetary policy? No
Would it have been better with slower privatisation? No
Would it have been better with a more regulated economy? No

Estonia's problem now is that the public sector reforms have finally been outstripped by the private sector. That is a common problem across the region, and for a time Estonia was shielded because its public sector was relatively efficient.

Poor public services mean a) more emigration b) slower productivity growth (chiefly because of bottlenecks in education, also because of labour market restrictions)

I don't see what "neoliberalism" has to do with this. Is there any example in the post-communist world, Martin, which you think HAS followed the right sequence and emphasis of reform?

cheers

Edward

Martin said...

No.

Kristopher said...

Predictions:

1) The poor in Estonia will bear the brunt. Obvious, but had to throw that in there, newly converted Sotsdem voter that I am.

2) But most people will squeak by and be able to avoid foreclosure. Most of the debt was taken when the real estate was still at £1000/sq m and under mark rather than the current £1500+.

3) People "changing homelands rather than their jobs", to paraphrase a 2007 campaign slogan, is a problem, and in the case of medical workers, I have no good ideas. Probably impolitic of me as a foreign Estonian to even speak on the topic of leaving, but my gut feeling tells me anyone who leaves for good on pure economic reasons probably isn't that profoundly Estonian to begin with. Meanwhile, I think we will see a back-to-the-land movement (already just noticeable among the young educated urbanites), spurred by the growing popularity of the Greens, gaining strength, and who knows, maybe this will help to address one of the problems -- that damn foreign trade deficit. I still have faith in the forests and fields. Every other strategy besides enlightened self-sufficiency has a flaw -- it will be far too costly for Estonia to do the cozying up to Russia required to be a plum transit country. And a lot of people talk about Estonia's high tech potential, but Skype aside, I get the same uncomfortable feeling I do as when I read attempts to paint Tubin or Tobias as an equal to Grieg or Sibelius -- there's not enough substance or catchy ideas to bear out the hype.

bonzoq said...

Why does everyone think that if a country has workers moving to work in richer places that's bad for its economy? If they go, new ones from poorer countries will come. What's wrong with that?

Kristopher said...

what's wrong with that is that estonians, esepcially old and sick ones who need a doctor, don't speak portuguese.