September 22, 2009

The Estonian Laboratory of "Free" Market Economics

Ambrose Evans-Pritchard of Telegraph.co.uk writes an opinion piece about the "debt deflation laboratory" of the Baltics. His writing is thoroughly one-sided, as usual, but he has some valid points.
Professor √úlo Ennuste from Tallinn University says the private net wealth of Estonia's people has fallen below zero. I know of no other country in the world where this has occurred, though Latvia may be deeper in hock. Estonia's foreign debt is 116pc of GDP, second highest in Eastern Europe.

It is not a good moment for the poster-child of the flat-tax revolution, but those crowing the end of "Margaret Thatcher's Baltic Model" neglect half the story. Estonia's euro peg is anything but free-market. It makes Tallinn dance, awkwardly, to Frankfurt's distant tune. It stoked the boom by enticing people to borrow cheap at eurozone rates: it is now prolonging the bust.

[...]

The government could spend more. The national debt is just 5pc of GDP. It chooses not to do so. Such ultra-orthodoxy shows admirable discipline. Estonians will be a shining example to us all if they pull it off – and hold their society together.
Prof. Ennuste has some dubious figures. It's hard to believe that Estonian private assets would be worth less than 116% of GDP. There are other inaccuracies in the article as well.

However, the criticism against the Baltic currency peg policies is perfectly reasonable. Deflation (or "internal devaluation", as the euphemism goes) brings undeserved short term gains to those who are in cash assets. It will also encourage liquidation of real capital in a scramble to cash.

Keeping the currency pegged while maintaining completely disparate interest rates made absolutely no sense from the start. It was a source of "free money" to anyone who borrowed in Euros and invested in local currencies. Unfortunately, there's no such thing as a free lunch and never will. This "free money" virtually guaranteed a foreign currency denominated credit bubble.

The Euro is the wrong point of fixation. After all, the Euro has no inherent value of its own at all. The only meaningful measure of the value of a currency is against real goods and assets.

It might be absolutely impossible to avoid a degree of deflation after a humongous credit-fueled asset bubble, but at least one shouldn't be aggravating it, unless the objective is a massive overshoot in the downside.

A commenter "John" strongly disagrees with the opinions of Evans-Pritchard:
Estonia won't benefit from a devaluation, it will merely create instantaneous inflation, because the country is so small and so intertwined with neighboring economies.
Inflationary policy is exactly what Estonia needs right now, as it is headed for a deflationary spiral that will not stop before a serious overshoot. If currency reserves are not exhausted, the deflation will eventually come to a stop when foreign money comes in for hunting bargains. At that point the Estonian people might truly have lost their net wealth. They will be forced to sell their crown jewels just to survive.

"John" continues:
Instead a devaluation would destroy the last beacon of stability, the protection of value that the currency offers.
Currency is of no inherent value whatsoever, only real investments are. In the short term, the currency may look like a means to preserving wealth. However, this doesn't mean that people in aggregate are maintaining their wealth.

Even though the "value" of the currency is steady, or even grows in comparison to real goods, the quantity of currency shrinks through deleveraging. The grand total is actually shrinking. This reflects the real value that is destroyed through liquidation.

To all those who like comparisons to Zimbabwe: The Baltic policy is the mirror image of the Zimbabwean policy. In both cases the central bank and government is aggravating an already adverse trend. Hyper-deflation is not much nicer than hyper-inflation.

The Baltic states truly are a laboratory for the Chicago school of economics, with flat taxes, efficient market theories and all. I feel sorry for the human guinea pigs of the Baltic states.

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