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EU warns Latvia over economic hard landing

The European Commission warned Latvia on Wednesday that its fast-growing economy might face a hard landing and urged the country to tighten fiscal policies and keep wages under control.

In a report on Latvia’s fiscal plans, the European Union executive said the Baltic country seemed to be underestimating the risks to its economy from high inflation, overheating domestic demand and external imbalances. “The program’s economic scenario is attended by extremely high risks for macroeconomic stability, with a harder landing being a distinct possibility,” the report said. “Latvia is invited to aim for more ambitious budgetary targets than foreseen in the program in order to contain overheating pressures and macroeconomic risks as well as to ensure sustainable convergence,” EU Monetary Affairs Commissioner Joaquin Almunia said in a statement. Reports on Bulgaria and Estonia, other fast-growing EU newcomers with currencies pegged to the euro, took a more upbeat stance on those countries’ economic future thanks to their tighter fiscal stance. But the two also faced some risks. The three countries were in the third batch of EU member states to be assessed by the Commission in an annual exercise.

Wage-price spiral
Latvia, which joined the EU in 2004, saw its economy grow by double digits in 2005-07 thanks mainly to a credit boom that boosted private consumption and real estate investment. But the country’s inflation has shot to the highest in the EU, 14.1% year-on-year in December. The current account deficit has widened to about 20% of GDP, one of the biggest such shortfalls in the world. The imbalances have resulted mainly from a lax monetary policy, the lat currency’s peg to the euro, and a wage-price spiral fuelled partly by labor shortages as many Latvians sought jobs abroad after their country joined the EU. Economic imbalances, also in neighboring Estonia and Lithuania, renewed financial market speculation last month that currency devaluation was a real risk in one or more of the three Baltic states. High inflation has also delayed its planned adoption of the euro to 2012-13. The Latvian government has said its anti-inflation program, aimed at running a budget surplus of 1% of GDP, would ensure a soft landing for the economy. But the Commission was not convinced. The Latvian program assumes its GDP growth will slow to 7.5% this year and 7% in 2009 while inflation falls to 12.5% and 7.2% respectively.

The Commission’s opinions on Bulgaria and Estonia suggested those countries’ economic outlook carried much less risk thanks to more austere fiscal policies. On risks to Estonia, the report said: “A tighter fiscal stance could have done more to counter the overheating tendencies of the economy and to correct macroeconomic imbalances. These imbalances are expected to moderate only gradually in coming years.”

In Bulgaria, which joined the EU in 2007, “strong economic growth has been with signs of overheating ... If this trend were to continue, it could lead to an erosion of competitiveness and question the sustainability of high growth.” Bulgaria plans to run a budget surplus of 3% of GDP this year. (Reuters)