Why Latvia Should Not Devalue

December 9, 2008 9:00 AM

Latvia has a severe financial crisis, the preconditions for which have long been evident. A fixed exchange rate to the euro led to an excessive speculative influx of capital, boosting Latvia's private foreign debt to 100 percent of GDP. Inflation soared to 16 percent, and the current account this year to 15 percent of GDP. Latvia's budget has traditionally been almost in balance.

For most countries, devaluation would appear inevitable, and some argue that Latvia has to devalue its currency, the lat. But Latvia's circumstances are peculiar, making the standard cure not only inappropriate but harmful. A severe wage and social expenditure freeze would be a better prescription, along the lines of a preliminary agreement on macroeconomic stabilization reached on December 8 among the Latvian government, the European Commission, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and the Swedish government.

Now the questions are how much financing Latvia needs, who will give it, and on what conditions? The key outstanding issue has been whether Latvia should devalue or not. But given that Latvia—and Estonia—are experiencing high inflation with close to balanced budgets, devaluation is neither necessary nor desirable. A freeze of wages and social transfers would be preferable for both economic and political reasons.

First of all, thanks to Latvia's limited GDP, $27 billion in 2007, sufficient international financing can be mobilized. The combination of IMF, EU, and Nordic funding should be sufficient.

Second, devaluation is likely to aggravate inflation and it could start a snowball effect of higher inflation and repeated devaluations. A devaluation would not be less than 20 percent and it would cause greater social and economic disruption.

Third, the great number of mortgages held in euros would force a massive blow-up of bad debt and mortgage defaults, which in turn would seriously harm the population, the housing sector, and the banking sector and thus the economy as a whole. Such a banking crisis is not necessary. One of the three big banks, Parex Bank, has already gone under, but the other two, the Swedish banks Swedbank and SEB, are strong enough to hold, if no devaluation occurs.

Fourth, Latvia's main macroeconomic problem is inflation. Devaluation would initially aggravate inflation, while a wage and social expenditure freeze would sharply reduce inflation. High inflation has led to the excessive current account deficit. Latvia does not suffer from any structural terms of trade shock

Fifth, a freeze on wages and public expenditures would strengthen the budget, while devaluation is likely to lead to severe budget strains.

Sixth, the Latvian population seems politically committed to the fixed exchange rate, and it seems prepared to take a freeze of incomes and public expenditures, and if necessary even cuts. Therefore, devaluation could lead to undesirable and unwarranted political convulsions.

Finally, devaluation in Latvia would inevitably drag down Estonia as well, and all the effects would be doubled, while Estonia might hold its own without Latvian devaluation. Lithuania, which does not really have any serious financial problems, could also be harmed. I would have recommended that the Baltics abandon their fixed exchange rates a few years ago, but this is the wrong time to do so.

The argument I am making applies only to very small economies with basically sound economic policies. Russia and Ukraine are in a very different situation. Both suffer from major structural changes in terms of trade because of slumping commodity prices, and they should let their exchange rates float downward with their terms of trade.