By Edward Hugh
“If you know your Thucydides and the Melian dialogue you know that small countries rely most on everyone following the rules. That’s why we follow the rules. If there are no rules, then the big will do what they want,”
-Estonian President Toomas Ilves in an interview with the EU observer
In a blog post which has gathered a certain notoriety, Paul Krugman recently sent the Estonians his condolences. I will send them, not my condolences, but my congratulations, and these not for the somewhat dubious honour of being allowed to join the Eurozone, or even for having carried out a highly successful “internal devaluation” (this outcome is still in doubt), but rather for their stubbornness, courage and tenacity. These are indeed hard (and enduring) men and women. And in honour of their courage I offer them an homage, in the form of two charts. The first of these is the latest Estonian industrial production one.
While the second is the Spanish equivalent.
Can you spot the difference? If not, squint a little closer. Estonia’s economy fell by around 18% during the crisis, while Spain’s has so far has fallen only by something like 7%, yet Estonia’s industrial output is now almost back to where it was before the crisis started, while Spain’s has fallen but so far not recovered. No sign of even the tiniest green shoot.
Curiously, Spain’s political leaders constantly complain that the markets are being unfair to their country, and are underestimating their ability and determination in responding to the crisis. Yet if we compare the relative performances of the industrial sectors in the two countries, it is pretty obvious why the markets entertain the doubts they do. Both are destined now to live from exports, but one country is evidently living rather better from them than the other. It is clear that companies in the Estonian industrial sector have been far more agile in diversifying and finding new markets than have their Spanish counterparts.
Both countries experienced a construction lead “boom-bust” (Spain’s of rather larger proportions than the Estonian one), and consequently now face highly impaired domestic demand. Yet the Estonians have succeeded where the Spaniards have failed, by shifting a part of their previously inward-looking industrial base towards the outside world and towards growth. There is simply no other explanation for the evident discrepancy, since (as we will see below) Estonia’s industry is not growing due to the pull of domestic demand, although it is on the point of returning to “back to normal” operating levels. Spain’s export sector is also recovering (after all, the external demand is now there), but the part of Spain’s industry which is geared towards supplying domestic demand simply hasn’t been able to adapt, and is still contracting along with domestic consumption. In fact, it is still contracting so rapidly that that the shrinkage is totally cancelling out all the fine work being done by the companies who are doing all the exporting, which is why industrial output remains more or less stationary, and the Spanish economy fails to return to life.
Many Rivers Left To Cross
Well that, as they say, was the good news. What follows possibly won’t be anything like so palatable for Estonians to read as what went before, which doesn’t mean it isn’t worth reading and thinking about. You see, that old black magic (sorry, devaluation) debate, was never about whether or not the Estonian export sector could recover to its old level after the economic contraction came to a halt. As I keep stressing, it is obvious that it could, since in this case, recovery depends on factors external to Estonia, and these factors have now changed, as a number of countries have seriously started to recover. No, the issue was always about the fact that the Estonian economy had become severely distorted during the boom years, and that the existing export sector was too small to do the heavy lifting that was going to be required of it after the bust in domestic demand. How many times did people say to me during those early days “but what can we export?”, or “don’t you realise that Estonian exports are largely re-exports of processed imported goods”, as if these added disadvantages made the situation any easier, or my arguments somehow irrelevant. When a country is in trouble, but really in trouble, one of the first signs, I reckon, of the depth of the problem is that you get a long queue of official economists lining up to give you a thousand and one reasons why it is going to be possible to export your way out of difficulty. This is like a leading indicator for “problems looming”, since the situation has become so serious that effective solutions are virtually beyond the realm of the thinkable, and we need to soothe ourselves with nice sounding palliatives. In the realm of economic science, however, reality has a nasty habit of coming back and waking us from our slumbers.
What all this really suggests to me is that the thrust of the original argument about why the size of the export sector needs to increase sharply in economies which have become so badly distorted as the Estonian and Spanish ones have was never really properly understood. So it is in honour of all those valiant Estonians who have sacrificed so much in order to gain so little that I endeavour just one more time to make things clear (my original pieces on Estonia’s internal devaluation can be found here and here).
The Estonian Economy Is Recovering!
As one-commentator-after-another never tires of informing us, the Estonian economy has returned to some sort of growth recently, indeed (hat tip to Krugman) the Washington Post even went so far as to lump it together with Germany as one of Europe’s “growing economies”, while the Economist Central Europe correspondent described it as a Nordic Kitten, seemingly a designation created to distance it from its more problematic Baltic neighbours. Unfortunately, wine doesn’t improve simply by changing the label on the bottle (even if it does now say “appellation Frankfurt controlé”), and Estonia is neither a growth economy (which is the Goldman Sachs term for the new Emerging Market tigers like India, Indonesia, Turkey and Brazil) nor is it a “growing one”, it is simply a “steadily recovering” one, and what’s more, given the severity of the challenges it still faces, it is far from having entirely managed to distance itself from the set of economic problems characteristic of what has come to be known as the “Baltic syndrome”.
Yes, Estonia’s economy has now started to grow again. Indeed, it was up by an annual 5% in the third quarter. But, to put this number in context, it was still down by around 16% from the Q4 2007 high, and just below the level of Q3 2005. So there is still a rather long way to go to get back to meaningful growth – indeed so long, as Krugman again points out, that IMF forecasts don’t contemplate the country’s economy reaching its 2007 level again before 2015 (Germany just more-or-less hit its 2007 level in 2010).
So, what is slowing the recovery down? Well, as I indicated at the start of this post, it certainly isn’t the industries in the country’s export sector, which are now more or less back to where they were before the crisis started.
But rather the problem lies in the state of private domestic demand, which obviously isn’t recovering.
“Estonia’s recovery has been mostly driven by exports, which, measured in current prices, reached close to the all-time high in September”, and “Export growth indicates that the economic activity of our main export partners is expanding quickly and Estonia’s companies are making good use of it…. The export volume of industrial production reached a historical high in the third quarter. Irrespective of the continuously weak domestic demand, the sale of industrial production started to pick up in the domestic market as well, but it is still some 25% below the pre-crisis level…. since unemployment continues to be high, the level of consumers’ income and purchasing power will remain weak in the next years”.
And as the central bank also point out, export growth will now be harder (that is we have now picked most of the low lying fruit).
“Though most of industrial enterprises still have under-utilised production capacity, the existing capacity stock is running out along with rapidly expanding sales volumes. This refers to the need for additional investment”.
Yet, unfortunately, the sad truth is that investment activity has still not picked up.
This lack of series investment in fixed capital contrasts sharply with recent movements on the equities side, since, according to Bloomberg data, Estonian stocks are valued at an average of 16 times estimated earnings, compared with 11.3 times for Polish and Czech shares, and 12.6 times for Slovenia (the chart sort of resembles the export one, doesn’t it?).
But the issue is this: following a pattern seen in many emerging markets over the last 12 months, short-term fund inflows pushed values on the Tallinn exchange up by some 73% in 2010, making it the third-best performance worldwide, according to Bloomberg data. They also quote Tallinn-based SEB researcher Peeter Koppel as saying: “Euro adoption has somehow triggered more widespread thinking about saving and investing in general,”…… Foreign retail investors “now have the hard fact of euro and the certain caution, especially from the Scandinavian side, is gone.” Which sounds to me more like “previously wary investors have now thrown caution to the wind,” on the back of all the pro-Euro Nordic-kitten hype. What Estonia needs, and is not getting (as the central bank itself recognises) is serious, long term, FDI for greenfield projects generating jobs and output in the export sector.
Boosting Domestic Demand Means Increasing The Size of the Export Sector & Creating Employment
As I say, in contrast to what is happening in the external sector domestic demand is far from recovering. Retail sales were up 5% (at constant prices) in November over November 2009, and 1% in October. But the annual rise is more a by-product of the very low level of sales hit in November last year, and in fact between January and November 2010, retail sales were down 4% compared to the same period in 2009.
The domestic construction sector isn’t recovering either. According to Statistics Estonia, the total production of Estonian construction enterprises increased 1.2% in Q3 2010 compared with a year earlier. But when you read the fine print, the increase was entirely produced by construction companies operating abroad (whose activity was up by 25%) – ie once more it is a question of exports.
And in fact construction output inside Estonia fell by around 1% compared to the 3rd quarter of 2009, and even this drop only wasn’t larger due to the availability of EU infrastructure funding, since the volume of building construction decreased 9% while the volume of civil engineering increased 15% at constant prices. According to data from the Estonian Register of Construction Works, in the 3rd quarter of 2010 there were only 481 housing units completed – 50% down on the same period of 2009. 65% of these were flats, the majority majority of them in Tallinn.
As the Central Bank point out, domestic demand can only improve in a sustained way if there is a major improvement in the labour market, but as they also stress, this is only recovering slowly, with the unemployment rate declining to 15.5% in the third quarter, and with the need to improve productivity and only low growth expected in the quarters to come, unemployment is likely to remain high for several years.
So despite the recovery in external demand, as was to be expected the demand for domestic credit far from recovering continues to contract, whether we are talking about corporates:
or about households:
or about housing mortgages:
Added to this, the way that fiscal austerity was implemented (raising VAT, and fuel costs) has meant that the Estonian price level, far from continuing to deflate (which is what is needed to increase competitiveness quickly enough) is now rising again, and at around 5.5% (my estimated HICP, the Estonian CPI was up 5.7% but the weightings are different) is well above the 2.2% estimate for the Euro Area, or the 1.9% December inflation estimated for Germany by the Federal Statistics Office. Perhaps one of the clearest indications of the malfunctioning of the Eurozone as currently structured is that the Germany economy (which is recovering rapidly) is experiencing far higher levels of inflation than the Eurozone periphery, which in theory should be deflating to recover competitiveness.
True Estonia did begin to recover some part of the lost competitiveness, and unit labour costs as compared with some key competitors did start to improve, but this process slowed considerably in the first two quarters of 2010, marked time in the third one, and may actually have started to deteriorate again in the final quarter as inflation accelerates (OECD data – please click on image for better viewing).
Hourly wages (on a moving average basis) seem to have stopped falling, and the next move will almost certainly be up as inflation bites in.
True, the Central Bank would undoubtedly argue that much of the inflation was due to food and energy, and that core inflation was running much lower (1.2% in November), but it is hard to see the impact of movements in the leading CPI not feeding through into wages, and producer prices (another important measure of industrial costs) were up an annual 4.5% in November.
And Its A Hard Road To Travel!
In his most recent assessment of the Estonian situation (Toughing It Out: How the Baltics Defied Predictions)Christoph Rosenberg (former coordinator of the IMF Baltic intervention, and current head of the Fund’s Hungary mission – this man also likes hard challenges!) also pays homage to the grit and flexibility of the Baltic populations (a characteristic I also wholeheartedly applaud), but he draws a conclusion which I feel is as yet at best premature.
“The Baltic experience demonstrates that large economic adjustment, including nominal wage and benefit cuts, is indeed possible under a currency peg (or, for that matter, in a currency union)”.
Certainly, as Christoph points out, a large correction has taken place in Estonia. The current account, for example, is now in surplus.
The issues I am raising is whether this correction is enough, or whether it is sustainable. As the Bank of Estonia note, the Non-performing loans situation has been stabilised, and the value of loans overdue for more than 60 days contracted by over 250 million kroons in November to stand at 6.8 per cent of the total loan portfolio. But most of the old loans are still there, they have not been cleaned from the books, and have been sustained and refinanced by what Christoph calls the “deep pockets” of the Scandinavian lenders. These loans would be once more put into question by any renewal of the internal devaluation and serious price deflation. So hard decisions are going to need to be taken.
Inflation is already excessive, and net-exports are nowhere near large enough as a proportion of GDP to carry the economy forward with a strong growth dynamic. Indeed the IMF itself is forecasting a return of growing current account deficits after 2013, which should alert us to the fact that all is not yet as it should be, by a long way. Thus, in conclusion, I think it is very true to say, as Christoph does, that it still far too early to pass any kind of definitive judgement on the success or otherwise of what he calls “the Baltic strategy”. There is still a very long hard road out there in front, and the hardest and steepest part may well be yet to come.