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Monday, June 29, 2009

Are The IMF and The ECB Lining Up Against The EU Commission Over Latvia?

by Edward Hugh: Barcelona

There was a very interesting and revealing press conference given by IMF First Deputy Managing Director John Lipsky and European Central Bank governing council member Christian Noyer in Paris on Thursday. Christian Noyer said that, in his opinion, Baltic countries like Latvia would not be helped by joining the single currency (the euro) prematurely.

"It's in the interest of candidate countries not to enter too early because it risks making the economic situation unbearable," Noyer said.
Lipsky, for his part stressed the region could not depend on any particular foreign exchange regime to shield it from the effects of the financial market crisis:

"If there is a solution it begins with macro policies," Lipsky said. "No single exchange rates solution, or exchange regime represents a solution to these kinds of problems. What is important is that the currency regime is credible and coherent".

Do I detect a shift in emphasis here? Certainly Latvia's currency regime is not credible (most external observers now consider devaluation inevitable), nor is it - in my opinion - coherent. And there has only been a deafening silence coming out from the IMF in recent days on the topic.

The EU finance ministers have decided to support maintenance of the peg, but that is hardly surprising, however, Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt told Reuters, again rather revealingly, that "We think that a clear signal of support from the EU would help them to achieve support from the IMF." That is, the IMF is wavering, and the EU is putting pressure. This, approach, however, suffers from the flaw that it is hardly either coherent or convincing.

Now the Latvian parliament approved budget cuts of 500 mn Lati for the 2009 budget on June 16, a vote which lead the EU to decide to release the next 1.2 billion euro tranche of the emergency loan to Latvia. So why is the IMF still assessing the situation? Some draw consolance in the idea that the IMF’s share of the program is smaller - only 1.7 billion euro in comparison to the 3.1 billion which is coming from the European Commission. But this is to neglect the strategic role the IMF is playing in the whole process. If the IMF isn't leading, then what is it doing. Evidently, the fissures which may be developing between the Commission on the IMF approaches only serve to draw more attention to the complexity of the whole current EU economic and political architecture.

Latvia is a sovereign country, also member of the European Union. Looked at from one point of view, what was the IMF doing there in the first place. But once they have taken leading responsibility, it is not wise for the Commission to try to claw this back from them. After all, the whole process is supposedly intended to raise investor confidence, something which is hard to do if there is not unity of purpose.

Meanwhile liquidity conditions continue to remain tight, and Rigibor interest rates shot up again at the end of last week, following the termination of the summer solstice holiday.

The last official news we have said simply that the IMF would decide on the Latvian loan after June 26. Well we are now after June 26, and we are still none the wiser.

Meanwhile Latvian's continue to save, and outstanding private debt fell in May to 14,140.2 million Lats from 14,252,4 million Lats in April. They year on year change is now down to only 1.6%, and will more than likely turn negative in June, which means that, with the government also trying to save hard, continuing contraction is completely guaranteed without exports.

And today we have two additional pieces of relevant news. Firstly, and most interestingly, former IMF chief economist Kenneth Rogoff - now a Harvard University professor - has said the IMF made a mistake, and should never have allowed Latvia to keep the peg. (That is, he agrees with what Krugman and I have been arguing all along). The IMF, however, is still maintaining an apparent vow of silence on the whole situation, or so it seems, and have yet to pronounce. Hello, EU Commission, how can you lose your heads, when all around you are keeping theirs?

Latvia should devalue the lats to avoid a worsening of its economic crisis, said Kenneth Rogoff, a Harvard University professor and former chief economist at the International Monetary Fund, in an interview with Direkt. The IMF made the wrong decision when it allowed Latvia to keep its currency peg, Rogoff said in Visby, Sweden today, according to the Swedish news agency. While a quick devaluation would be best for Latvia, Rogoff doesn’t believe it will happen for a long time because the IMF and Europe will provide the Baltic nation with loans, Direkt reported. In a normal situation, Latvia would already have devalued the lats and defaulted on its debt, Rogoff said, according to the news agency. World leaders have decided no countries should be allowed to fail and Latvia is benefiting from that, he said.
Secondly Central bank governor Ilmars Rimsevics has given an interview to Reuters TV. He will go down with his ship, like every good Captain should, but there will be no lifeboats for the rest of you.

Latvia will stick to its currency peg and not devalue, even if the country fails to win further loans from the European Union and International Monetary Fund, its central bank governor said on Monday. "People who are expressing that (a devaluation is possible) lack some education and knowledge and I am sorry. There is absolutely nothing to do with devaluation in Latvia," he told Reuters at the Bank for International Settlements (BIS) meeting. "If the cuts (in the budget) won't be made, there would not be financing available, but that in no way would influence or affect the currency peg," Rimsevics added.
The European Central Bank also today urged urged Latvia to rethink plans to siphon off half of its central bank's profits to help rebuild the country's battered finances. Latvia's government plans to up the amount of central bank profits it takes, to 50 percent from the current 15 percent.

In a legal opinion published on its Web site on Monday, the ECB warned the move risked hurting Latvian central bank independence and wiping out funds designed to be a financial safety net for country's troubled banks. "The use of central bank financial resources may be counterproductive from the credibility point of view if confidence in the financial stability and independence of the National Central Bank is undermined," the ECB said.

"It is important to shield the rules related to the distribution of profits from third-party interests and to ensure a legal framework that provides a stable and long-term basis for the central bank's functioning."

One of the most crucial questions going forward is will the process of relative price adjustment, while still keeping the peg, be able to balance the economy, or will it turn out to be intolerable, thus leading nevertheless to devaluation in the end. Although wage growth and inflation are slowing, one could ask whether the adjustment is fast enough to enable Latvia to keep the currency pegged. Uncertainty about the answer is likely to keep the devaluation fears as well as the uncertainty in the FX and money markets alive in the future.
Annika Lindblad: Nordea

Well quite, this is one of the things I have been arguing all along, and now those who in theory support the maintenance of the peg begin to "worry" that the rate of price and wage decline may not be fast enough to maintain the peg. Wouldn't it have been better to have thought a little more about this, before embarking on what is evidently such a risky endeavour.

At the end of the day what we could really say here is, that in a bid to defend credibility, all credibility has now been lost, and things will only get worse from here on in. Tragedy has already repeated its self as tragedy, and now its about to become one of the sickest of all sick comedies. I think it's time to put a stop to the agony.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Consumer Sentiment Rises As Exports Slump - But Where, Oh Where Is The Recovery?

by Edward Hugh: Barcelona

Japan put in a pretty negative export performance in May. Even shipments to China show little sign of improvement, and the general impression is that hopes for a quick recovery in global demand are looking very premature.

On the other hand a 42 per cent year-on-year fall in imports in May left Japan with a trade surplus of Y299.8bn for the month - something that will help push gross domestic product back toward growth this quarter, but a trade surplus where imports fall faster than exports is not the same as a surplus where exports grow faster than imports, and certainly for the global economy it isn't.

The Details

Shipments fell 41 per cent by value year-on-year amid a rising yen and continuing weakness in sales in key markets for electronics and automobiles. May’s year-on-year drop was greater that the 39 per cent one recorded in April, while seasonally adjusted exports slid 0.3 per cent from the previous month, after having risen in both March and April.

Nonetheless Bank of Japan data showthat when inflation and currency changes are stripped out, exports were up 5.1 per cent in May. And - depending on what the June numbers look like - exports in the second quarter of the year will certainly be up on exports in the first quarter by somewhere between 7% and 10%. Shipments to the U.S. fell 45.4 percent in May after dropping 46.3 percent in April.

Exports to Europe were down 45.4 percent following a 45.3 percent year on year drop in April.

Shipments to China, Japan’s biggest trading partner, fell 29.7 percent, more than April’s 25.9 percent. Exports to Asia slid 35.5 percent from 33.4 percent a month earlier. Japan’s exports to the rest of Asia were also well up, over 5% month on month, marking the third straight month of increases. Going by what we have seen so far, it looks like exports to the region will rebound strongly in the second quarter, and we may see growth of 15%+ over the previous quarter, following a drop of more than 20% in the first quarter over the last three months of 2008.

But even while exports to countries like Vietnam and Indonesia are rebounding (see chart below) those to India are still falling, and the situation in other a number of other key emerging markets is hardly improving.

If China’s exports fall faster than global demand, that opens up space that allows others to cut back less. The alternative — fast Chinese export growth amid a shrinking global economy — would be a sure source of trouble. But China still isn’t really acting as a locomotive for overall global demand growth.
Brad Setser

Confidence On The Rise

The Export aituation stands in fairly strong contrast with the mood of consumers and small businessmen inside Japan. Japan’s household sentiment rose to a 14-month high in May, leading many to conclude that Japan's deepest postwar recession may be easing. The confidence index climbed to 35.7 from 32.4 in April, according to the Cabinet Office in Tokyo. The index has now improved every month since it hit a record low of 26.2 in December.

At the same time confidence among Japanese merchants and small traders rose to a 14-month high in May The Economy Watchers index, a survey of barbers, taxi drivers and others who deal directly with consumers, climbed to 36.7 from 34.2 in April, the highest level since March 2008.

OECD Revises Down Forecast

While the Bank of Japan appears increasingly hopeful that the worst of the slump is or will soon be over, there are plenty of doubts about how robust and enduring any coming recovery is likely to be. As I am trying to stress it is one thing bringing a halt to the decline in exports, and quite another to ramp them back up again. Many companies are now operating well below output capacity, and there is a limit to how long they can do this without laying off part of their workforce. So unemployment, which has been rising, looks set to rise further.

In its world economic forecast, the OECD said Japan’s huge fiscal stimulus packages would begin to support growth from the second half of 2009, but that the economy was nevertheless on course to contract 6.8 per cent in the year as a whole. With the effect of fiscal stimulus set to ”begin to fade” in 2010 and only a ”relatively modest upturn” in world trade expected, the OECD is now forecasting Japanese GDP growth of only 0.7 per cent in 2010. To put this in perspective, if these forecasts are fulfilled Japan GDP will be back at the 2004 level at the end of 2009, and will not reach the 2005 level until 2011, at the earliest. Since these are key years for Japan in preparing to bear the weight of all those extra dependent elderly the output loss is deeply significant. And remember, prior to 2005 we had all those lost years, so another little data point, in 2009 GDP will be only something like 4% up on 1997 - 12 years later!

Randall Jones, head of the OECD’s Japan and Korea desk, argues that such anaemic growth will be far from enough to stem the huge output gap, with the liklihood that Japan is set for ”persistent deflation” - an outcome that will only add to the difficulty of addressing the rapidly growing fiscal debt burden.

The Cabinet Office’s Consumer Confidence Survey price forecasts are a key indicator of Japanese household inflation expectations. The price forecast index for May, published in June, confirmed that individual inflation expectations have fallen further. 38.6% of survey respondents said that they expected prices to be higher in one year’s time, down from 42.3% in the April survey. This is the 10th consecutive month of decline. At the same time, 22.3% of survey respondents said that they expected prices to be lower in one year’s time, up from 21.6% in the April survey, the eighth consecutive month the percentage has increased.

Japan's government went back on 220 billion yen ($2.3 billion) of planned welfare spending cuts this week and effectively put fiscal reform on hold for a decade as it adopted a new long-term reform target to allow it to issue a record amount of bonds to combat recession. The economic policy outline for 2009, which serves as the basis for compiling next fiscal year's budget, will only add to unease at Japan's ability to manage its colossal public debt.

Doubts also abound as the government led by Prime Minister Taro Aso's Liberal Democratic Party could lose power after more than half a century of almost unbroken rule in elections that must be held by October, according to media polls. The economic policy outline points to a fatal flaw common to both the LDP and the main opposition Democratic Party of Japan, which has its best shot ever at taking control: Neither have a credible plan to lower Japan's debt burden and provide a high level of social services to a rapidly ageing population. "Fiscal discipline is a common issue for Japan, the United States and Europe," said Yuuki Sakurai, chief executive and president of Fukoku Capital Management.

Senior members of the LDP twice rejected draft versions of the 2009 economic outline, which is drawn up by the top advisory Council on Economic and Fiscal Policy, as they sought to delete a pledge to cut annual increases in welfare spending.Giving up on that pledge and the old fiscal reform target marks a rollback of former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's reform drive to limit spending and reduce the size of government.

Japan now aims to stabilise its ratio of debt to gross domestic product by the mid-2010s and to lower it steadily by the beginning of the 2020s, according to the outline. The government also plans to halve the ratio of the primary budget deficit to GDP in at least five years after the economy recovers. The primary budget deficit excludes debt issuance and servicing costs.

Japan's fiscal condition is the worst among major economies, and the government expects the ratio of its long-term debt to gross domestic product to hit 170 percent by the end of 2009/10. The country's primary budget deficit is expected to rise to 8.1 percent of GDP this fiscal year, up from 3.9 percent in 2008/09. Japan’s debt burden will probably spiral to 197 percent of gross domestic product next year, according to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Japanese Prime Minister Taro Aso looks set to abandon a government pledge to curb social welfare spending following a decision of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party this week. Japan is about to drop its goal of trimming growth in the welfare budget by 220 billion yen ($2.3 billion) in each of the five years through 2011 in what is only the latest sign that the country is losing its battle to contain what is currently the world’s largest public debt.

Japan's initial goal of a achieving a primary balance by 2011/12 has thus been pushed back 10 years following the government decision to sell a record 44 trillion yen of new debt in the fiscal year to next March to finance both regular spending and stimulus packages. Tax revenue for the year which ended last March came in 5 percent short of government estimates, and the government could issue even more bonds to make up for the shortfall, according to an unsourced report in the Nikkei financial daily.

The Cabinet also reiterated earlier promises to raise the ratio of the public contribution to basic pensions to 50 percent after 2010, to recycle laid-off workers into the caregiver industry and to consider tax exemptions with one-time payouts for the poor. The country’s ageing population is driving up spending for medical care and pension payments, and welfare costs are already eating up more than a quarter of this year’s budget. Indeed these costs rose 14 percent from the year earlier even after the government applied the 220 billion-yen spending cap restriction.

"We have to allow for a natural increase in welfare spending," Finance Minister
Kaoru Yosano told reporters after the Cabinet approved the outline. "The message
we've heard on social services is to stop making cuts that are impossible to
make. Past government policy allows us some flexibility to respond as the
situation changes."

The deep underlying problem is that this situation is no longer a temporary one. Japan has now been stuggling with such difficulties since the mid 1990s at least, and has become increasingly dependent on exports to live. So the flexibility they are looking for may now simply not be there.

The most likely prognosis is that a lot of what we are hearing is election talk, and that the long proposed onsumption tax hike looks more and more probable and imminent. Evening taking the new targets for fiscal consolidation involving a return in the primary balance to surplus within 10 years we may be looking at a 7% rise in consumption tax (from 5%to 12%) as early as 2011. The rhetoric may lead markets to not expect a rise in the consumption tax at any early date, but the reality may be that this is the only option left and that the ground is steadily being prepared for just such a move.

Looking For The Door

Despite the fact that the recession has been extraordinarily deep, and that recovery is bound to be a long, hard and protracted affair, the debate among market participants has now shifted towards possible BOJ exit strategies. In fact a full exit from the monetary easing process is not at all either likely or contemplateable in the short term. However, it is not impossible that the BoJ decide not to renew the temporary measures that are scheduled to come to end in September, like the outright purchases of Commercial Paper and corporate bonds, the Special Fund-Supplying Operations to Facilitate Corporate Financing.

Despite all the speculation the reality is that the BOJ’s view on the economy is still very cautious. Governor Masaaki Sirakawa limited himself this week to saying that the central bank will decide how to deal with the temporary measures “by the end of September in a predictable manner to market participants.” The Bank of Japan also said that the recession is easing as fiscal stimulus measures worldwide spur demand and companies increase production. But Governor Shirakawa has also cited the reduction in inventories both in Japan and overseas as one of the reasons for the bottoming out of the economy, and stressed that it is what happens to final demand - domestically and overseas - after this reduction in inventories comes to an end which holds the key to any long term improvement in the economic situation.

In its Monthly Report of Recent Economic and Financial Developments the BOJ revised its basic view of the economy upwards for the second consecutive month. In April, the Bank were saying that “Japan’s economic conditions have deteriorated significantly”, but this was revised in May to the view that “Japan’s economic conditions have been deteriorating, but exports and production are beginning to level out”, and in June to the view that "Japan’s economic conditions, after deteriorating significantly, have begun to stop worsening".

This has been widely seen as an indication that the BOJ has revised its view on the economy upward, but the BOJ itself has been trying to discourage this interpretation. At the press conference, Governor Shirakawa said that the BOJ's view on the current state of the economy was in line with the forecast made in the Outlook for Economic Activity and Prices report published on 30 April, namely that “the pace of deterioration in economic conditions will likely moderate gradually and start to level out”, thus emphasizing that the BOJ has not changed its view. To reinforce this point, using the analogy of a weather forecast, he said that if the weather forecast for the following day turns out to have been right, this does not mean that the forecast has been revised.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Europe's Economies Move Sideways In June

by Edward Hugh: Barcelona

The eurozone economies moved sideways in June, with the flash reading on the composite purchasing managers index (which covers both industry and services) for the 16 nation euro area rising to 44.4, fractionally above the 44 registered in May. So we are just where we were before, contracting more slowly than in Q1, but still contracting, and the fiscal bullet is now almost spent.

Not without importance was that the reading came in significantly weaker than the consensus expectation for a sharp increase to 45.3. So the market *has* been getting ahead of itself.

On the face of it, the index is now consistent with a quarterly drop in GDP of around 0.5 percent, well below the 2.5 percent fall registered in the first quarter. However - as Capital Economic's Ben May notes - "the index has recently been a poor predictor of growth and the hard data have painted a less upbeat picture."

The situation was broadly as expected on the manufacturing front - with a rise to 42.4 from 40.7, but this is still quite a strong contraction. On the one hand the improvement in the factory index is pretty generalized and so, with the new orders-stock ratio rising further, there should be further improvement in the coming months. On the other, given that this upward trend in the factory index is mostly inventory-driven, caution needs to be exercised in extrapolating the tendency to the whole economy.

Ben May also points out that the drop in the services PMI from 44.8 to 44.5 suggests that fiscal and monetary stimulus measures "are yet to have a significant impact on domestic demand." Maybe we could rephrase that slightly, their bolt seems to have been shot without result, and the fiscal element, at least in Germany, Spain and Italy will now increasingly have a constraining impact.

German Contraction Worsens

More worryingly, the rate of contraction in Germany's private sector accelerated slightly this month, with flash estimate of the Markit composite PMI falling to 43.4 from the seven-month high of 44.0 in May.The flash estimate for the manufacturing PMI index rose to 40.5 from 39.6 in May, but the flash services PMI reading fell to 44.3 from 45.2 last month. And in the manufacturing sector the ratio of new orders to stocks of finished goods fell back to 1.12 after rising to 1.18 in May. Which effectively means inventories started to rise again.

French Economy On The Mend

On the other hand, conditions in the French improved for the fourth straight month in June, helped by much slower falls in the level of new orders. The flash estimate for the Markit/CDAF PMI rose to 47.7 in June compared with 46.6 in May.

The key to the improvement - according to Markit - was a sharp jump in the composite new orders index, which hit 48.3 compared to May's reading of 45.3, suggesting that demand in the euro zone's second largest economy is steadily on the mend. "The composite new orders index is getting close to stabilisation. We're still very much on course for a strong easing and it does suggest that by the end of the year we could be seeing growth again in France," according to Chris Williamson, chief economist at Markit.

The June manufacturing PMI rose to 45.5 from 43.3, the slowest pace of contraction in activity since August last year. However, Markit cautioned against taking an overly optimistic view of the data, stressing that conditions in the French economy remain fragile, and recovery is likely to be unstable.

Just how fragile was emphasised by the fact that the services sector PMI slipped back to 47.5 from 48.3 in May, following three consecutive monthly increases.

And just to underline the fragility part, we learnt today that spending by French consumers on manufactured goods fell in May, led by a sharp drop in purchases of clothing and household goods, according to the statistics office INSEE today (Tuesday). Consumer spending fell 0.2 percent month-on-month in May, well below a consensus forecast for a rise of 0.2 percent. Total consumption in May was down 1.6 percent compared to May 2008.

That having been said, I have no doubt, and unequivocally, to say that as far as I am concerned France is the strongest (or least weak) economy among the EU big five (France, Germany, the UK, Italy and Spain) at the moment.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Facebook Links

by Edward Hugh: Barcelona

Quietly clicking my way through Bloomberg last Sunday afternoon, I came across this:

Facebook Members Register Names at 550 a Second

Facebook Inc., the world’s largest social-networking site, said members registered new user names at a rate of more than 550 a second after the company offered people the chance to claim a personalized Web address.

Facebook started accepted registrations at midnight New York time on a first-come, first-served basis. Within the first seven minutes, 345,000 people had claimed user names, said Larry Yu, a spokesman for Palo Alto, California-based Facebook. Within 15 minutes, 500,000 users had grabbed a name.

Mein Gott, I thought to myself, if 550 people a second are doing something, they can't all be wrong. So I immediately signed up. Actually, this isn't my first experience with social networking since I did try Orkut out some years back, but somehow I didn't quite get the point. Either I was missing something, or Orkut was. Now I think I've finally got it. Perhaps the technology has improved, or perhaps I have. As I said in one of my first postings:

Ok. This is just what I've always wanted really. A quick'n dirty personal blog. Here we go. Boy am I going to enjoy this.
Daniel Dresner once broke bloggers down into two groups, the "thinkers" and the "linkers". I probably would be immodest enough to suggest that most of my material falls into the first category (my postings are lo-o-o-ng, horribly long), but since I don't really fit any mould, and I am hard to typecast, I also have that hidden "linker" part, struggling within and desperate to come out. Which is why Facebook is just great.

In addition, on blogs like this I can probably only manage to post something worthwhile perhaps once or twice a month, and there is news everyday.

So, if you want some of that up to the minute "breaking" stuff, and are willing to submit yourself to a good dose of link spam, why not come on in and subscribe to my new state-of-the-art blog? You can either send me a friend request via FB, or mail me direct (you can find the mail on my Roubini Global page). Let's all go and take a long hard look at the future, you never know, it might just work.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Banking Problems In Southern Europe Send The Whole World Running For Cover

by Edward Hugh: Barcelona

Well that so called investor "risk appetite" took a surprise hit yesterday (and from an unexpected quarter). It wasn't the worries about US fiscal deficits that caused the panic, but problems in the European banking system. Gwen Robinson reports:

Risk appetite suffered a sharp deterioration on Monday as fresh uncertainty about the global economy prompted investors to shift from equities, commodities and emerging market assets into the perceived safety of government bonds and the dollar. Markets were further unnerved by warnings on the economic outlook from the head of the IMF and an ECB report saying eurozone banks face another $283bn in writedowns on bad loans and securities this year and next.

As Izabella Kaminska notes, it is Southern Europe that is now getting all the attention.

This time it’s the turn of 25 Spanish banks, all of whose senior ratings were on Friday downgraded by Moody’s. Banco Santander, of “we’re so strong we’re actually going to expand through the crisis” fame, meanwhile, remains under review for possible downgrade.......

Also, this one in Bloomberg:

A Spanish fund planned to aid lenders will be set up with 9 billion euros ($12.6 billion) and will have the capacity to raise an additional 90 billion euros in debt, Finance Minister Elena Salgado said. The government is still working on the details of the plan, which will need the approval of parliament, Salgado told a news conference in Madrid today after a weekly Cabinet meeting. The government would raise the initial 9 billion euros with a debt issue, she said, adding that there was “no hurry” as “there is not one entity in difficulty.”

As unemployment and bankruptcies surge, bad loans at Spain’s banks rose 4.27 percent of total credit in March, the highest since 1996, compared with 1.2 percent a year earlier.

But as Isabella detailed: "Moody’s also noted that a significant government capital injection - which apparently has been discussed for some time now by the Spanish government and the banking sector — could prompt subsequent upgrades of some BFSRs. "

And guess what else it might prompt, more downgrades in Spanish sovereign debt, that's what it might prompt. Economy Minister Elena Salgado was widely quoted in the press last week, giving an estimate of 9.5% total fiscal deficit for 2009 (not bad my guess of 9% back in February, I think). But they are still hoping for a contraction this year of only minus three percent, and this seems very optimistic, so the outcome will surely be a deficit in double figures.

This, in my view, is the last year that the financial markets will pardon such a deficit from Spain, and we will now be under fiscal pressure as well as relative price pressure. Essentially, I agree with Krugman (or should that be, given the NYT links, Krugman agrees with me) and what we need in Spain is an "internal devaluation" of about 20% to jumpstart the economy - and this is 20% vis a vis Germany, where they are also having deflation, so the size of the correction is very large. And at this point - August will mark the second anniversary of the commencement of what looks like becoming Spain's "lost decade" - we haven't even started.

And Greece is also moving towards centre stage, as the FTs Kerin Hope details in this article:
After a decade of explosive loan growth triggered by Greece’s entry to the eurozone, the country’s banks are experiencing the downside of a financial cycle for the first time as the economy stutters in the global downturn.

Exports are declining, the tourist season has got off to a poor start and the Greek economy is projected to shrink by about 1 per cent this year, according to the International Monetary Fund. Years of excessive spending have pushed up the public debt to almost 98 per cent of gross domestic product.So far the banks have shown some resilience, assisted by a €28bn government support package that included a €5bn capital injection in preferred shares, and there have not been any government bail-outs of individual banks.........

However, the situation may be about to worsen with analysts forecasting bad loans will rise this year from 3.8 per cent to about 6 per cent before peaking in the first half of 2010. Meanwhile, Fitch, the ratings agency, last week warned the banks’ performance for the rest of the year would likely be hit by higher loan impairment charges.

So the world seems to work like this. Latvia gets battoned down for a few months via a few billion in loans from the IMF and the EU Commission. As a result, the Baltics now become yesterday's story - till they aren't again, of course. And we move on, as I more or less feared, and its time to begin to focus on Southern Europe again (while Eastern Europe deteriorates sufficiently to make it back into the headlines). I think people can only keep so many things in their head at any one time.

Basically the whole EU system seems to be in denial on what is happening at the moment. The markets have been focused on the East, but they are now starting to wake up to the fact that the South is still here, and when this "matures" we will have a full blown financial crisis, that is for sure. At that poiunt the Spanish and Greek governments will effectively lose control of the situation, just as they have done in Latvia and Hungary.

This is one of the reasons I am following Latvia closely. Basically what is happening in the East is a sort of "dry run" for what is going to have to have to happen in the South. The whole package, from "fiscal austerity" as a tool to attack recessions, to "internal devaluation" via price and wage deflation is about to be applied in the South as a path towards restoring export competitiveness and economic growth.

There has been a lot of talk, of late, about the contagion danger from Latvia, but few seem to consider the possibility that - given the way the EU itself is putting its credibility on the line in the Latvian case - if finally Latvia folds (and devalues, as I feel it must), then the contagion problem could leap straight to the South from the East. Obviously Romania is looking very vulnerable to anything that happens virtually anywhere, but Spain looks a lot more vulnerable to me at this point than either Poland or the Czech Republic, due to the massive external financing requirement.

Basically investors have now started to remember that Greece and Spain still exist. I suppose we will now see the crisis zigger-zagger across from the South to the East and back again, with the German real economy receiving body blows on both counts in the middle.

Meantime in Berlin and Frankfurt they seem to be mainly worried about the US fiscal deficit at this point. Stange what makes people tick.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Feeling Smug?

By Claus Vistesen: Copenhagen

I have had a nice weekend not least because I have finally received my new laptop and as the first, of many, blog entries to be typed I would like to point your attention to some recent comments made by the German finance minister Peer Steinbrueck in the context of the increasing risk of further downgrades of European sovereigns following the decision by Standard and Poor to downgrade Ireland's debt rating for the second time in 2009. As I think a bit about what it actually is Mr. Steinbrueck is saying I cannot help but feel that our good Finance minister is perhaps feeling a bit too smug here. Now, as Mr. Steinbrueck points out and as has been the source of wide debate, this is an issue which reflects itself in the widening of sovereign yield spreads among economies in the Eurozone (picture courtesy of Ibex Salad).

Now I am not sure that Mr. Steinbrueck really intended to come off as smug. In truth he may just be concerned, and rightfully so, about Germany fellow Eurozone members and perhaps even the ability of the Eurozone to weather the incoming crisis as one entity. However, I do think the following is rather complacent when you think that it comes from the finance minister of an economy with more than a few problems, not least on the fiscal front.

“What’s going to happen to our friends in the European Union that are not getting the same conditions” as Germany when borrowing money from capital markets, Steinbrueck said in Lecce, Italy, where he’s meeting counterparts from the Group of Eight nations. “I’m hinting at this now so that nobody asks in half a year or so whether I was blind and whether that wasn’t an issue in international discussions.”

Ok, fair enough Mr. Steinbrueck. I for one will not accuse you of being blind further down the road, but I do think a bit of humble pie is in order here. Consequently, there are two risks here. On the one hand there is the narrative Steinbrueck is latching on to in the form of the periphery acting in such a reckless way that they risk pushing themselves so far into the mire that it risks the future of the Eurozone or, if we move the predictions down a nudge, their own economic prosperity. The other risk however is a much more sinister one. Consider then the idea that the threat towards economic stability in the Eurozone comes not from the periphery but from the very core of the edifice in the form of a German economy whose growth model is extremely vulnerable to the current conditions and which has no meaningful defense. The idea here is simple enough. As bad as the crisis in the periphery is, bad indeed it is, what happens when markets wake up to the fact that the weakness and dysfunctional economic edifice stretches into the very heart of the Eurozone? Specifically, what happens to those much hailed better conditions in the context of Germany Steinbrueck points towards?

Clearly, there is ground for more than a little food for thought here and especially so in the context of Germany who has now definitive lost the source of its hitherto export driven growth in the form of a faltering CEE as well as a severe crisis in its main Eurozone trading partners.

But, by no means does Mr. Steinbrueck stop here.

Steinbrueck signaled disappointment that the G-8 failed to choose stronger language today on “exit strategies” to the financial and economic crisis, such as scaling back government borrowing and withdrawing monetary policy stimulus.

“More was not to be expected” on exit strategies, Steinbrueck told reporters after the meeting when asked whether he was happy with the outcome. “At the moment we’re still occupying ourselves with crisis management, but the question of fighting inflationary developments in a timely fashion plays an important role.”

Now, if I feel that Mr. Steinbrueck was coming off as a bit too complacent on the first account I seriously think he is moving ahead of himself on this one. I don't know where this comes from, I really don't. Perhaps it is all the talk about rising yields on the long end of the yield curve in the US and the subsequent prediction that the Fed will soon head north to reflect better than expected conditions (and thus inflation). Consequently, I can't for the life of me understand why a German finance minister would be talking about exit strategies at this point in time. Surely, I respect being ahead of the curve as much as the next guy, but not to the extent that you start making assumptions about a recovery which is clearly not in the offering. Put differently, yes James, I do see what you see but not everybody does it seems. Sorry, but I cannot stress hard enough that talks about exit strategies and inflation fighting seem to me to be rather counter productive at this point in time; especially in the context of the Eurozone and Germany.

Too Smug for His Own Good?

Well, perhaps I am being a bit unfair here. I mean, here I am trying to find something to blog about a late Sunday afternoon and my gaze falls upon Mr. Steibrueck's latest escapades. The biggest issue here I think is really that Germany may not be as "safe" as everyone beliefs. The idea of Germany as the Eurozone anchor is about to be tested now and I have my doubts that the narrative will hold up for scrutiny. Of course, a couple of quotes ripped from Bloomberg are not exactly a solid foundation but, in this context, I would still venture the claim that Mr. Steinbrueck is being a bit too smug here.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

China's Imports and Global Recovery - Brad Setser Need Be Curious No Longer

[Update: Claus Vistesen here. I am just hijacking Edward's post to say that Brad Setser is up with his take on the conundrum of surging investment and plummeting imports in China; well worth a look. ]

By Edward Hugh: Barcelona

Earlier this week Brad Setser was opining on his blog:

“Like everyone else, I am curious to see what China’s May trade data tells us. If China truly is going to lead the global recovery, China needs to import more – and not just import more commodities for its (growing) strategic stockpiles.”

Well Brad need restrain his curiosity no longer, since just this very morning we have learnt that:
China’s exports fell by a record in May as the global recession cut demand for goods produced by the world’s third-largest economy. Overseas sales dropped 26.4 percent in May from a year earlier. That compares with the median estimate for a decline of 23 percent in a Bloomberg News survey of 15 economists, and a 22.6 percent contraction in April.

The decline was the biggest since Bloomberg data began in 1995. And more to the point as far as Brad is concerned China’s imports dropped 25.2 percent last month, compared with a 23 percent fall in April. Hence China just one more time ran an increased trade surplus (up to $13.4bn in May from $13.1bn in April), and it is no clearer to me than it is to Brad how a country running a trade surplus can be leading a surge in global demand. Indeed this months data, far from prodiving evidence of an accelerating "recovery" continues to point towards ongoing weakness in global demand, just like the evidence we are receiving from Germany, and from Japan.

Of course, these are year on year numbers. Month on month, exports seem to have stabilised since the start of the year, while imports are undoubtedly up. As Danske Bank put it in a research note today:

The development in China’s exports was weaker than expected. According to our own seasonally adjusted data, exports edged up slightly and the overall picture remains that China’s exports have stabilised in recent months. However, the rebound in China’s exports since early this year has been weaker than in most other Asian countries, suggesting that the Chinese recovery story has been a major driver in Asian countries’ export recovery in recent months.

This is confirmed by the continued strong growth in China’s imports. According to our own seasonally adjusted figures, China’s imports soared ahead 5.8% m/m in May following an 4.9% m/m impressive jump in imports in the previous month. China’s imports of commodities such as iron ore, coal and crude oil have been extraordinarily strong, increasing speculation that China is currently building strategic inventories of the most important commodities (see chart on next page). For that reason, Latin America (not least Brazil) and the ASEAN countries have benefited recently from China’s strong import volumes.

What matters is not so much the fact that imports are rising, but what exactly the imports are. There is substantial evidence accumulating that - as Brad suggests - China is simply stockpiling commodities as a hedge against future inflation. Some of the best evidence for this came here, yesterday. If this picture is correct, then the situation is unsustainable, as is the run up in commodity prices and stocks which have accompanied it. I note Forex Blog draws similar conclusions this morning:
I would argue that the sustainability of this rally (both in stocks and in currencies) hinges on a return to GDP growth in emerging markets. [The IMF forecasts 1.6% growth in 2009 and 4% in 2010]. But given the gap between share prices and earnings, I’m frankly not convinced that investors actually care about whether the rally is supported by actual data. Instead, investors have complacently been swept up by the same herd mentality that produced the bubble of 2008, and could potentially lead to a rapid and painful collapse in what looks to be the bubble of 2009.

Investment Bonanza?

On the other hand there was a 38.7 percent year on year rise in fixed asset investment in May. This was an even larger increase than the one registered in April, when FAI rose 33.9 per cent. For the first five months of this year, investments increased 32.9 per cent from the same period in 2008, compared with 30.5 per cent in the first four months of the year and against an estimate of 31 per cent. According to Alaistair Chan, at Moody’s Economy.com.

“Fixed asset investment in China continues to increase on the back of state-directed projects ... This will help keep the economy growing but there are increasing concerns about the amount of lending that has been required to fund the projects"

Quite. And as a Chinese economist friend wrote me to say: "just how much of the current property demand is speculative? I also have my doubts whether even official inventory levels accurately reflect all the inventory out there, especially when I read anecdotes like this ... "

As a Beijing homeowner myself, I’ve experienced this puzzling phenomenon firsthand. We have been told that the value of the condo we bought last year has gone up 30% based on sales of new nearby developments, but it’s impossible to confirm since there is no secondary market. Originally we tried to rent the place, but we couldn’t find takers at any price that could remotely cover the mortgage, despite a prime location. When we decided to move in instead, we discovered that while the building was sold out long ago, hardly anyone actually lives there. Same with another 800-unit project down the street: every unit went for top dollar well before completion, but now the lights are off and nobody’s home.

In fact the volume of empty apartments across the country hit 91million sq metres at the end of last year, up 32.3 per cent from a year earlier, according to official figures. But those numbers included neither the huge volumes of completed real estate projects whose owners are waiting for market conditions to improve before they put them on the market, nor the estimated 587 million sq m of apartments sold in the past five years but left empty by their owners.

And that part of fixed investment which is ending up, not in flats for inventory, but in productive capacity. Well, as MacroMan says this morning:
But as capex growth keeps humming along..(we could ask)..does the world really need more manufacturing capacity at this juncture? .....(it all)...of course, begs the question of who the Chinese plan on selling to. It's all well and good continuing to build factories and export capacity, but the real world isn't like Field of Dreams; just because you build it doesn't mean that customers will come. Yesterday's US trade figures were telling in that regard. Imports declined again in April; while an inveterate "second derivative" believer may find reasons for optimism in the slight lessening of the pace of import decline in yesterday's data, Macro Man is rather more sceptical. And the fact that US exports declined as well suggests that domestic demand in the rest of the world remains flaccid at best.

So, and finishing up where I started, with the trade balance, as Brad said: "China needs to import more – and not just import more commodities for its (growing) strategic stockpiles". However, to quote again my Chinese economist friend: Macroman's data on China's imports of commodities is surreal too. To which Claus Vistesen responded: "Yep, this was what I thought, and we should expect Brad Setser to be all over this". We certainly should, we certainly should. On you go Brad.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

David Takes On Goliath and Loses: The Ferguson - Krugman Exchange

By Edward Hugh: Barcelona

"As long as excessive debt is not digested, both monetary and fiscal policies are inefficient. There is not much of an alternative. Either to let the economy collapse, in order to reduce debts, and then use fiscal policy to revive it, or inundate the insolvent economy with public credit, to avoid the collapse, and loose the ability of fiscal policy to pull it out of a prolonged lethargy. Either a horrible end or an endless horror."
After the Crisis: Macro Imbalance, Credibility and Reserve-Currency: André Lara Resende

Well, I think the title to this post makes my view on the high-profile shenanigans we are currently witnessing on the part of two widely respected contemporary intellectuals clear enough, even if Paul would probably respond that he is perfectly well able to take care of himself, thank you very much. Nonetheless, looking at the way the tone of his most recent and most public debate with Niall Ferguson has deteriorated (yes, it is Niall I'm talking about here, and not Sir Bobby, although sometimes even I have my doubts), let me confess, I am not entirely convinced on this point (Niall Ferguson's argument can be found summarised in his Financial Times Op-Ed here, and in his rejoinder letter to Martin Wolf reproduced by the FT Alphaville's ever interesting Izabella Kaminska here, while Paul Krugman's "input" to the debate can be found here, here, and here).

So, since the thunder and lightening that such high profile exchanges generate tends to obscure more than it reveals, let me be so bold as to add my own 2 centimes worth - even if, apologies in advance, the whole affair ends up being most terribly "wonkish". If you want to save yourself a good deal of trouble, and heart searching, the central point is a simple one: are long term US interest rates rising because investors are worrying about having to buy so much public debt (as K would point out, what else were they thinking of doing with the money - which isn't really "money" at all, but, oh, never mind), or are they rising because investors expect the time path of US short term interest rates to move steadily upwards? It's as easy, or as hard, as that. So now, you decide!

Green Shoots In Germany and Estonia?

By Edward Hugh: Barcelona

Well, I am busying myself this morning scratching around looking for green shoots in Turkey. But even as I was digging for these I couldn't help notice this coming in over the radar from Germany, courtesy of Bloomberg:

German exports fell more than economists forecast in April as the global crisis restrained demand, keeping Europe’s largest economy mired in a recession. Sales abroad, adjusted for working days and seasonal changes, fell 4.8 percent from March, when they rose a revised 0.3 percent, the Federal Statistics Office in Wiesbaden said today. Economists expected a 0.1 percent decline in April, according to the median of 10 estimates in a Bloomberg News survey.
So German exports have not touched bottom yet - they are still falling. Since the German economy is export dependent, then this implies the obvious, the German economy is still contracting. I don't think anyone ever doubted this, but looking at the way some of the material has been presented recently, it wasn't always clear.

Indeed year on year, exports fell by 22.9%, the fastest rate so far, although since these annual stats are not working day corrected I wouldn't read too much into that just yet, since you really do need to average across March and April due to the Easter impact.

Another country where rather unsurprisingly we aren't seeing too many green shoots at the moment is Estonia, and only today the statistics office reported that exports decreased by 38% and imports by 41% (year on year) in April.

As a result the Estonian trade deficit rose for the second month running, and hit 1.8 billion kroons. So what we are seeing here is a distinct move in the wrong direction, on both counts.

We also learnt from the Estonian stats office today that GDP contracted by 15.1% (year on year) in the first three months of this year - a figure which was revised down from the earlier flash estimate of 15.6%.

Compared to the 4th quarter of last year, seasonally and working-day adjusted GDP decreased by 6.1% (more on all this in another post).

Finally on the green shoots front for today, we could note that Hungary's industrial production plummeted in April by 25.3% (year on year) according to working day adjusted data released by the stats office. This compares with a year on year contraction of 19.6% in March.

Month on month there was seasonally and working day adjusted drop of 5.1% in April, following 4.5% growth in March. So again, output is still falling, and no bottom has been reached.

This latest Hungarian data is particularly unpalatable following a number of reports which had been left open the possibility that the downturn in the Hungarian economy had ground to a halt, or at least staretd to decelerate. If industrial output shows similar weakness in other East European countries then this does not augur well for future German and eurozone output, since Hungary plays a significant role in the early stages of the European manufacturing production chain.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

The European Parliament election of 2009: the "summer of discontent" poll?

by Manuel Alvarez-Rivera, Puerto Rico

An election is currently taking place in the 27 member countries of the European Union, to choose 736 members of the European Parliament for a term of five years. Some countries went to the polls on June 4, 5 and 6, but most are holding the election on Sunday, June 7. In addition, one of the smallest members of the EU, the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg, will hold a parliamentary election simultaneously with the EP poll.

The European Parliament 2009 elections website bills the event as "27 countries, one election," but it would be more appropriate to speak about 27 separate elections that happen to be held simultaneously across a four-day period. Even though all EU countries use proportional representation to allocate EP seats since 1999 (when Great Britain proper switched from first-past-the-post to PR), the rules vary from country to country, and the U.K. actually uses two electoral systems: closed party-list PR for England, Scotland and Wales; and the Single Transferable Vote (STV) for Northern Ireland's three EP seats (the latter since 1979, when the European Parliament became a popularly elected body).

In addition, European elections tend to be dominated as much by national issues as by European issues - hardly surprising in light of the fact that the elections are contested by not by EU-wide parties but by the political parties active in each member country, which subsequently form parliamentary groups in the European Parliament that reflect Europe's major political currents (i.e. Socialist, Liberal, Conservative, Green and so on). In fact, European elections in many countries are little more than glorified mid-term elections, or in some cases (such as Bulgaria, the Czech Republic and Portugal) dress rehearsals for general elections to be held later this year.

Meanwhile, in some countries this year's European poll has been overshadowed by national scandals, such as the ongoing M.P.s' expenses controversy in the United Kingdom, and more recently the publication by the Spanish newspaper "El País" of racy photos taken in the private villa of Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi - who already faces a messy divorce and had previously secured a ban over the publication of the controversial pictures in Italian news media.

Just as important, the EP vote is taking place in the middle of a global financial crisis that has hit the newer members from Eastern Europe particularly hard. The now-wobbly economies of many of these countries appears to have reinforced a growing sense of "buyer remorse" - or more accurately, admission remorse - among large sectors of public opinion in many Western European EU members, which already had serious reservations about bringing in countries that had considerably lower standards of living and of governmental transparency - in particular Romania and Bulgaria, the EU's two newest (and poorest) members.

As it happens, the economic hardships brought about by the ongoing financial crisis appear to have created a fertile environment in many countries for right-wing populist parties preaching a thinly veiled racist and xenophobic discourse, typically anti-immigration, anti-Islamic and often anti-East European as well as anti-EU. These parties, which have developed a motivated following, may also benefit from the low voter turnout that has characterized recent European elections in most member countries.

The declining turnout rates in European elections constitute something of a paradox, as the European Parliament has actually become a more powerful institution over the course of the last three decades. However, an Eurobarometer survey (EB71.1) carried out in January and February of this year indicates that while a slight plurality of respondents believes the EP's role within the European Union has been strengthened during the last decade, nearly as many say it has stayed the same or has been weakened.

Moreover, the European Parliament does not yet play a role as powerful with respect to the European Commission - the EU's executive - as that of national parliaments relative to their respective governments: for example, EP approval is not always necessary for EU legislation. The less-than-straightforward role of the European Parliament within the EU - somewhat reminiscent of that of a 19th century parliament under a limited monarchy - appears to be a major factor contributing to the low turnout: in the Eurobarometer survey, an insufficient understanding of the EP's role was cited as the main reason for not voting in European elections.

However, a large plurality of Eurobarometer respondents indicated they would like to see the European Parliament play a more important role than it currently does; in fact, the EP's role will be significantly strengthened if the Lisbon Treaty is ultimately approved - a development that might raise the institution's relatively low profile and pave the way for higher turnout rates in future European elections. In the meantime, the sad truth remains that for many EU voters, EP elections don't even register on the radar - less than a third of respondents was aware an European election was due this year, according to the Eurobarometer survey - or simply aren't viewed as relevant: the perceptions that voting in the event would not change anything, and that the EP did not sufficiently deal with problems concerning respondents were the second and fourth most frequently cited reasons for not voting in the election; not being sufficiently informed to go to vote ranked third.

European election results were not supposed to be available until Sunday evening, but in an unprecedented breach of rules, the outcome of the European vote in the Netherlands became available after the polls closed there last June 4, much to the displeasure of EU officials; preliminary figures have the right-wing populist Party for Freedom (PVV) in a strong second place, just behind the Christian Democratic Appeal (CDA) party of Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende. Meanwhile, the Labour Party (PvdA) - the junior partner in Balkenende's coalition government - suffered heavy losses, but the opposition, social liberal Democrats 66 (D66) soared to their best EP result since 1994. However, the turnout rate stood at just 36.5%, well below the 80.4% turnout in the country's 2006 general election.

There is no doubt the Party for Freedom - whose leader, Geert Wilders faces prosecution for making anti-Islamic statements - has tapped into a strong undercurrent of discontent in the Netherlands (at least among those bothering to vote in the election there), but it remains to be seen how strongly and in what manner will that discontent manifest itself in other EU countries.

Latvia - Devalue Now or Devalue Later?

By Edward Hugh: Barcelona

The Latvian economy is certaily stuck in a hard and not especially pleasent place at the moment, and really one chart tells it all, since as we see above the local interbank overnight interest rates have been storming upwards and through the roof over the last two weeks. As a result of this unfortunate state of affairs the country has attained a higher profile in the international news media than most Latvians would ever have dreamt possible, or even, probably, considered desirable. Ever since Claus Vistesen's last post, my inbox hasn't stopped filling up with reports, analyses, forecasts etc. (apart from Claus, FT Alphaville's Izabella Kaminska has had a steady stream of posts - here, here, here and here - while RGE analyst Mary Stokes is a regular follower of the issues - and see again here for some thoughts on the contagion question).

The first issue that hits you is, can such a small country really be that important? The answer is, yes it can, and for a variety of reasons, although among these one is paramount, the so called "contagion" risk. As Danske Bank put it in their latest Emerging Markets Europe analysis:

Increasing concerns regarding a possible devaluation in Latvia yesterday spilled over into other countries in CEE. Although the direct link between the Baltic markets and others such as Poland, Hungary and Romania is very limited it is only natural that concerns over the situation in Baltic States triggers renewed concerns regarding the position in Central and Eastern Europe where many countries to a greater or lesser extent face problems similar to those in the Baltics. Those most at risk from negative spill-over effects are Latvia’s neighbours Estonia and Lithuania although we would expect contagion to affect countries in the region most like Latvia in terms of macroeconomic imbalancessuch as Romania and Bulgaria.
Personally, I think it possible that the immediate contagion risk may be being a little overdone at the present time. Certainly there will be immediate implications from any eventual Latvian devaluation for Baltic neighbours (and co-peggers) Estonia and Lithuania, and well as for more distant Bulgaria. A Latvian decion to break loose will, effectively, be the end of the road for the pegs, even if the unwinding may not necessarily be immediate. And beyond the Baltics and Bulgaria pressure will inevitably mount on other countries facing longer term economic and financial difficulties like Hungary and Romania (which may leave you asking just who exactly there is left inside the EU but outside the Euro - Poland and the Czech Republic to be precise), but my personal feeling is that while we may see everyone placed under stress we are unlikely to see dramatic short term "negative events". If I were looking for these it would rather be towards Russia I would be looking, and to the future path of oil prices, since if things were to go the wrong way on that front then the shock waves from Russia could easily destabilise all the rest of Central and Eastern Europe at one foul swoop.

But then, my relative lack of alarm on the contagion front stems from my perception of the present crisis in the East as less one of short term liquidity and balance of payments pressures, and more one of a longer term sustainability issues, given the relative poverty of the region when compared with West European neighbours, and the rapid population ageing and decline issues it is facing.

Ideological Lock-in?

Latvia is certainly hemmed in on all fronts at the moment, what with the 18% year on year GDP contraction registered in the first quarter, the projected 9.2% of GDP fiscal deficit for 2009 (if more cuts are not made), the rise of overnight interbank interest rates into the high teens, soaring credit default swap rates - Latvia's five-year credit default swap rose to a high of 721.1 basis points on Thursday - and almost vanishing Lati liquidity inside the country.

But over and beyond the immediate concerns, and contagion risk Latvia is currently a test-bed for a number of issues with implications which extend well beyond the borders of this small Baltic country. In particular three questions stand out.

a) The rather counter intuitive idea - which I call the new orthodoxy in this post - that even during strong recessions a fiscal contraction could turn out to be expansionary, if it signals a long term determination towards fiscal rectitude. The IMF put the idea thus:
In emerging market countries with debt overhangs, the “Keynesian” effect of fiscal adjustment is likely to be outweighed by “non-Keynesian” effects related to expectations and credibility. Non- Keynesian effects have to do with the offsetting response of private saving to policy-related changes in public saving. In particular, if fiscal adjustment credibly signals improved public sector solvency, a fiscal contraction could turn out to be expansionary, as private consumption rises based on the view that future tax hikes will be smaller than previously envisaged.
IMF - Hungary, Request for Stand-By Arrangement, November 4, 2008
b) The idea of "internal devaluation" as a viable strategy for carrying out a substantial correction in relative wages and prices for a country with a currency peg and large balance sheet exposure to foreign exchange loans. Now it may well be that currency peggars are likely soon to become an extinct species, given the difficulties they tend to produce when such pegs unwind, but the Baltic countries may still be considered as test cases for others who don't (for whatever reason) have an independent currency and thus a serviceable monetary policy. Countries like Ireland and Spain, for example, who are facing a sharp correction, but being inside the eurozone currency area have no local currency of their own to devalue and are hence now destined to follow a similar path to the one being pioneered in the Baltics.

c) The idea that structural reforms can - in the context of a country with long term low fertility, declining working age populations and rising elderly dependency ratios - free up sufficient growth potential to offset the underlying population dynamic and, as the IMF put it in the above citation, credibly signal the possibility of future public sector solvency.

So Latvia is at the heart of a massive experiment, of the kind which lead me to lament on my about page that "Economists hitherto have tried hard enough and often enough to change the world, the real difficulty however is to understand it." Since the question I cannot help asking myself in the Latvian context is: to what extent do we really understand what we are doing here?

The thing is, all of the above mentioned theories - "internal devaluation", "stimulatory fiscal tightening" and structural reforms to offset declining working age population - sound splendid enough, but are the the theories themselves actually valid? How do we test them? And do the measures adopted on the basis of "believing" in them actually work? And are there sufficient grounds for accepting both the validity of the thoeries and the efficacy of measures based on them to ask for sacrifice on the scale that is currently being demanded from the Latvian people? And do we have any consensually agreed benchmarks which would enable us to decide whether the measures are working? Do we indeed - and by "we" here I mean the EU Commission and the IMF - have any inspectable performance indicators against which to measure progress?

Certainly, for every inch of success that is painfully clawed forward (the positive CA balance, for example), we seem to be constantly thrown back a yard by a host of additional problems (the growing fiscal deficit issue, etc), and not for the first time, we - the economists - find ourselves playing with fire, when we, of course, aren't the ones who risk getting burnt in the process!

Plethora Of Statements.

Both the European Commission and InternationalMonetary Fund (IMF) have been busying themselves over the last week making extensive statements on Latvia's 2009 budget amendment process - which is, after all - what lies at the heart of the issue. What has been notably absent however in all these public declarations, is any indication about when exactly the much needed money will arrive. And this is not a request for information simply at the convenience of Latvian lawmakers, it is the sort of information market participants badly need to receive in order to take the kind of decisions which would bring the situation more back under control for the Latvian authorities, and meantime the ambiguity continues.

European Economic andMonetary Affairs Commissioner Joaquín Almunia said in his prepared statement he believes the new budgetary proposals to be a step in the right direction. But how much of a step are they, since he also stressed that more was still needed to contain the rapid increase in the budget deficit. So again, just how much more is needed, and are Latvia's politicians capable of delivering? Or is the pain simply too much to stand?

"Sadly, the economic recession is proving more severe than expected inLatvia
bringing hardship for many and increasing the deficit to higherlevels than
expected. Latvia needs to reduce the deficit in asustainable way with
significant budgetary and structural measures,although I acknowledge that the
original fiscal targets in thegovernment's economic program are no longer within
reach. I alsounderstand there are limits on how much the deficit can be reduced
toallow some breathing space for the economy and for the people ofLatvia,
especially the sections of population most in need. I takenote that the
authorities want to control government debt and maintaintheir exchange rate peg.
The supplementary budget presented this weekis a first step. The Commission
wants to support government's efforts.I am looking forward to seeing additional
steps adopted during the second reading of the budget, as announced by the

On the other hand, Caroline Atkinson, the IMF's director of external relations, restricted herself to saying the fund agrees with the comments made by Joaquin Almunia to the effect that the supplementary budget presented by the government this week represents an initial move in the right direction. "The government's budget is a first step, and there is more work to be done," she said. Again, how much more work?

When directly asked the key question as to whether the IMF would support a depegging of the lat from the euro, she simply stated that the fund hasn't changed its stance. "We have commented before that the situation is challenging and that there is a need for action, and I think the authorities have stressed the importance of controlling the government debt and deficits and maintaining the peg," she said. That is to say, the Fund's position is that on this topic the government decides. On the other hand, with Latvia's financial and currency markets coming under increasingly evident stress, and Prime Minister Valdis Dombrovskis saying the country needs the second portion of the loan by early next week, the Fund remains meticulously silent on when exactly the next tranche will be paid, and on what it would take for them to release the money. Of course, negotiating in public is not the most desireable of things, but then having hoardes of market participants speculating on what you might be saying isn't exactly a comfortable situation either.

Marek Belka, head of the European Department at the International Monetary Fund, also limited himself on Friday to saying Latvia may need to make further spending cuts as well as increase taxes if it is to stabilize the economy.

The Latvian central bank, for its part, noting all the emphasis on "the government decides" side, and obviously not wanting to be forgotten, issued, for its part, a statement openly defending the currency peg, and warning of "dire losses" for Latvian citizens should the currency be devalued. The bank effectively ticked off public officials and advised them to be more careful what they say when speaking and the national currency and its stability in future. It also took the unusual step of underlining that the central bank was an independent institution, and is the only body empowered to take decisions about changing the currency rate. This was notable, as it could be seen as suggesting that someone else thought they had the ability to take such decisions, and it could also be read as a warning to anyone tempted to think they had such powers.

Meantime the recession goes on, and on.........

Industrial Output Stabilises

Latvian industrial output was in fact up in April over March - by 4.8% on a seasonally adjusted basis. Mining and quarrying were up by 1.8%, manufacturing by 5%, and electricity and gas by 4.6%. Some sectors were up sharply, clothing output, for example, rose 14.6%, pharmaceuticals by 11.6%, and chemicals by 9.7%. On the other hand electrical equipment was down on March by 19.5%, while other transport equipment (defined as ships and boats, railway locomotives and rolling stock) was down 13.2%. Such stabilisation was consistent with what we have been seeing in other countries, and at this point does not enable us to draw and longer term conclusions.

As a result of the improvement in April the year on year output drop fell to 16.9% (after adjustment for calendar effects). The fall was thus weaker than the 23.4% year on year drop in
March and a 24.2% one in February.

The core of the problem is exports, since with domestic demand now sunk into a deep hole, and fiscal austerity the "ordre du jour", exports are the only hope for growth. I mean, this is evident from a simple formula:

Changes in GDP = Changes in private domestic demand + changes in government spending + changes in the net trade impact (exports minus imports)

Clearly Latvia's economy is not condemned simply to shrink forever, but it can come to rest at quite a low level, and for it to rebound something needs to drive growth. What I am arguing is, other things being equal, and relative prices being right, that a combination of new investment for greenfield sites directed to axports (which is a plus for private domestic demand) plus the exports themselves could provide the stimulus which starst to turn the motor over. Devaluation is half of the answer here, with the other half coming from having a responsible government, a serious reform programme which encourages confidence in the country and economic and political stability. End all the speculation which surrounds the continuation of the currency peg would be one way to move forward on the second half of the agenda.

The Latvia statistics office have yet to give us detailed data for Q1 GDP, but they initially reported that the 18% annual decline was broad-based, with manufacturing down 22%, retail trade down 25% and hotel and restaurant services output 34% lower (all from a year earlier). "The economic situation is of course very serious," Latvian Prime Minister Valdis Dombrovskis reportedly told a press conference in Stockholm recently, and who could disagree.

Latvian exports are also well down, falling 23% year on year in March, an improvement on the 29% drop in February, but still substantial. Going by the April industrial output numbers we could expect a further improvement in April too, nonetheless far, far more will be needed to start to turn this situation around.

In fact, Latvia still ran a goods trade deficit of just under 400 million Lati in the first three months of the year, down significantly from the 650 million Lati in the last three months of 2008, but still large, especially since GDP is shrinking fast.

Lavia's current account has however improved spectacularly, and was back in surplus (although only marginally) as of January this year according to central bank data. This transformation is entirely logical and anticipated (even if the speed of the correction was not), since Latvia is now about to become a net saver, with a current account surplus, and with an economy which is driven by exports, which at the end of the day is what the whole devaluation debate is all about.

In fact, the headline current account surplus number is a bit illusory, since it has been produced by a combination of two factors, neither of which are totally desireable in and of themselves. This is why we could say that the surplus is a forced one, and that Latvia is being forced to become a net saver. In the first place there is the improvement in the goods trade deficit, which as I say, is more produced by a the fall in imports (which follows the decline in domestic spending power and living standards) than it is by any improvement in exports (which have of course been falling):

And secondly we have movement in the income balance, from deficit to surplus, and this, ironically, is produced by the fact that the internal collapse in economic activity means that the income return on Latvian investments (equities, profitability of enterprises etc) has dropped much more than the return on investments made by Latvians outside the country (where things may also be bad, but not as bad as they are in Latvia). Thus ironically, Latvian's who have had the foresight to borrow funds from the Latvian branches of Swedish banks to invest in economic activities in Sweden may well be faring rather better than those very banks themselves who lent money to be used in Latvia.

Retail Sales

Apart from the drop in imports, perhaps the best short term indicator of the contraction which is taking place in internal demand is to be found in the retail sales numbers. These were actually up slightly in March compared to March - by 0.3%, on a constant price seasonally adjusted basis. The improvement was largely in the sale of food products, which increased by 2.7% on the month, while sales of non-food product fell by 1.1%.

Compared to April 2008 however sales were down by 29.6% (working day adjusted, constant price data), following a 27.3% fall in March. Since April last year seems to have been the peak month, we can expect the annual drops to reduce, although the actual level of sales may well keep falling (see chart below).

Apart from the credit crunch and the consequent difficulty in borrowing money, the other factor which is producing the slump in retail sales is the dramatic rise in unemployment, which according to Eurostat data has surged from a low of 6.1% in April 2008 to the present 17.4%. And it continues to rise.

The Eurostat numbers are rather different from the Latvian Labour Board ones, since the latter is based on a different methodology (and is thus not part of any "sinister conspiracy" to hide the facts - for a full discussion of the issues involved see my recent post on the same issue in Spain), but if you compare the charts, the undelying trend is evidently similar, a sharp upward climb.

Restoring Competitiveness

The principal conclusion we can draw from all this then is that it would be foolish to expect any recovery in economic activity to come from Latvian domestic demand, and this problem will only be added to by the impact of debt deflation on houseowners who, according to Global Property Guide, have just seen their properties fall at the fastest rate anywhere on the planet - it wasn't that long ago that Latvia and Estonia were leading everyone up - with prices down by 50% year on year in the first quarter, and the drop over the last quarter of 2008 being an incredible 30%.

So we need to look to exports. But this is where we hit a problem, since all the inflation which took place during the boom side of the boom-bust have made Latvian prices and industries totally uncompetitive when it comes to its main trading partners. If we look at the latest Real Effective Exchange Rate Data (curiously enough released by Eurostat last Friday), it should not surprise us to learn that the worst loss in competitiveness occured in 2008.

The above chart compares Finland and Latvia, and gives us an idea of just how much competitiveness the Latvian economy has lost since the index was set in 1999. In fact the graphs are even more interesting, since we can see that there was a period - between 2002 and 2005 - when, despite the fact that living standards were rising, productivity was rising faster, and Latvia actually improved its competitiveness vis-a-vis Finland. It is that earlier dynamic which now need to be recovered.

But as we can see from the sharp upward rise the the Latvian REER post 2006, the structural damage has been substantial, and this large scale of the correction needed makes the "internal devaluation" path - even if it were working, and even if markets were accepting it, which in neither case is true - particularly onerous. Prime Minister Dombrovskis himself estimated only last week that any devaluation would need to be of the order of 30% (and looking at the chart it is hard to disagree), and this is already much larger than the 15% "adjustment" in the trading band the IMF were considering during the original loan negotiations.

Ideally improvements in competitiveness can be achieved in two ways, through productivity enhancements which can be attained via structural reforms, and through changes in the wage and price level. Unfortunately the former needs time to work, and time is now absolutely something Latvia hasn't got, with the recession biting deeper by the day, and the markets hot on the heels of the government. So we need the wage and price correction. Well, people have supposedly been working on this for some six months or so now, so just how far have we got? Let's take a look.

Well, if we look at average gross wages and salaries, they fell 1st quarter of 2009 by 6.2% over the last quarter, but when compared with the first quarter of 2008 they are still up - by 3.5%. Of course, given the rise in unemployment the actual volume of wages and salaries paid is down even more - by 10.9% on the year, and by 17.2% over the last quarter. But this is a dop in living standards produced by the recession, and not a fall in unit labour costs.

In fact, according to data from the Latvian Statistics Office, the level of gross wages and salaries has so far only fallen back to the level of August 2008. This contrasts with a lot of anecdotal evidence I have been receiving in comments which speak of far larger reductions, but there you are, that is what the data says.

But restoring competiveness via internal devaluation is about reducing wages and prices in like measure, it is not simply about reducing wage costs, since slashing wages without reducing prices is only to cut living standards, and this in and of itself serves no evident purpose, and indeed causes untold hardship.So how are things going with prices?

Well, not much better. According to the statistics office, as compared to March, the average consumer price level in April was down by 0.4%. The average prices of goods decreased by 0.3%, but compared to April 2008, consumer prices still increased, and were up by 6.2%. In fact both the general and the core idexes (by core I mean ex energy, food, alchohol and tobacco) were still above the January level, so on the consumer prices front we have yet to take even the first step into attacking the loss of competitiveness reflected in the 2008 REER.

What about producer (or factory gate) prices then? Well, here the situation is a bit better, since as compared to March, April producer prices were down by 0.9%, while as compared to April producer prices fell by 2.6% (the first month of year on year drop). In the case of export prices, the situation was even better, since these were down by 9% year on year in April. In fact in both cases (domestic and export) prices have been falling since last July, which is hardly surprising since energy costs (which were a major component in the recent producer price spike) have fallen sharply. And remember, what interests us here is competitiveness, and energy prices have been falling everywhere. What Latvia needs is to improve its relative prices vis a vis its main reference markets.

Money Supply Problems

One indicator of the degree of stress which the Latvian economy is currently experiencing is the way in which bank lending (which fuelled the earlier boom) is now falling across the board. Year on year the numbers are still in positive territory, but the annual lending growth rate is steadily heading for zero - it decelerated to 4.3% in April (of which lending to non-financial corporations fell to a 9.2% growth rate while lending to households was down to 1.3% year on year). But month on month lending is contracting, and has been so doing since October. Loans to resident financial institutions, non-financial corporations and households contracted by 115.9 million lats or 0.8% in April alone.

Commercial credit and mortgage lending are both falling (by 3.4% and 0.8% respectively) and the negative momentum continues.

Money supply data show a similar tendency, even if in April M3 increased by 67.4 million lats and M2 by 63.6 million lats over March. Nevertheless the annual rate of decline in both measures of money supply continued to accelerate (to 8.2% and 8.1% respectively).

M1 - which consists of currency in circulation + checkable deposits (checking deposits, officially called demand deposits, and other deposits that work like checking deposits) + traveler's checks (ie assets that can be used to pay for a good or service or to repay debt) - has been falling now since December 2007.

Net foreign assets held by the Bank of Latvia fell by 218.7 million lats in April. According to the central bank the decrease in foreign reserves was a result of Bank of Latvia interventions (selling euro) and a reduction in foreign currency deposit held by the government as it drew down what remained of the last tranche of the international loan. Latvia has now spent about 503 million euros buying lats so far this year to support the currency. The bank had previously spent about 1 billion euros in 11 weeks last year defending the currency prior to the 7.5 billion-euro IMF-lead bailout.

Reserves had to some extent been boosted by currency swaps made available by the Swedish and Danish central banks. Indeed only in May Sweden’s central bank raised the amount of euros available for its Latvian counterpart to swap for lats to 500 million euros and extended the term of the agreement. The swap agreement dates back to last December, and allowed the Latvian central bank to borrow up to 500 million euros for lats. Under the original agreement the Riksbank was to provide 375 million euros and the Danish cb 125 million euros. However, according to the most recent statement from Swedish Finance Minister Anders Borg the Swedish government have now decided: so far and no further (see below).

Deteriorating Liquidity Conditions

As noted at the start of this post, Latvia is now suffering from a major Lat liquidity squeeze. And the shortage of lati on the internal market lifted has steadily been lifting interbank rates. One indication of the shortage was the inability of Latvia’s Treasury during the week to sell bills at a first auction at which 50 million lati (35 million euros) were offered. The Treasury did finally manage to sell a much smaller quantity (2.75 million lats - 4 million euros) . The problem is not one of price (yield) but of liquidity - there is simply a shortage of lati in the system overall as those who have the local currency sell and buy euros to protect against possible devaluation.

The lack of liquidity pushed Latvian interbank lending rates to their highest levels on record on Friday as the central bank removed lati from the market in an attempt to stem speculation. The six-month Rigibor rate rose to 16.00 percent. The three-month rate rose to 17.92 percent while the overnight rate rose to 19.6 percent. Obviously with levels like this devaluation becomes inevitable, but as Dombrovskis stresses: “This was a momentary situation and the moment when we have an agreement with the international lenders the market will calm down,” - for the time being at least. The critical question at this point is not whether a new agreement with the EU and the IMF is possible (it surely is), but rather whether it is worth the effort, since the government may well be in a situation were it is forced to agree to a series of extremely painful cuts only to find itself in the very same position three or six months from now.

Deficit Connundrum

As we can see, the Latvian people are being asked to make a bet in support of an economic idea, the idea (as presented above) that a fiscal contraction under present circumstances could turn out to be expansionary. Personally I am absolutely not convinced of the validity of this argument. What will convince lenders and investors to return to Latvia is:

a) a convincing commitment to structural reform and fiscal rigour in the longer term
b) a serious adjustment in relative wages and prices which converts Latvia once more into an attractive destination for export oriented investments.

At the present time we have the worst of both worlds here, since all the government's time, energy and attention is being focused on short term fiscal objectives, while the rate of price adjustment is far too slow. That is, the existing programme is NOT working, and I find myself wondering, do the IMF representatives have performance criteria, and if so what are they? And are these (assuming they exist) being in any way fulfilled, since the only visible positive outcome at this point is the recovery of a current account surplus, but if this is being achieved at the price of generating a massive fiscal deficit, then it is hard, really, to cry victory.

The general government consolidated budget showed a deficit of 190.8 million lats in April, with an accumulated deficit since the start of the year of 332.8 million lats). According to the central bank, the deterioration in the general government consolidated budget was largely the result is two processes: a) a revenue fall of 24.7%; and b) an increase in expenditure of 15.9%. Tax revenues were sharply down in all tax groups, with corporate income tax, VAT and personal income tax revenues dropping most (by 84.9%, 26.9% and 15.5% respectively).

The expenditure surge was primarily fuelled by payments of subsidies and grants which expanded by 70.3%. Rising expenditure for social benefits (by 26.2%) and the growth in interest expense (84.7%) were other significant contributors. General government gross debt increased by 143.2 million lats in April (to 3 119.0 million lats).

The consensus is that the current budget as agreed in a first reading before Latvia’s parliament last week implies a deficit of 9.2% of gross domestic product. It is anticipated that spending will be cut further via ammendments in the second reading scheduled for June 17 and that these should be sufficient to obtain additional disbursements from the European Commission and the International Monetary Fund. The question is not really (at this point) whether the Latvian parliament will pass the ammendments, but whether Latvia can hang out that long in the absence of stronger verbal and substantive support, and whether the measures if implemented will have the anticipated results.

On the latter point, as I have already indicated, I am extremely sceptical, and on the former, as we have seen statements from both the EU and the IMF have been much softer than might have been hoped for, while one leading ally (the Swedish banks and government) have now taken a much more ambiguous stance.

Swedish Finance Minister Anders Borg described the situation in Latvia as “markedly worrisome” in a statement on the Swedish government website at the end of last week. However, when it came to practical measures Borg was a lot less forthcoming, limiting himself to stating that Sweden would not offer Latvia any additional bilateral loan over and above the current contribution to the international bailout, adding the in his opinion the most important step forward was a show of determination by the government to rein in the budget gap. “They have to show that they have control over their public finances”. It is of the “utmost importance” that Latvia take “concrete and well-defined” additional measures to limit its public deficit to ensure that the IMF and the European Commission resume loan payment, he told reporters last week.

Swedbank, the largest bank in the Baltic states, has also stressed that they are fully prepared for a possible currency devaluation in Latvia. “We feel comfortable about our action preparedness regardless of which way the Latvian government chooses to go,” Chief Executive Officer Michael Wolf wrote in a statement published on the bank’s Website last week. As he also indicates, he gets the main point about the debt default problem:

“It’s not given that an external devaluation, over a longer period of time, will lead to larger credit losses for the banks,” Swedbank said. “But an external devaluation would give bigger credit losses during a shorter period of time as it directly hits the payment capacity for the many customers who have loans in euros.”

So What Happens Next?

Well , this is very hard to say, but certainly the omens - and especially Friday's Rigibor overnight reading - do not look good.

There is now evidently a growing consensus among observers that some sort of devaluation is well nigh inevitable, with the only real question being when. Certainly the trading community seem to be anticipating such a move, and forward contracts now price the lat some 53 percent below its current spot rate of 0.7073. Bloomberg quote fund manager Paul McNamara , from Augustus Asset Managers, as stating that “There seems to be a reasonable market consensus that Latvia will devalue", and I think this is a fair view.

Caroline Atkinson, director of external relations for the IMF, limited herself to describing the economic situation as “challenging", adding that there was clearly "a need for action.” She also pointed out the need for flexibility, which could refer to the IMF and the budget limit, or could refer to felixility on the part of the government, given the fact "the authorities have stressed the importance of controlling the government debt and deficits in maintaining the peg."

The problem is not that the IMF and the ECB would cease to support the Latvian government if they choose to continue down their chosen path, the question is really will they be able to continue down their chosen path, and indeed does it any longer make sense for them to do so?

No Exit Strategy

During this whole process one thing has become abundantly clear from the IMF statements, for the Latvian government's chosen path to be viable, there needs to be an exit strategy. Really it is very well worthwhile everyone reading the recent interview with IMF Survey Magazine (end of May) given by the IMF’s new mission chief for Latvia, Mark Griffiths, and Christoph Rosenberg, advisor in the IMF’s European Department and coordinator of the IMF’s work in the three Baltic Republics, since it makes a number of things very clear.

Particularly of note are Rosenberg's insistence (which has been a constant on his part throughout the process) that ownership of the adjustment program rests with the Latvian government:

"Let me first stress that this is the authorities’ program—they have very strong ownership of the policies that underpin it."

and secondly, having a viable exit strategy is central to success.

"The alternative strategy—abandoning the peg—would also be associated with large economic short-term costs. That is clearly one reason why there is such a strong preference in Latvia for maintaining the peg. Latvia also has a clear exit strategy in place: meeting the Maastricht criteria and adopting the euro by 2012."

But really, we now need to ask, is this exit strategy still viable? Certainly on the current path it may be possible (on the back of very considerable sacrifices on the part of the Latvian people) to bring the deficit down below the 3% limit in 2011 (although whether the EU Commission and the ECB would regard this as a sustainable process is another issue), but what about the 60% gross debt to GDP ratio? In their April forecast the EU commission pencilled in debt to GDP at 50.1% in 2010 (up from 9.0 in 2007 and 19.5 in 2008). That is debt to GDP is rising very fast (indeed some might say exploding). At the same time this 2010 estimate, which already makes being within the 60% limit in 2011 a reasonably close call (too close for my comfort anyway) is based on GDP contractions in 2009 and 2010 of 13.1% and 3.2% respectively, and we already know that the contraction in 2009 will be significantly greater than the EU forecast.

But it is worse than this, since not only is GDP contracting, prices are also falling (in fact, under the "internal devaluation" scenario this is what we want). But what this means is that nominal (or current price) GDP will fall faster than real GDP, with consequent negative consequences for the debt to GDP ratio (since as GDP falls, the money value of the debt remains constant). In fact the more successful the price correction the higher short term debt to GDP will rise. At the present time the EU forecast GDP deflators of only minus 2.2% in 2009 and minus 3.6% in 2010. But as we have seen above, for growth to return to the Latvian economy prices need to correct by far more than this, and hence debt to GDP will inevitably rise more than forecast - either because prices don't correct fast enough, and hence GDP contracts more (worst case) or that they correct rapidly (but with negative consequences for debt to GDP. This looks suspiciously like a Maastricht lose-lose to me.

That is, the simple fact of the matter is that there is no exit strategy. The programme simply doesn't work. It is "overdetermined", since whichever way you look at it, there is always one more problem than there is solution. Gentlemen. I think its time to give up. Honourably, but to give up. Come on out of the bunker, white flags and hands in the air will not be called for. There's a world out here waiting for you, it's on your side, and there will be a tomorrow.