Gideon Rachman has a pretty gloomy piece in the Financial Times on the lousy state of affairs in the Baltics. Short story, like a lot of places, they went on a monster debt bender and now have an awful hangover.
Rachman suggests that Baltic woes could blow back and hurt Europe’s recovery. The trigger would be if they drop their currency pegs, which would almost certainly lead to defaults on external debt (as if that isn’t in the cards, regardless). On paper, given the small size of the economies involved, that may seem like a bit of a stretch, particularly since the banks most at risk are in Sweden. Peculiarly, he does not mention the dimensions of the danger, as in size of economies, possible banking losses, who might eat them. nor does he articulate what I think is the real vulnerability.
The open question is how fragile are Europe’s banks now? They ran on even lower equity levels than US banks, ate a lot of bad US paper, and depend on national regimes for backstops. In the Netherlands, Switzerland, and Germany, the banking sectors are too large for their governments to credibly back them up. Of course, Deutshce Bank has been very loudly insisting that it is fine, to the point where one wonders whether the lady doth protest too much.
The point here is a bit different that what Rachman mentions, or perhaps he regards it as implicit. It might not take that much for Eurobanks to look pretty wobbly again. The Baltics plus another worse than expected development (Chinese stock market downdraft? Swine flu looking like a real risk for the winter?) might be enough to have serious knock-on effects,
From the Financial Times:
A writer who projects emotions on to the weather is guilty of the “pathetic fallacy”. But, at the risk of sounding both pathetic and fallacious, it was entirely appropriate that the sky darkened and the thunder cracked as I approached the office of the Latvian prime minister in Riga last week. The gloomy atmosphere reflected the dark mood in a small, embattled country of 2.2m people. While business headlines in the rest of the world speak of clearing skies and rays of sunshine, the Baltic states are still in the midst of a howling economic gale.
Despite the region’s small size, the intensifying crisis in the Baltics cannot be treated as a freakish local squall of little concern to outsiders. Bank failures or plunging currencies in the three Baltic nations – Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia – could threaten the fragile prospect of recovery in the rest of Europe. These countries also sit on one of the world’s most sensitive political fault-lines. They are the European Union’s frontier states, bordering Russia.
The economic downturns in the region are shocking. Last week, Lithuania announced that its economy had shrunk by 22.4 per cent, at an annual rate, during the second quarter of 2009. Latvia and Estonia are likely to record similar falls when they announce their figures. Dalia Grybauskaite, the Lithuanian president, told me last week that her country might have to apply to the International Monetary Fund for a loan. Latvia has already trodden that path. Last week it agreed its second loan in eight months from the IMF and the EU.
The injection of cash is the good news. The bad news is that, in return for shoring up state finances, the new IMF deal will require the Latvian government to impose yet more pain on its suffering population. Public-sector wages have already been cut by about a third this year. Pensions have been sliced. Now the IMF requires Latvia to cut another 10 per cent from the state budget this autumn.
So far, the population has treated the downturn with remarkable equanimity…But the government has good reason to fear a winter of discontent. Unemployment benefits last just nine months in Latvia. Many Latvians lost their jobs at the beginning of this year – and will lose their income from the state this autumn. Officially, unemployment is 11 per cent, unofficially it is 16 per cent and rising fast. Heating bills also shoot up in the cold Latvian winter. Cutting police pay by 30 per cent in such circumstances seems slightly foolhardy.
It would be easier if the Latvian government could point to some prospect that things will eventually improve. But the country seems to be locked into a downward spiral. Property prices – which a few years ago made flats in Riga pricier than apartments in much richer western European cities – have collapsed. The banks will not lend. Jobs are going, wages are falling, the government is cutting.
With no hint of a domestic revival, the Balts have to pray for a revival in the world economy. But the Russians and the Germans are not buying. “Our export markets on both sides are closed,” says Ms Grybauskaite.
One way to ease the pressure might be to devalue local currencies and so boost exports. But the Baltic states are all grimly hanging on to their “pegs” – fixed exchange rates with the euro. In Latvia about two-thirds of private loans have been taken out in euros. The government fears that devaluation would bankrupt many citizens. But wage cuts could simply provide an alternative route to bankruptcy.
Latvia’s paymasters – the EU and the IMF – seem divided. The IMF has been open to the idea of scrapping the peg. Brussels is firmly against, fearing that it would trigger currency instability, bank failures and competitive devaluations across the EU.
The Latvian and Lithuanian governments are adamant that they will not devalue. That is what all governments in their position always say – right up until the moment when the dreaded decision is made. Their reluctance is not simply to do with economic risk. The Balts also worry that if they devalue, they might come to look like second-class members of the European club – a dangerous position for countries that were part of the Soviet Union less than a generation ago.