They take austerity seriously in Latvia. After each meeting with a government official he or she would turn off the lights as we walked out of the room. More than five years after the global financial crisis finally burst Latvia’s fragile economic bubble, scrimping is second nature. Given the direction this small, resilient Baltic country took after Lehman fell, that’s no surprise. The usual prescription for cleaning up the mess that overheating leaves behind, particularly in an export-oriented economy (exports amount to some 60 percent of Latvian GDP), centers around a sharp devaluation of the currency to restore international competitiveness. There were quite a few (including within the IMF) who suggested that Latvia should break the peg fixing its currency—the lats—to the euro, leaving the lats to sink to a level that more accurately reflected uncomfortable new market realities.
That’s not what Latvia did. The relatively low value added within Latvia to its exports, and the difficulty that it would have faced in satisfying domestic demand with domestic production, meant that a conventional devaluation would have struggled to work its naughty magic, even if the export markets had been there (by no means assured after the slump in the international economy). Tipping the scales further, local business and the nascent middle class—most of whose boom-bloated -borrowing had been in euros—would have faced catastrophe had they had to repay those debts in suddenly depreciated lati. That would have threatened both social disaster and a dangerous breach with the Nordic banks responsible for a large portion of that lending—banks that would now have a vital role to play in maintaining financial liquidity in the country (the only sizable Latvian bank had foundered).
So Latvia stuck with the peg and opted for “internal devaluation,” shorthand for an attempt to mimic the competitive benefits of a traditional devaluation, but by squeezing costs (primarily labor costs) and excess demand out of the local economy rather than by depreciating the currency. This won Latvia financial backing from a group comprising the World Bank, the IMF, the EU, and the Nordic countries, support that had to sugar some very bitter medicine. Government expenditures were slashed (large numbers of public sector employees were fired and many of those who hung on saw their salaries cut by 20 percent or, indeed, much more) and, to a lesser extent, taxes increased. Between 2008 and 2012 total fiscal consolidation amounted to some 17 percent of GDP.
Most of the pain was front-loaded, both as a matter of practical politics (better to strike before austerity fatigue set in) and a matter of practical economics: Latvian interest rates had soared to damaging heights and confidence had to be rebuilt.
Seen in that context, the 2009 declaration by Valdis Dombrovskis, the dourly impressive center-right prime minister, that Latvia would continue to seek membership in the eurozone (and, more specifically, get there by 2014) made sense. Whatever the mounting problems in the EU’s gimcrack currency union, it appeared to offer a comparatively safe haven from the Baltic storm. For investors and lenders, the obvious seriousness of this commitment, together with the external support that the government had won, significantly reduced the exchange-rate risk associated with doing business in Latvia. It was no coincidence that with the “devaluation ghost” (as the central bank delightfully puts it) held at bay, lats-denominated interest rates started to tumble.
On top of that, targeting eurozone membership provided a benchmark against which the performance of the Latvian economy could be measured. The country would only be eligible to switch over to the euro if it met the currency union’s “Maastricht criteria.” Its budgetary position would have to be on a sound footing, its inflation subdued, and so on.
Perhaps most important, the march towards the single currency signaled to Latvians that their reconnection with Europe would not be derailed by the economic crisis. Austerity was a means to an end, not just an end in itself. Many Latvians had (and have) their doubts about the wisdom of adopting the single currency (over half are still—to a greater or lesser extent—opposed), but the broader aim of anchoring their state more firmly in the West helped them to stay the course through the brutally tough times that followed the financial collapse.