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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As the Baltic economies roared (Latvia's GDP grew by 12 percent in 2006, and 10 percent in 2007), current account deficits soared (Latvia's peaked at some 25 percent in 2007). Fueling the inflationary fire still further, a number of EU countries (notably the U.K. and Ireland) waived the transitional period that has traditionally followed the accession of less-developed countries into the EU and opened up their labor markets to workers from the Baltic, attracting far more immigrants from the region than originally expected. That was good news for employers in London and Dublin, but it siphoned off talent back home, increasing already fierce upward pressure on wage rates and, incidentally, adding to the demographic anxieties of three small peoples that had--only just--succeeded in preserving their ethnic, cultural, and political identity after half a century of Moscow's best efforts to Russianize their countries. Not the least of the ironies facing the Baltic states is the way that their long overdue reintegration into the global economy could, by offering their best and brightest citizens better opportunities abroad, destroy the integrity and the essence of the nations they leave behind.

When economies overheat, real estate prices tend to boil over, and so it was all over the Baltic. In Latvia, house prices jumped by (on some estimates) 300 percent between 2004 and 2007. Never a healthy phenomenon, the real estate bubble had an extra malignant aspect in the Baltics as most of the mortgage lending (a chunk of it distinctly subprime) that financed it was denominated in euros--not yet the Baltic countries' currency. Back in 2004 when Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia signed up for the EU they took a seat in the waiting room for the monetary union. They were in a strong position to satisfy the Maastricht preconditions for adoption of the euro (subdued inflation, low levels of government debt, and well-managed public spending), and all three local currencies--the Latvian lats, the Estonian kroon, and the Lithuanian litas--had been pegged to the euro by 2005. Forecasts that they would be replaced by Brussels' money in 2008 did not seem out of line. Borrowing in euros looked like the smart thing to do. Euro interest rates were well below those charged for borrowing in lati, krooni, and litai and, with the adoption of the EU's single currency purportedly just around the corner, there was not supposed to be much in the way of foreign exchange risk. International (mainly Nordic) banks keen to minimize their exposure to the small illiquid Baltic currencies were only too happy to oblige: Some 80 percent of all private borrowing in the Baltic countries is in euros.

But the cash that cascaded into the Baltic countries pushed up their inflation rates to levels far in excess of the Maastricht criteria. In Latvia inflation peaked at nearly 18 percent in May 2008--up from 6.2 percent in 2004 and the 2 percent range between 2000-03. Drawn in by the prospect of near-term Baltic adoption of the euro, the flood of new money has perversely done a great deal to delay that switch (the latest predictions cluster at around 2011 for Estonia, 2012-13 for Lithuania, and, fingers crossed, 2014 for Latvia, although the IMF recently suggested that the latter date will slip still further). Foreign exchange risk was back.

And so were tough times. The inevitable bust arrived, gathering pace at roughly the same time as international financial markets were freezing up in 2008, an unhappy coincidence that made bad things worse as the (already slowing) foreign capital inflows that had done so much to sustain the boom came to an abrupt halt. To get an idea of the scale of the disaster that has struck, Latvian retail sales are running at 70 percent of 2008, the nation's real estate prices are down some two-thirds from their levels of two years before, and industrial production slumped 18 percent between June 2008 and June 2009.

The textbook response to this type of boom-and-bust would be a drastic devaluation of the currency to slash the cost of exports, discourage imports, and bring burgeoning current account deficits under some degree of control. If textbooks aren't sufficiently persuasive, markets can usually be expected to help out, and, sure enough, the lats came under strong pressure in June. But the sparse market in Baltic currencies gives them considerable protection against speculative attack. It's almost impossible to short thinly traded lati, krooni, or litai to the extent it would take to break their pegs to the euro. The fact that Estonia, Lithuania, and Latvia all operate currency board systems (in Latvia's case de facto rather than de jure) under which their monetary base is essentially backed up by gold and foreign exchange reserves means it would take an almost complete collapse in domestic confidence to trigger a run on the currency.