Latvia’s economic collapse was the deepest of any nation when the financial bubble burst in 2008. Hot money flows had inflated its property markets to world-high levels, thanks to its neoliberal minimal taxation of real estate that was the complemented by onerous taxation of labor. Given how deep the plunge was, there was room for the inevitable bounce up thereafter – hailed as a recovery.
When one looks at the details, the so-called recovery was centered on four sectors. First, is Latvia’s correspondent (offshore) banking sector that attracts and processes capital flight. Already a site for illicit transfer of Soviet oil and metals to world markets before independence, Latvia became a major destination for oligarch hot money. The Latvian port of Ventspils was an export terminal for Russian oil, providing foreign exchange that was a Soviet and later Russian embezzler’s dream. Figures such as the notorious Grigory Loutchansky of Latvia and his Nordex became notorious for money laundering. Even Americans were involved, such as Loutchansky’s partner, Marc Rich (later pardoned by Bill Clinton) who later took over the Nordex operation.
The Latvian government signaled its intentions to defend this offshore banking sector at all costs (including imposing austerity on its people) when it bailed out Latvia’s biggest offshore bank, Parex. European Commission and IMF authorities gave a massive foreign loan for Latvia that in part enabled the government to function after bailing out Parex and thus its correspondent (offshore) accounts and continued payment of above-market interest rates to “favored” (read: “well connected”) customers.
Although not in the league with London, New York and Zurich as a criminogenic flight capital center, Latvia has carved out a substantial niche in the global money laundering system. According to Bloomberg: “As non-European inflows into Cyprus stagnate, about $1.2 billion flooded into Latvia in the first half of the year. Non-resident deposits are now $10 billion, about half the total, regulators say, exceeding 43 percent in Switzerland, according to that nation’s central bank.” These are big amounts in view of the fact that Latvia has only about a quarter of Switzerland’s population and merely a tenth of its GDP. While this activity might make many bankers rich, it does little to develop Latvia’s economy. Moreover, it represents a beggar thy neighbor policy that permits Latvia to benefit from taking capital out of developing post-Soviet neighboring countries.
Second, Latvia’s emergency response to the crisis was to ratchet up clear cutting of forests. Latvia inherited massive woodland reserves from the Soviet policy of converting farmland to forest. Export growth in this category reflects asset stripping post-Soviet style. That patrimony is being drawn down. While significant, one must remember that given Latvia’s far northern latitude, it takes fifty to a hundred years to replace trees to maturity. So this resource cannot be indefinitely sustained. Moreover, the move to develop more value-added processing of Latvia’s forests has been frustratingly slow. Promises by the chief consumers of Latvian logs (e.g., Sweden and others) to process logs into timber, paper and other products, have mostly been talk, with little action.
Third, the fact that Latvia’s neoliberalized economy has been de-industrialized over the past two decades means that nearly any increase in post-crash manufacturing represents growth in percentage terms. Latvia has nearly no effective labor protections, and only the weakest unions to advocate for decent working conditions and salaries (or even sometimes to be paid at all). Wages can be pushed down from what already were poverty levels, while businesses deploy labor in any fashion they see fit, without regulatory structures to protect workers. Simultaneously, Latvia’s labor costs are far higher than are economically necessary, thanks to the punishingly high set of labor and social taxes designed to keep capital gains and real estate taxes comparatively low. Even so, wages and “flexibility” have made Latvian labor cheap enough to encourage some enterprise. Yet, there are also real centers of innovation and entrepreneurial talent, but they mostly succeed in spite of Latvian government policy, not by support from it.
Europe’s recent star export performers on a percent basis have been Latvia and Greece – a metric that makes sense only as a bounce up from a big post crash . Latvia’s per capita purchasing power is well below that of even Greece. The modest uptick in manufacturing and exports is positive, but Latvia still is ranked last in Europe for innovation and R&D investment as percentages of GDP. The lack of investment in innovation,combined with anti-labor tax and finance policy, thus limits manufacturing’s potential for much faster growth as Latvian labor costs are higher than needed, due to regressive taxation.
Fourth, there has been growth in the previously underdeveloped agricultural and transit sectors. This has been encouraged by food-price inflation in recent years and better policy and planning from the Ministry of Transportation. Although transit historically has been among the most corrupt parts of the Latvian economy and government, centers of excellence have emerged in that ministry that have leveraged up Latvia’s transit potential. Russia’s agreement to use its rail lines to permit supply of American troops in Afghanistan via Latvian ports hasn’t hurt either.
The most revealing part of the New York Times’ mostly puff piece on behalf of budget cutting that can be seen as a model for America to grin and bear the coming austerity, only comes in the concluding comments by economists in Latvia who reported: “The idea of a Latvian ‘success story’ is ridiculous.” “Latvia is not a model for anybody.” “You can only do this in a country that is willing to take serious pain for some time and has a dramatic flexibility in the labor market.” In short, it can’t be done in any real democracy.
For governments able to ignore the will of the people (an expanding trend in rich developed countries), the Latvian model can only be applied if one’s country is:
- Small enough, willing enough, and able to let at least 10% of population emigrate, headed by the most talented and multilingual freshly minted graduates; – Demographically secure enough to see family formation, marriage and birth rates plummet; – An ethnically divided population that enables politicians to play the ethnic card to distract population from economic issues; and – A depoliticized Post-Soviet population willing to give up protest after short period.
Any larger country attempting this level of austerity would need to find an outlet for the some 10% of its people leaving. For the United States, that would mean countries willing to take 20 million American workers. Last time the authors checked, neither Canada nor Mexico had the willingness or capacity to take these numbers, and not enough American students have yet studied Mandarin to do China’s laundry.
Latvia still has a well-educated population with highly developed design sensibilities. Its skilled workers are known for their creativity and attention to detail. With better economic policy, less anti-labor tax policy, less subsidy of real estate and finance and more investment in innovation – the opposite of what The New York Times celebrates as Latvia’s success story – it could replicate the successes of its Scandinavian neighbors. The alternative is for its neoliberalized economy to produce “recovery” in a way reminiscent of Tacitus’ characterization, put in the mouth of the Celtic chieftain Calgacus before the battle of Mons Graupius: Rome’s victories “make a desert and they call it peace.” Neoliberals call austerity and emigration “stability” and even economic growth and recovery, as long as people don’t complain or demand an alternative.
Michael Hudson was Professor of Economics and Director of Research at the Riga Graduate School of Law. He is a research professor of Economics at University of Missouri, Kansas City, and a research associate at the Levy Economics Institute of Bard College. His book summarizing his economic theories, The Bubble and Beyond, is available on Amazon. His latest book is Finance Capitalism and Its Discontents. He can be reached via his website, firstname.lastname@example.org