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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Of the three Baltic currencies, the lats has come under the most pressure (the economic and political fundamentals are weaker in Latvia than in Estonia or Lithuania, and the Latvian central bank had to spend around 1 billion euros to defend the currency in June). Yet the Latvian authorities continue to believe that now is not the time for devaluation. Latvian central bankers told me in August that depreciating the currency is simply not the answer to the country's predicament, and they make a good case. Devaluations work best in economies where a good portion of demand can be satisfied domestically, where the export sector has a high value-added component (i.e., not textiles and the like), and when the global economy is in good shape. None of these descriptions applies to the Baltic states or the world in 2009.

The alternative approach being pursued by Latvia is an "internal devaluation" (Lithuania and Estonia have taken a similar tack) designed to rebuild its international competitiveness by purging the inflationary excesses of recent years and, while it's at it, restore badly needed fiscal and budgetary balance--in other words to generate some of the positive effects of a devaluation without abandoning the currency peg. If most countries are trying to reflate their way out of the current economic crisis, Latvia is doing the opposite. Public sector pay is slated to be reduced by as much as 40 percent (though actual cuts appear to have been less so far) as part of a budgetary squeeze that has included the closing of hospitals and schools (admittedly Latvia was oversupplied with both) and sharp reductions in both welfare payments and pensions--payments that weren't generous in the first place. Adding to the misery: Taxes are being increased. As economic cures go, this is about as tough as it is possible to get, and it has already yielded some tentatively positive results. Latvian inflation has been brought to its knees (in September it was running at 0.1 percent), the trade deficit has shrunk dramatically, and the current account is back in surplus (14 percent of GDP in the second quarter).

Advocates of a conventional devaluation retort that any signs of improvement are merely symptoms of an economy where all demand has been crushed and will stay crushed for quite some time. This is not, they argue, the sort of recovery that will persuade the nation's best and brightest to stay at home once the broader European economy has improved enough to resume hiring. Nor will it attract the new capital that Latvia so badly needs, capital that will only be further deterred as the "hopeless" defense of the peg perpetuates uncertainty over the currency's future while underpinning a real effective exchange rate that continues to rise.

Such arguments are too pessimistic--though only just--and they also fail to address the implications of all those foreign currency loans. Repaying them is already difficult within the context of a devastated real estate market and collapsing economy. Increasing the outstanding balances by 30 percent (the percentage generally thought to be by how much the lats would have to be devalued) would generate Sisyphean agony and drive domestic demand even deeper into the hole. Complicating matters still further is the fact that the affected borrowers are drawn disproportionately from the ranks of the young (many older Latvians remain ensconced in the properties they received gratis in the post-Soviet privatizations), the enterprising, and the upwardly mobile, who are the main hope of any lasting revival. (Undoubtedly a good number of them are also to be found in Latvia's governing class. Unsurprisingly they are not that keen to devalue. Would you vote yourself into bankruptcy?)

Crucially it was the harsh medicine of the internal devaluation that secured the international financial support without which Latvia's economy might have already collapsed. The country's key lenders have so far shown themselves willing to assist in propping up the Latvian currency. It's not hard to guess why, despite some rumored disagreements within the lending consortium, this strategy prevailed. The Swedish banks most heavily involved in the Baltic have all made substantial provisions against lending losses in the region (and raised major amounts of capital to replace what has been lost), but neither they nor the Swedish state that has effectively underwritten them would welcome the massive additional hit to balance sheets that would follow a devaluation of the lats--particularly as it would likely trigger devaluations (and further losses) in Lithuania and Estonia. There's also a clear risk (although less than there was a few months ago) of a domino effect--Baltic devaluations pressuring other vulnerable Eastern European currencies with the potential for extremely unpleasant implications for Western banks exposed in the former Soviet empire. To give just one example of what could be at stake, earlier this year outstanding loans by Austrian banks to Eastern Europe were reported to amount to roughly 75 percent of Austria's GDP.

It's this fear of wider contagion that largely explains the willingness of the multinational group that includes the EU, the IMF, the World Bank, and, of course, the Nordic countries to lend Latvia 7.5 billion euros (and that's before counting the indirect help Latvia has received, including critically, Sweden's support for its banks). In the wake of last year's global financial meltdown, those few billions may seem like chump change, but they represent a huge sum for Latvia (whose GDP stood at around 22 billion euros in 2008). For once, the country is benefiting from the size of its economy: It's simply too small to fail. In absolute terms a bailout of Latvia (or for that matter, any of the Baltic countries) does not involve that much money. If such a rescue can stave off catastrophe elsewhere it will be a bargain. Who needs a Baltic Lehman?

But will this support buy enough time for the internal devaluation to work? Talking to Latvian civil servants, it is impossible to miss their unease about what may happen when the bleak Baltic winter descends on a population struggling through economic disaster. Nobody has forgotten the rioting in Riga (and in Lithuania) in January, the low point of a fraught few months that also saw the collapse of Latvia's sitting government. While there was a reasonable level of confidence amongst those to whom I spoke that the social net will hold, a winter of discontent may be difficult to avoid as benefits ratchet down (unemployment benefits fall sharply after five months on the dole and are then eliminated altogether after nine months--although the unemployed remain eligible for other forms of assistance), savings evaporate, and jobs remain scarce. Unemployment now stands at 18 percent, a devastating number in a climate of deteriorating welfare support. There are indications that the economy's fall is slowing (GDP is currently forecast to decline by a mere 4 percent next year), but what few green shoots there are have sprouted too late to make much difference this winter.

Adding to the worries is the fear that the country's economic woes will be used by the ever more revanchist Kremlin to foment discontent among the roughly 30 percent of the population that is of ethnic Russian descent. Maddening symbols of lost empire, and small enough to bully, Latvia and Estonia have long been placed amongst Russia's worst enemies by Vladimir Putin. He may be unable to resist the temptation to make their problems worse.

The Latvian government's strategy appears to be to hang on grimly and hope that the global economy recovers quickly and strongly enough to pull a sensibly deflated Latvia out of the mire and into hailing distance of the allegedly (that's a debate for another time) safe haven of eurozone membership. So far this tough approach enjoys at least a degree of grudging popular support. Some two-thirds of Latvians are thought to support the defense of a currency that is a symbol of both hard-won independence and the ability of ordinary Latvians to build a better future for themselves. They have seen their savings wiped out twice in the last 20 years, first by the Soviet implosion (and the chaos that accompanied it) and then again, after painful rebuilding, by a massive banking crisis in the mid-1990s. Devaluation would look all too much like round three. Latvian officials also put a great deal of faith in the country's flexible labor markets and the resilience of a people with recent memories of times far, far harder than now. Latvians will know, I was repeatedly told, how to cope.

Maybe, but all attempts to measure public opinion are guesswork--bedeviled by societal division (ethnic Latvians and ethnic Russians often see matters in very different ways) and the fact that Latvia's political parties are often little more than collections of a few friends or co-conspirators, sustained by self-interest, shared ethnic identity, and passing eddies of voter enthusiasm. They are bad at reflecting public opinion and worse at shaping it. If overall living conditions deteriorate badly this winter, there may be no one able to speak honestly to the nation or for its concerns. That's not a recipe for social peace.

There will be parliamentary elections next year and the uncertainty about the degree of support the internal devaluation will continue to enjoy helps explain September's unexpected failure of the governing coalition to pass all elements of the austere 2010 budget that was a condition for the continued support of Latvia's international lenders. This was the failure that so angered Anders Borg in early October. His mood will not have been improved by the market tremors that followed both his comments and subsequent press reports in Sweden that he had told Swedish banks to prepare themselves for the worst.

It's difficult to imagine that he would have been cheered up by the almost simultaneous revelation that the Latvian government was contemplating measures limiting the liability of homeowners to their lenders, a move that would have serious implications for a number of Sweden's banks. This proposal may have been an unsubtle attempt to pressure the Swedes into agreeing to go a little easier on the 2010 budget, but, with the furor it stirred up, it backfired. Its most controversial element--the idea that it would have retrospective effect--has been withdrawn, and the budget hiccup has been resolved with a Latvian climb-down. But these spats were a reminder that the realities that define this uncomfortable situation continue to hold true: Latvia is still both highly vulnerable and too small to fail, the codependent relationship between Sweden's banks and their Latvian borrowers continues to be both intact and unhappy, and the durability and extent of popular support for Latvia's harsh economic medicine remains an unknowable, unnerving mystery.

It's going to be a long winter.

Andrew Stuttaford, who writes frequently about cultural and political issues, works in the international financial markets.