Saturday, October 17, 2009

Transition economies: a worse nosedive than anticipated

“At the start of this year, the global economic crisis was hitting central and eastern Europe with unimaginable force. Any illusion that this region was somehow immune from the “western” credit crunch and the subsequent financial squeeze was definitively quashed. Output was declining at startling rates that would only become apparent much later in the Spring.”
“But the danger signs were everywhere. There was real risk of a genuine emerging market crisis – that financial systems in a number of countries would collapse entirely, that currencies would run out of control, that there could be sovereign defaults.” (Anthony Williams, EBRD Head of Media Relations, The road to a fragile recovery, 16 October 2009)

Now they tell us

I don’t remember the EBRD ever signaling any such danger. Slowdown, yes, in their forecasts for 2009 and 2010, that from optimistic growth expected in May 2008 got progressively worse to insignificant growth in January 2009 and an average 5.2% contraction for the 29 countries of EBRD operation in May 2009. I suppose it is part of the institutional duties of the EBRD not to encourage pessimistic expectations that may become self-fulfilling, but then we should note this for future reference and remember that, when the EBRD forecasts a significant slowdown, what they really mean is an impending disaster.

How was the disaster averted? “That this horror scenario didn’t happen – Anthony Williams continues – was a result partly of unprecedented international support, with the EU and organizations like the IMF providing huge macroeconomic packages that were flexible and tailored to specific country needs [to Latvia, as well as Hungary, Ukraine, Romania and other CEE]. Other IFIs, including the EBRD, stepped in to provide micro support to banking groups and corporates with little or no access to liquidity. Crucially western banks, a dominant force in financial sectors in many countries in central and eastern Europe, did not retrench as feared. The authorities in eastern Europe responded with policies aimed at dealing promptly and effectively with the crisis, even though those responses were in some cases immensely painful and politically unpopular.”

At least in Latvia, it is not at all clear that a systemic crisis has been averted. And evidence that western banks “did not retrench as feared” has not been provided by the EBRD; perhaps they will in due course, in their Transition Report 2009 due in November 2009 or elsewhere. Did western banks really not retrench at all, or on average? Did they retrench less than feared, and how much were they feared to retrench and by whom? Certainly not by the EBRD. And recently Swedbank, the largest Swedish lender in the Baltic region, “has threatened to scale back its presence in crisis-hit Latvia if the country goes ahead with controversial plans to limit the amount lenders can collect from mortgage-holders” (Stefan Wagstyl, 28 September 2009).

Otherwise, is everything fine now in transition economies? It might be in the Czech economy, which has been taken off the list of EBRD countries of operation because it no longer needs its credit – the first to deserve this upgrade – and, most annoyingly, off EBRD statistics. Not fine at all in the 28 EBRD remaining client countries (including Turkey since last year), where the average nosedive now expected for 2009 turns out to be more pronounced than the Bank anticipated in May 2009: a contraction of 6.3% instead of 5.2%, with Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Armenia and Ukraine expected to decline by well over 10%.

“Signs of positive growth in the third quarter of 2009 suggest that the recession is now bottoming out in many countries of the EBRD region. However, any upturn in 2010 is likely to be fragile and patchy.” (EBRD press report, 15 October 2009) For 2010 the EBRD now forecasts an average growth for the region of about 2.5%, which is 1% higher than it forecast in May 2009, but since it starts from a level which is now 1.1% lower than it was expected then, the higher growth forecast for 2010 actually masks a lower absolute level of GDP than previously anticipated. And “There are likely to be significant cross-country differences in output growth in 2010”, with Latvia, Lithuania, Hungary and Bulgaria expected to continue to contract until 2011. “It is also clear that the social costs of the global economic crisis are only likely to be felt in earnest next year, when corporate bankruptcies and unemployment will continue to rise”, said EBRD Chief Economist Erik Berglof (Ibidem)
The same factors that transmitted the global crisis to transition economies – the contraction in world trade and tight credit conditions – are now causing its continuation. “The Institute for International Finance, a bankers’ group, estimates that in 2007 $382bn – more than 40 per cent of the financial flows into all emerging markets – went into CEE. The IIF forecast in June that even with all the extra support the IMF, the EU and the EBRD are putting into the region, this year’s figure would be about zero” (Stefan Wagstyl, FT, 28 September 2009).


Transition countries with a fixed exchange rate regime – excluding euro-zone members but including Bulgaria, Latvia or Lithuania – are facing a slower and more painful adjustment, the burden of which falls on wages and prices and therefore ultimately demand and employment. Other factors explaining country heterogeneity are the differences in their fiscal positions, the weakness of banking systems, and dependence on commodity exports. The full set of the EBRD October forecasts is reproduced below, or can be downloaded from the EBRD website ).

“Russia’s economy is expected to shrink by 8.5 per cent on a year-on-year basis in 2009, followed by a rebound in late 2009 and growth of about 3 per cent in 2010 year-on-year. Kazakhstan will suffer a much milder output decline this year (of about 1.5 per cent) but the recovery is expected to be weak, in the order of +1.5 per cent.”

“Relatively faster 2010 growth, in the order of between about 2 and 5 per cent is expected in some internationally competitive countries with relatively sound pre-crisis banking systems, such as Albania, Poland, Slovakia, and Slovenia.”

“Some commodity rich countries including Azerbaijan, Mongolia, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan, whose financial systems were smaller and less affected by the crisis, and whose growth is mostly driven by commodities, are also expected to grow faster in 2010, in the order of 5 per cent or more.”

“In Hungary, which was hit particularly hard at the start of the crisis, the crisis has been contained thanks to strong international support as well as sound domestic policies. However, its growth is expected to remain slow in 2010 due to necessary fiscal adjustment and a continued credit crunch. It is expected to show slightly negative growth next year, driven by a weak economy in late 2009 and early 2010” (EBRD press report, 15 October 2009, cited above).


The crisis spells – at least temporarily – a reversal in the convergence process that had accompanied EU enlargement. In 1999-2008 income per head in the EU (15) grew at an average yearly rate of 1.41%, and in the Euro-zone at 1.47%, while in the new member states it grew at 2.00% (Poland) or more (from 2.29% in Hungary to 4.17 in Romania). “Growth over the medium term in the EBRD region is also likely to be below the trend experienced over the last decade” (Erik Berglof, quoted). The crisis is reinforcing the heterogeneity of national performances among transition economies and within the EU.

It is true that some of the factors making for vulnerability to external shocks – such as trade openness, economic and financial integration – are also factors that will reinforce recovery trends in an upturn. But there are other vulnerability factors – such as weak banking systems, fiscal over-stretching, or high private and public indebtedness made worse by mismatching of assets and liabilities – that need tackling before the global upturn can be expected to pull national economies out of recession or stagnation. And membership of a single currency area can make countries more resilient to a downturn but cannot be a cure after the event: a rush to a precipitous euro-zone enlargement today – necessarily preceded by a devaluation – apart from being against the Maastricht rules would not make any sense.

EBRD capital increase

Before the crisis the EBRD was confronted with demands from the US, its largest shareholder, to reduce the scale of its activities in transition economies. Now, as anticipated last May, the Bank is seeking a 50 per cent capital increase, an extra €10bn, from its shareholders – some 60 governments, including European Union members, the US and Japan – to compensate for the decline and reversal of capital inflows into the area. Thomas Mirow, the EBRD president, in a letter to shareholders warns that working with its current €20bn capital, the Bank would have to limit its annual lending to about €8bn in 2009-10 and reduce it to €6bn thereafter. “Activity would shrink while the recovery is still precarious,” while “raising the capital by €10bn to allow the bank [would] commit €9bn-€10bn annually, or €20bn in total extra funding in 2010-15. By mobilizing extra capital from private investors, the total additional funds raised could reach €60bn” (Stefan Wagstyl, FT, 28 September 2009). A final decision will be taken at the EBRD’s next annual meeting in Zagreb, in May 2010.

Mr Mirow states that “The region will need to change its growth model – away from reliance on easy finance and commodities, and towards the development of domestic financial markets, strong institutions and a diversified production base.” If conditions improve “further and faster than is currently expected”, the extra capital might not be needed and could be returned after a review in 2015. Not a chance, regardless.

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