Well the big news this morning is that the IMF mission to Latvia has finally reached agreement with the Latvian government on a new policy package that will give the country access to about $278 million in new financing. Details of the deal are scant at the moment, since the Letter of Intent will not be published until the IMF board approves the agreement, but it seems the terms of the IMF deal are (on the face of it) tough: additional budget cuts worth a reported 500 million lats ($1.02 billion) for 2010, a progressive income tax with the possibility of an increase in VAT if the cuts do not reduce the budget deficit to the stipulated level.
Really, this agreement changes very little in my opinion. As Capital Economics’ Neil Shearing points out, many people are assuming that with the rapid Current Account adjustment in many CEE countries, the threat to external financial stability has largely gone away. But as Neil argues, while theoretically, it should be enough for the countries just to move back to balance, practical experience from Argentina etc suggests that as recovery arrives the CA tends to move from large deficit to large surplus. And this of course means exports growing at a much faster rate than imports. This is the only practical way to pay down the debt.
And as Afoe’s own Claus Vistesen puts it:
This is all about the composition of the external balance and what kind of extensions foreign creditors give. Now, the benefit of the peg is of course that you can begin to accumulate foreign assets at reasonable valuation to your liabilities. HOWEVER, the only way to reasonably begin this process is of course to actually begin accumulating those assets and in order to so so, you need productive investment targeted at foreign operations and this is very difficult unless the “internal devaluation” has run its course. Essentially, domestic investment to serve foreign markets are not productive until deflation has taken its toll.
So basically the message is, whatever the final details of the new agreement, stay tuned and keep watching, since all of this is far from over.
Edward Will Not Be Going To Latvia In August
The little news of the day is that I will not be attending the conference on Latvia’s economic future which members of the Peoples Party are trying to organise for August, even though I was invited. As the Latvia Daily Diena (Latvian only I’m afraid) which reports on the preparations for the conference puts it “E. Hugh, who declared himself a defender of the lat devaluation, however, declined to participate, adding he’d like to maintain political neutrality.” Well, this is fair enough as a presentation of my opinion, but, just for the record, here’s what I actually did say.
First of all I would like to say thank you very much for thinking of me and inviting me to your conference….
….while I think a decision to accept the original IMF proposal of a 15% devaluation of the Lat, and pressure the EU Commission into euro entry was the best option last autumn, this is now no longer the situation. So while I was advocating devaluation back then, what I am saying now is that in my opinion devaluation is inevitable at some point, but that it will now be an unholy mess. Serious contagion problems will most likely ensue, and so in this sense I am no longer “advocating” Latvian devaluation. Ideally it needs to take place as part of a much more general solution to problems in the economies of the Eastern European countries who are members of the EU.
If Latvia is simply forced off the peg, then we should all watch out. I am in Spain, and I am expecting consequences here.
Thirdly, I am not in basic disagreement with the IMF, and would not wish to do anything which may make their work more difficult. Basically, from where I am sitting the issue is to put pressure on the EU institutional structure in an attempt to get them to recognise some of the basic ABCs of economics.
Lastly, I would emphasise that I am an economist, a mere technician of economic systems, and not a politician. I am explicitly non politicial, and am maintaining this stance both vigourously and adamantly.
Basically, as I said, I consider devaluation inevitable….. tomorrow, in August, after Christmas, in 2011, I don’t know when. I also know that the longer it is in coming, the more serious the consequences will be, due to the continuous degradation in the credibility of the associated institutions (IMF, ECB, EU Commission, EBRD etc). This is all now quite likely to eventually become (via the other Baltic states, Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania and even Ukraine and Serbia) a very serious problem, with potentially major global implications.
So there will be a before and after. After devaluation there will need to be a major rethink about where Latvia is going. Devaluation is not an end in itself, it is simply a means to an end, a begininning. We also need to think about how Latvia will earn its living, pay off its debts, and find its way in the world.
Long term structural, and strategic economic thinking are needed.
Here I think I do have a part to play. As you may well have noticed, my view is that the ongoing demographic deterioration of your country lies at the heart of your macro economic problems.
I think this deterioration needs to be addressed as soon as possible, and I see three large issue.
i) Productive capacity needs to be increased substantially. This means increasing the labour force, and this means (as outlined in the World Bank Report, From Red To Grey) facilitating large scale inward migration. Given the serious political implications of encouraging ethnic Russian migration into your country, I see only two viable source regions, the Central Asian Republics in the CIS, and Sub. Saharan Africa. Possibly this solution will not be widely popular with Latvian voters. Well, they do have the right to choose. Your country can take the measures needed to become sustainable, or you can watch it die, as the economy shrinks, and the young people leave. That, I think, is your choice.
The other two measures you need to take are contingent on the first being implemented, since without the first measure you will simply not dispose of the economic resources for the other two.
ii) A serious policy to support those Latvian women who do wish to have children. But with major financial advantages, not half measures, and propaganda stunts. You need policies that can work, and I know plenty of demographers with ideas.But this needs money. Important quantities of money. And gender empowerment, right across the economy, at every level. We have formal legal equality in the labour market, but evident biological and reproductive inequality, in that only one of the parties gets to bear the children. The institutional resources of the state need to redress this imbalance.
iii) Major reforms in the health system to address the underlying male life expectancy problem. You can only seriously hope to raise the labour force participation rates at 65 and over if people arrive at these ages in a fundamentally healthy condition. In economic terms, simple investment theory shows why this is the case. A given society spends a given quantity of resources on producing a given number of children, those who have citizens who live and work longer evidently get a better return on their investment. If you want to raise Latvian living standards, you have to raise the life expectancy. And this apart from the evident human issues.
OK, I am saying no for the moment, but I would like to stress that when conditions change, I would be more than willing to come to your country to try to help. But not for a day, for a month, and not to give a talk, but to work with some serious people who are willing to roll their sleeves up and do the serious spadework that will be needed to find those solutions you so badly need.
Basically, my feeling is that the issues you face are so complex that public debate is unlikely to produce a very fruitful outcome at this point. You need a long term education process, and for the time being more or less technocratic solutions, but not the technocratic solutions you are being offered by the EU now (which basically won’t work), technocratic solutions which get to the heart of the problem and set your country on a sustainable path.