Eastern Europe: Latvia Faces Debt crisis

The finance ministry expects GDP to contract 18pc this year. House prices have fallen 50pc , the world’s most spectacular crash.

Latvia has become the first EU country to face a sovereign debt crisis after failing to sell a single bill at a treasury auction worth $100m (£61m), prompting fears of a fresh storm in Eastern Europe as capital flight tests currency pegs.

The central bank has been burning reserves to defend the lat in Europe’s Exchange Rate Mechanism, but markets doubt whether Latvia has the political will to carry through draconian cuts in spending – or whether such a policy even makes sense at this stage.

Tremors hit bank shares in Stockholm and triggered a sharp fall in Sweden’s krona. Swedbank, SEB and other Swedish banks have $75bn of exposure to the Baltic states, and face cliff-edge losses if the pegs snap.

“Latvia may be a small country but it has vast repercussions for the region,” said Bartosz Pawlowski, of BNP Paribas. “If the currency breaks in Latvia, it is likely to break in Estonia and Lithuania as well, and perhaps Bulgaria, with effects on other countries like Romania.”

Fresh turbulence in the ex-Communist bloc would rattle West European banks, which have €1.3 trillion of exposure to the region. “We haven’t yet seen the full extent of the crisis in the East European banking system. Defaults are creeping higher,” he said.

The G20 deal in April to triple the IMF’s fire-fighting fund to $750bn has reduced the risk of a currency conflagration, but while the larger reserves will buy time, it does not change the fact that some countries have taken on too much debt.

Latvia’s premier Valdis Dombrovskis warned against a devaluation “quick fix” but may have fuelled the flames further by admitting that the lat is overvalued by a third.

“If we’re talking of devaluation, it definitely won’t be less than 15pc. It’ll most likely be 30pc. Real incomes will shrink very fast. The immediate shock will affect absolutely everyone and everything,” he said.

Latvia faces a calamitous hangover after blazing the trail of euro, Swiss franc, and yen mortgages. Fitch Ratings says foreign debt maturing in 2009 is equal to 320pc of foreign reserves.

The finance ministry expects GDP to contract 18pc this year. House prices have fallen 50pc , the world’s most spectacular crash. A third of the country’s teachers are being fired and public salaries will be slashed by up to 35pc to meet bail-out terms imposed by the IMF and the European Commission. The policy risks a deflation spiral that defeats its own purpose.

“The level of adjustment is too extreme and it is testing the social and political fabric of the country,” said Tim Ash, from the Royal Bank of Scotland. “You have to ask whether they are sacrificing the Latvian economy to protect Swedish banks. It would be better to devalue now and clear the air.”

Mr Ash said Latvia had crossed the Rubicon this week when the justice minister called for a debate on the peg and key adviser Bengt Dennis, ex-governor of Sweden’s Riksbank, said the only question about devaluation now was “how it will be carried out”.

Days earlier the Riksbank said it was boosting foreign reserves by $13bn, clearly a precaution in the face of Baltic risk. Swedish officials seem to have accepted that nothing is to be gained from prolonging the Baltic agony. SEB said it faces equal losses either way, slowly under the peg or short and sharp through devaluation.

Leaks suggest that the IMF favours devaluation, the normal cure for countries that overheat. It was overruled by the European Commission, deeming retreat from the ERM peg to be a threat to Europe’s fixed-exchange orthodoxy.

Mr Ash said the crisis was playing out much like the final days of the Russia debacle in 1998 and the end of Turkey’s crawling peg in 2001, with momentum building until a critical point of no return.

By Ambrose Evans-Pritchard
Published: 7:52PM BST 03 Jun 2009

Source: The Telegraph

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