Thursday, September 24, 2009

Baltic turnaround?

Baltic economies

Feeling a bit fragile

Sep 24th 2009
From The Economist print edition

A Baltic meltdown has been averted, but the gloom may yet last a bit longer

WORRIES about a financial meltdown across eastern Europe have receded, thanks to generous outside support, some canny policies and the start of a recovery in western Europe. Poland, the region’s biggest economy, has managed to avoid recession altogether. But even the worst-hit countries are breathing more easily.

This week Moody’s, a rating agency, noted a “fragile stabilisation” in the three most vulnerable: Hungary, Latvia and Iceland. Some mildly encouraging signs are visible. Thanks to plunging imports, and foreign investors refinancing local subsidiaries, Latvia’s second-quarter current account showed a surplus of 14.2% of GDP. A year ago it was a 15.1% in deficit. The economy shrank by a grim 18.7% year-on-year, but the worst seems to be over and some industries are picking up.

The slowdown has hurt the banks, which have lost nearly $1 billion this year. That is a big hit for the shareholders, mainly Nordic, whose managers lent so recklessly. But contrary to expectations, only one big local bank had to be rescued and nobody has pulled out. Doomsters who forecast bank runs and devaluation in Latvia (followed by Estonia and Lithuania, which also have currencies pegged to the euro) have little to show for their gloomy prophecies.

Yet Latvia, in particular, is still in an economic and political mess. It survives because outside lenders, chiefly the European Union and the IMF, think it worth propping the country up with smallish loans (by bail-out standards). The European Commission lent €1.2 billion ($1.8 billion) in July, following an IMF-led €7.5 billion agreement in December. In theory, the money is conditional on spending cuts and tax rises. The IMF agreed, reluctantly, to a budget deficit of 8.5% of GDP in 2010, down from 10% this year. The measures have been striking: some civil servants’ pay is down by a third. But that followed big rises during the boom years.

The real shortcoming is that Latvia’s squabbling politicians have ducked deeper changes in the public sector and the civil service. The People’s Party, supposedly part of the ruling coalition, says it may block a planned property tax. The government promised its lenders it would implement this, but it has to secure support in parliament. Some senior politicians in the People’s Party want to swap the currency peg for a band. The EU’s monetary affairs commissioner, Joaquín Almunia, lectured the Latvian prime minister, Valdis Dombrovskis, recently about the need for “national consensus” behind the austerity plan. But the prime minister cannot crack the whip over his coalition’s powerful party chiefs, who prefer carping about government policies to voting for them.

Outsiders find Latvia’s politicians unimpressive and exasperating. But they are unwilling to cut the country adrift or to push it into a devaluation. Turmoil in Latvia could easily spread to the neighbours, or even to Hungary (see article). Latvia’s biggest asset is its neighbours’ popularity, says one weary international banker. Foreign money may plug the public finances for a bit and so avert disaster. But it is not a recipe for prosperity. Latvia did not solve its growth-choking problems, such as corruption and poor public services, when times were good. Nor is it solving them when they are bad.

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