The blog however owes a thank you to the (now suffering) people of Latvia. Before I mentioned their forthcoming problems I had about 50 readers. A post about the price of prostitutes got me my first 1000 reader day and my first mention in the main stream media (the Estonian business press).
For those that are new the argument was as follows:
- Latvia and to a lesser extent Estonia and Lithuania had a massive and unsustainable current account deficit. That means they bought more from the rest of the world than they sold (just like America buys far more from China et al than they sell). The current account deficits (relative to GDP) was however much bigger in Latvia.
- In a floating exchange rate regime this would usually be remedied by the currency falling dramatically, increasing the competitiveness of exports (and increasing the price of imports). The market provides a solution. With America this can't happen because the Chinese fix their currency against the US dollar. In the Baltic States the currency is fixed against the Euro.
- Normally to fix the exchange rate a central banker needs to buy the currency that is tending weaker. They buy it and remove it from circulation. In so doing the reduce the money supply in the weaker currency causing interest rates to rise and a mild monetary deflation (increasing the competitiveness of local industry versus foreign competition) and hence over time remedying the current account deficit.
- Unfortunately this monetary deflation causes a recession in the country with the naturally weaker currency. Ultimately that makes fixed rates unpopular in countries with chronic relative economic under-performance – because the populace doesn't like more or less continuous mild recessions. Some countries dealt with this through periodic competitive devaluations (Spain, Italy). Other just gave up on fixed exchange rates (UK). Generally the world has tended towards permanently fixed exchanges (Europe inside the Eurozone) or floating exchange rates (eg Australia).
- Now there is one exception to the idea that the country with a fixed exchange rate and a lack of competitiveness has a sort-of-perpetual monetary squeeze and low-level recession. And that is if somebody cheaply finances your current account deficit ad-infinitum. Then you can have the nice strong currency and spend it and not have any domestic price pressure. Unfortunately you also wind up owing your foreign benefactors just way too much money.
- The party has to end. And it can end quite sharply when the foreign benefactor becomes less willing to lend to you.
But in Latvia the situation was (at least) three times as unsustainable as the US. And ultmately Latvia has less credibility in repaying those loans than say the US.
When it ended in America we got a big recession.
In Latvia it ended when the Swedish banks providing the funding (Swedbank and SEB) themselves got into trouble. Latvia is experiencing something more akin to a depression. Latvian GDP has now dropped almost 20% - about the same proportionate drop as America in the Great Depression. And it is going to get worse still. This is really truly ugly – and the street riots I predicted in the original post have unfortunately happened in all the Baltic States. The governments (and the people can feed themselves) because of foreign aid – mostly through IMF packages funded by the Scandinavian governments.
Well what has all this got to do with the price of hookers?
At least partly for effect I noted that one of the most important (perhaps the most important) export industries in Latvia has been tourism. And it is not any type of tourism – it has traditionally been sex tourism. Latvians are beautiful Scandinavian people (if you like that Northern European look). They also have a more Scandinavian sexual morality and they were relatively poor. This meant that Ryanair put on discount flights and filled them with salivating Irish and English lads. Swill beer on the Friday flight over. Party all weekend, soil the plane on the way home. You could not walk around Riga as a single English guy and not be thought of as a Ryanair sex tourist.
The only problem is that the ridiculous exchange rate made the hookers very expensive.
Ryanair canceled the Shannon/Riga flight (and the Irish lads now go to Prague). The London Riga flights are less full. There are plenty of complaints on the web about over-priced bars and rip-offs in Riga. The oldest and one of the most dependable of professions was – due the ridiculous exchange rate situation – just priced out of existence.
Still markets are correcting in the end. Now that there is a Great Depression in Latvia there is price deflation. Lots of it.
The faster the deflation happens the faster Latvia will again become competitive. [Hint to the IMF – just float the currency and deal with the consequences of the new exchange rate rather than try to defend the old rate.]
Anyway the problem is that most industries have contractual arrangements which fix prices. Wages are very hard to flex downwards. Rents are fixed over sustained periods and the like. All of this means that people go bust rather than reduce prices – simply because prices are sticky.
Well – most prices. The contractual terms of prostitution are short (an hour, a night) and entry to the industry is unconstrained. That means that the prices are very flexible. Extraordinarily flexible.
The price – looking at websites I will not link for decency's sake – has fallen by at least two thirds in the past year – and the advertised price (for a non-English speaking young woman) is LVL30 – or less than 60 US dollars. I am sure the rip-offs are still there – but anecdotal evidence suggests the hookers no longer cost too much.
The first question is how far do other prices have to fall – and how bad will it get in Latvia before it improves.
I did say this was ultimately about geopolitics. The Baltic States all have sizable Russian Minorities. Russia under Putin is very concerned about the state in which those minorities live – and has been prepared to take military action to protect what it perceives as the interest of the Russian people. [Read Georgia/South Ossetia.]
Now I am not going to opine on the validity of the Russian claims. Tensions run very high on all sides.
I will note the Russian-Estonian relation riots in Estonia in particular have been lethal in the past (see the story of the Bronze Soldier).
And I will leave you with a somber note. In Latvia the hookers did cost too much. They don't any more – but most things still do – and there is no easy fix. However what is a classic text-book macroeconomic problem fast risks becoming a geopolitical one. And whilst there are big difficulties bailing out the Baltic economies one of them is not the size of the check you will need to write. These places are small and the checks disappear in a US or even European Budget.
And there are big difficulties allowing the Baltics to drown in their economic problems. Geopolitically a bailout looks like the cheap option.