Oct 7th 2009
Bad news from Latvia raises fears of contagion across eastern Europe
THE patient emerges from intensive care, hurls the medicine at the doctors and bites his blood donor. That may be an unfair characterisation of the recent news from crisis-stricken Latvia, but it is pretty much how outsiders see it. The prime minister, Valdis Dombrovskis, is refusing to make the spending cuts mandated by international lenders and has floated a new law that would partially expropriate foreign banks’ loan books.
It would be worrying enough if the European Union’s weakest economy defaults, devalues or implodes. But what scares outsiders more is the effect of Latvia’s latest wobble on other ex-communist economies, which until this week seemed to be surviving the financial crisis with less trouble than some had feared.
In recent weeks, the news from Latvia had seemed mildly encouraging, after a year during which the country has been kept afloat thanks to an $11.1 billion international bail-out. The breakneck decline has slowed: the economy is expected to contract by 17.5% this year, but by only 3% in 2010 and to return to growth in 2011, according to a forecast by SEB, a Swedish bank (and big lender to Latvia). The current account, which showed a yawning deficit of 1.42 billion lats ($3 billion) in the first seven months of last year has been transformed to show a 581m lats surplus in the same period of 2009.
The main outstanding issue is next year’s budget deficit. International lenders had softened the target to a mere 8.5% of GDP; the government still had to push through spending cuts of 500m lats to meet this.
But this week Mr Dombrovskis startled outsiders by saying that cuts of only 225m lats would be necessary. He has pencilled in a further 100m lats in better tax revenues—counting, apparently, on a faster economic recovery than anyone expects. The hesitation has brought stern warnings. Sweden’s finance minister, Anders Borg, said outsiders’ patience was “limited”—his country is due to provide SKr10 billion ($1.45 billion) in a loan tranche in early 2010. The EU’s monetary affairs commissioner, Joaquín Almunia, has publicly rebuked the government too. Mr Dombrovskis has now backtracked, saying that if the cuts are necessary, they will be made.
But doubts remain. Mr Dombrovskis lacks the authority to push tough measures through parliament and his public wobble could be seen as an attempt to summon up another burst of international pressure on the government to do the right thing. If so, it is risky.
The same could be said about another of Mr Dombrovskis’s moves—calling for a draft law that would restructure domestic assets of foreign banks. Borrowers would be liable only for the collateral value of their loan (eg, a house bought with a mortgage) rather than the whole amount. Banks would also be unable to evict defaulters from their homes without rehousing them. A fall in property prices of over 50% has sent Latvia’s private-sector debts to foreigners ballooning. They will need restructuring eventually. But this proposal looks unworkable, clumsy and damaging. Shares in Nordic banks, which have been the biggest private-sector lenders to Latvia, dipped on the news.
If Latvia fails, with a strike by international lenders prompting a debt crisis or a bank run, the spotlight then turns to the neighbouring Baltic states of Estonia and Lithuania. They are not in the same political mess, but both have also pegged their currencies to the euro and are facing huge and painful adjustments. Some wonder if the EU might accelerate its recognition of Estonia’s impressive progress in sorting out public finances by giving it early approval of its plans to join the euro in 2011. But where would that leave Lithuania, which is nowhere near balancing its books and borrowing expensively from private lenders instead of turning to the IMF?
An even bigger question involves the future co-operation between the IMF and EU. They worked together closely during the emergency rescue of Latvia in December. Now ties are strained: the IMF thinks Latvia should devalue its currency. EU officials are determined that it should not, for fear of the wider effect on ex-communist countries that are trying to join the euro zone. That has led the EU to squeeze the IMF into accepting softer conditions on Latvia than it would have wished for. For all those involved, in Brussels, Washington, DC, and Riga, patience is running out.