A Week On the Wild Side (Latvian Edition)

Peering out of the window on a rainy and cold Sunday (election) afternoon in Copenhagen it is difficult not to paraphrase, yet again, one the Economist's many classic cover stories but really; it sure has been one hell of ride this week in Latvia. One wonders whether politicians and economists in the central bank really want to see what happens come tomorrow as markets and the flow of news re-commence. The truth however is that they really do not have a choice. Consequently and what actually started a little more than a week ago has now steadily turned into the well known story of politicians and official authorities doing their best to maintain a crumbling edifice. Markets, analysts, and commentators, on the other hand, are beginning to smell a rat and this particular rat looks set to gnaw its way right to the core of the Latvian economic edifice in the form of the Latvian peg.

Surely, the pressure has only piled on since I last wrote about this only a few days ago (see links above). The Financial Times' blog Alphaville in this case personified by Izabella Kaminska has steadily been supplying us with the latest on the unravelling in Latvia. A particularly good piece hammers down the point that it is not only freelance bloggers such as yours truly who are questioning the Baltic (Latvian) currency peg but also, now, most professional analysts close to the situation. This is a called a market discourse and although the commitment to maintain status quo may be there one cannot make the waters go back.

However and to be fair to all parties it does seem as if the Latvian authorities got the best of the discourse this week if, that is, being the last one to shout constitutes an upper hand in this case. Consequently, both the central bank and the premier minister Valdis Dombrovkis issued strong statements to suggest that the peg will hold simply because Latvia is committed to seeing this correction through.

Latvian Prime Minister Valdis Dombrovkis pledged to push through budget cuts and ensure the inflow of international loan payments as speculation grows the Baltic state may devalue, threatening the economy of Sweden. “These rumors and speculations should finally be stopped” about the devaluation of the lats, Dombrovskis, 37, said in an interview with Latvian Independent Television today. The currency will not be devalued, he said, and the country will pass budget cuts needed to get the next tranche of money.

This is of course all well and good, but one has the distinct feeling that all this merely constitutes the inevitable last launches before the opponent finally lands the kidney blow to send you crushing into the canvas.

In terms of a more thorough look at the Latvian situation which goes beyond the immediate plethora of market jitter you could do a lot worse than visit Edward's latest post on this issue. As he sets out pointing towards, overnight interbank rates rose to a record of 20% this week and it suggest more than anything the stress being levied on the system.

Another particular issue Edward deals with is the risk of contagion and essentially fallout from a devaluation in Latvia. Certainly, this is an important question in itself but I also agree with Edward [1] in the sense that the immediate plunge in other CEE currencies not to mention the Swedish Krona following a Latvian devaluation is not really the main issue here.

For the record, I see no decoupling and a Latvian devaluation would clearly force others to do the same, most notably I would think Lithuania and Estonia. As for the ripple effects towards the entire CEE edifice, they are likely to be substantial although not necessarily catastrophic. The real issue we need to understand I think is that that IMF program has problems and that this will become clearer and clearer as we move forward. Edward points to one very important data point in the form of a real effective exchange rate where numbers have just been published in 2008 format.

This gives a very clear image of the amount of down scaling the Baltics, and indeed many of the Eastern European Economies, need. It is important to understand that there is a level effect and relative effect here in the sense that one thing is to correct relative to one's own past level, and quite another to correct relative to others. Consequently, this is a chronic problem all across Eastern Europe and thus everybody has to correct. In this sense, the IMF are submitting those with pegged exchange rates to a dose of "medicine" which is simply too strong and which the domestic "system" cannot muster.

So, my feeling is that all this goes beyond whatever effect currency speculation would have in the wake of a Latvian devaluation/default. There are clear signs that the "exit strategy" from this crisis is not working and it is next to scandalous that the IMF/EU do not realize that while these countries certainly need a strong dose of "stick" to get themselves on the right track we need to ensure that they are not obliterated over the course of the next year. I mean, this talk about Euro adoption in 2012 is just so silly and counterproductive since who the heck knows where we are in 2012. Who knows, for example, where the Eurozone itself is in 2012. Really, I cannot stress enough how these road maps of convergence need to be rethought since there has been a structural break. We need a new plan and one which factors in the change in environment.

Moreover, I think we have established by now that the Eurozone is no magic potion and in fact faces a series of very severe tests on Spain, Italy not to mention the mental crush it will be when Germany does not recover because I can tell you; in terms of domestic demand she won't.  Basically as I see it, the option has always been to "let the CEE in", but that would also take a much stronger coordination on the fiscal side and essentially joint European financing through Euro bonds. At the moment, this is far to big a step for the gents in Frankfurt and Brussels to consider.

So, no decoupling in an immediate devaluation context, but more importantly, I tend to look at this more structurally than a simple question of how much the e.g. Forint and Leu will fall in the context of a Latvian devaluation.

At the end of day, this is a question of swallowing those camels and accepting the idea that the current solution being applied is out of touch with reality. Essentially, I don't think the parties involved quite understand the structural damage many of the CEE, and Latvia in particular, have suffered. As per usual I am implicitly referring to the importance of factoring in demographics but then again; it is absolutely amazing that none of the presumed experts here have not added this variable to the equation yet. As Edward says towards the end in his entry ...

That is, the simple fact of the matter is that there is no exit strategy. The programme simply doesn't work. It is "over determined", 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.

I couldn't have put it much better myself, I really couldn't.


[1] - There is a surprise :)