The Magazine

Too Small To Fail

The brutal realities of Latvia's response to the economic meltdown.

Nov 9, 2009, Vol. 15, No. 08 • By ANDREW STUTTAFORD
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Riga, Latvia
It's a measure of the tension of the times in which we live that Anders Borg, the finance minister of famously polite Sweden, has been going around threatening Latvia. Yes, Latvia. "The patience of the international community is," he growled on October 2, "very limited, and Latvia has little room to maneuver."

If it's rare for a Swede to lose his cool, it's astonishing that a small Baltic state (Latvia's population is just over 2.2 million) was the cause. But Latvia is in an economic mess that is extraordinarily deep (GDP will fall by nearly 19 percent this year), and the consequences have already spread far beyond its borders. Evidence that it was pushing back at those who have been trying to help is what triggered Borg's explosion--well, that, and the risk posed to three of Sweden's largest banks by their roughly 40 billion euros of Baltic exposure.

The story of the Latvian crisis is, if nothing else, proof of the old maxim that no good deed goes unpunished. While the underlying sources of the country's difficulties can be put down to the devastation of half a century of incarceration in the Soviet domain, the immediate cause can be found in one of the happier events in Latvian history: its 2004 admission, alongside the other Baltic states (Lithuania and Estonia), into the European Union.

The integration of large swaths of Eastern Europe into the wider European economy and, ultimately, the EU is something that even Euroskeptics concede has been a triumph: a fusion of enlightened self-interest, generosity, and strategic vision that has done much to smooth the path away from Soviet rule and Communist ways. Initial flows of capital lured to the region by the collapse of Communism were, as the 1990s progressed, supplemented by waves of investment attracted by the reassuring spectacle of former Soviet satellites rediscovering the pains and pleasures of the free market. The transformation was further accelerated by the prospect of eventual EU membership as a final guarantee that they would not slip back.

This was the way it worked in Hungary, Poland, and other former Warsaw Pact nations, and this was the way it eventually worked for the three Baltic states, the first former Soviet republics to apply for, and be accepted into, EU membership. Thus funds began flowing into Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia almost as soon as they regained their independence--at a time when the prospect of losing it again to Brussels was still but a distant dream. Much of this money came from the neighboring Nordic countries attracted by an exciting local investment opportunity, historical connections (the Latvian capital, Riga, was once the largest city in greater Sweden), and a keen interest in avoiding the development of three turbulent post-Soviet slums in their backyard.

So far, so benign. But the onrush of Nordic cash overwhelmed the small and rickety enterprises typical of economies emerging from Communist rule. A huge part of the Baltic banking sector ended up in Nordic hands--roughly 70 percent of borrowing in Latvia is now sourced from banks controlled by foreign (primarily Nordic) institutions. What began as a change for the good (the Nordic-run institutions were better managed and capitalized than their local predecessors) degenerated into an unhealthy codependency as the banks financed an unsustainable boom on ultimately disastrous terms. By the time it was all over, they were essentially funding the current accounts of all three Baltic nations.

The bubbles began to inflate as EU membership loomed early this decade and ballooned after the three countries crossed the finish line. Too much money (and too much credit) was pouring into economies too small to absorb it productively, which triggered inflation, speculation, and a consumer binge. Overall government borrowing remained modest in each of the Baltic states, but debt racked up in the private sector--in Latvia it reached 130 percent of GDP in 2008. Imports were sucked into the region, and exporting industries were priced out. (Latvia's textile sector was 12 percent of the country's exports in the early 2000s; it is today only 5 percent.)