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Does Latvia Give Us Any Clues?

Short answer: yes, as long as global trade growth is negligible.

Over the weekend I came across a December CEPR paper about the Latvian economy. Authors Mark Weisbrot and Rebecca Ray highlight the Latvian experience with internal devaluation, which may prove to be a case study for the current Eurozone model of internal devaluation by the program countries (Ireland, Portugal, and Greece). Weisbrot and Ray find the following (emphasis mine):

The paper also finds that Latvia’s net exports contributed little or nothing to the economic recovery over the past year and a half. This means that “internal devaluation” cannot have succeeded in bringing about the recovery. Rather, it appears that the recovery resulted from the government not adopting the fiscal tightening for 2010 that was prescribed by the IMF, and also from an expansionary monetary policy caused by rising inflation. The data contradict the notion that Latvia’s experience provides an example of successful internal devaluation.

Note: Internal devaluation is Europe’s favored prescription for any country seeking liquidity assistance; it refers to the process by which an EZ country that cannot devalue its currency reduces relative costs (wages) and prices by raising the unemployment rate in order to shift export income in favor of the deflating economy.

Internal devaluation didn’t work for Latvia, as evidenced by export demand. I wondered, though, how has real export demand performed for the current program countries, Ireland, Portugal, and Greece? Have these countries followed Latvia’s path?

To date, as regards to export income, internal devaluation appears to be working in Ireland and Portugal but not in Greece. For comparison to Latvia, I illustrate the path of real exports and imports spanning 2005Q1 through 2011Q3, as demonstrated for Latvia on page 14 of the CEPR paper.

Similar to Latvia’s experience, real import demand deteriorated in the face of fiscal austerity, especially in the case of Ireland and Greece. In contrast to Latvia’s experience, though, real exports in Ireland and Portugal are roughly 6% and 8%, respectively, above levels in 2007Q1. The Greek experience looks more like that of Latvia, as real imports and exports plummeted below pre-crisis levels, having yet to recover.

As I highlighted in a December post, relative unit labor costs have been cut in the case of all program countries, so internal devaluation is evident. (Note: the chart in the post illustrates the 4-q average Y/Y growth in nominal unit labor costs compared to the EA overall – it’s not intended to be a thorough examination of real exchange rates.) But has that been the driving force behind the export growth?

The resurgence in global trade has been an influential factor in the case of Ireland and Portugal. The chart above illustrates the Dutch estimate of world trade. Notably, there was a resurgence of trade spanning mid 2009 to Q1 2011, which support European exports broadly. It’s difficult, in this respect, to attribute all of the export success to internal devaluation.

Going forward, Ireland and Portugal are very likely slaves to global demand for exports. Prospects there are not looking too bright, given the slowdown in Asia.

Ultimately, I do think that Latvia serves as a warning for EA program countries. Internal devaluation is impossible for those countries with high private sector leverage without a burst of external demand. Unfortunately, the burst of external demand seems to have passed.

(Insert here a discussion of the 3-sector financial balances model, and why Ireland depends exclusively on generous export income to facilitate economic growth.)

One Response to “Does Latvia Give Us Any Clues?”

Patrick_VBFebruary 22nd, 2012 at 1:45 pm

Hi Rebecca,
Another thing to bear in mind when assessing the possibility of a successful export-led expansion is the relative size of a country's export sector. In 2011, the exports/GDP ratio for Germany was 50%. This ratio was 35 for Portugal, 30 for Spain, 29 for Italy, but only 24% for Greece. This indicates that it would take a much larger increase in Greek exports to achieve a specific GDP growth rate than it would for Germany. In Germany, a 10% increase in exports would raise GDP by about 5% (ceteris paribus); in Greece, the same 10% increase in exports would raise GDP by 2.5% (ceteris paribus). In other words, for Greek GDP to also increase by 5%, Greek exports would have to rise by about 21%. Basically, in the short term, exports cannot drive Greek GDP growth; at best, they can help a bit.

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