Latvia – the insanity continues
Marshall Auerback here. I want to add a few thoughts on the situation in Latvia which Ed has highlighted on several occasions. His allusion to Argentina to describe the situation in the Baltics last July was on the money. I have a solution here out of the Argentine playbook.
In Latvia, the neo-liberal insanity continues. The EU and IMF have told the government to borrow foreign currency to stabilize the exchange rate to help real estate debtors pay the foreign-currency mortgages taken out from Swedish and other banks to fuel its property bubble, raise taxes, and sharply cut back public spending on education, health care and other basic needs to “absorb” income. Higher taxes are to lower import demand and also domestic prices, as if this automatically will make output more competitive in export markets.
But Latvia doesn’t produce much to export. The Baltic States have not put in place much production capacity since gaining independence in 1991. Latvia, like other post-Soviet economies, has scant domestic output to export. Industry throughout the former Soviet Union was torn up and scrapped in the 1990s. (Welcome to victorious finance capitalism, Western-style.) What they had was real estate and public infrastructure free of debt – and hence, available to be pledged as collateral for loans to finance their imports. Ever since its independence from Russia in 1991, Latvia has paid for its imported consumer goods and other purchases by borrowing mortgage credit in foreign currency from Scandinavian and other banks. The effect has been one of the world’s biggest property bubbles – in an economy with no means of breaking even except by loading down its real estate with more and more debt. In practice the loans took the form of mortgage borrowing from foreign banks to finance a real estate bubble – and their import dependency on foreign suppliers.
So instead of helping it and other post-Soviet nations develop self-reliant economies, the West has viewed them as economic oysters to be broken up to indebt them in order to extract interest charges and capital gains, leaving them empty shells.
The sad part about this whole episode is that Latvia’s problems could be fixed over a weekend. Here’s what I would do:
- Drop the peg to the euro, which functionally acts like an gold standard external constraint.
- Don’t answer the phone when the foreign creditors call the government.
- Have the banks declared insolvent, convert their external debt to equity, and then have them reopen that way on Monday with full deposit insurance guaranteed in the now free floating local currency.
- Enact a 0% rate policy (use fiscal policy to regulate demand going forward).
- Offer a local currency minimum wage job that includes healthcare to anyone willing and able to work as was done in Argentina after the Kirchner regime repudiated the IMF’s toxic package of debt repayment.
Full employment and economic prosperity would come in no time at all.
The last line is the key. Improve employment and aggregate incomes and demand follows – as does creditWORTHINESS. At the final stage, credit will follow.
Even a banker can figure that one out.