Latvia Beat the Odds—But the Battle Is Far From Over


By Mark Griffiths

Latvia, a nation of about 2.2 million people bordering the Baltic Sea, went through the most extreme boom-bust cycle of the emerging market countries of Europe, and was among the first to ask for financial assistance from the international community.

Back in the dark days of December 2008, many doubted that Latvia—which joined the European Union in 2004 together with its Baltic neighbors Estonia and Lithuania—would be able to stick to the tough economic program it had just agreed with the IMF and the European Union. But it did. Against the odds, it successfully completed its IMF-supported program in December 2011.

Over the past three years, I have worked closely with the Latvian authorities in my capacity as IMF mission chief. Worked with them—but learnt from them too.

A successful comeback

Today, Latvia is one of the fastest growing economies in the European Union. Real GDP grew by 5½ percent in 2011, and is now projected to expand by 3½ percent in 2012, a number that possibly will come out even higher.

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Africa and the Great Recession: Changing Times


By Antoinette Sayeh

(Version in Français)

In previous global downturns, sub-Saharan Africa has usually been badly affected—but not this time around.

The world economy has experienced much dislocation since the onset of the global financial crisis in 2008. Output levels in many advanced economies still remain below pre-crisis levels, while unemployment levels have surged; growth in emerging market economies has slowed, but remains quite high.

But in sub-Saharan Africa, growth for the region as a whole has remained reasonably strong (around 5 percent), except for 2009 – where the decline in world output and associated shrinking of world trade pushed Africa’s growth down to below 3 percent.

Some better than others

Of course, sub-Saharan Africa is a diverse region, and not all economies have fared equally well. The more advanced economies in the region (notably South Africa) have close links to export markets in the advanced economies, and have experienced a sharper slowdown, and weaker recovery, than did the bulk of the region’s low-income economies.  Countries affected by civil strife (such as Cote d’Ivoire, and now Mali) and by drought have also fared less well than other economies in the region.

So why has most of sub-Saharan Africa continued to record solid growth against the backdrop of such a weak global economy?  And can we expect this solid growth performance to continue in the next few years?

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Fiscal Consolidation: Striking the Right Balance


By David Lipton

(Version in Español, in عربي)

The debate on austerity vs. growth has gained in intensity, as countries in Europe and elsewhere struggle with low growth, high debt, and rising unemployment. In essence, policymakers are being asked to tackle a continuation of the worst crisis since the Great Depression.

This would be no easy task under any circumstances. But it is made considerably harder by the fact that a number of countries need to engage in fiscal consolidation simultaneously. Complicating the picture further is the fact that monetary policy in most advanced economies is approaching the limits of what it technically can do to stimulate activity, while global growth remains weak.

There is no getting around the need to reduce debt levels. High debt leaves countries exposed to interest rate shocks, limits their capacity to respond to future shocks, and reduces long-term growth potential.

At the same time, we all know that fiscal consolidation―reducing deficits by cutting spending or raising revenues―can and usually does stifle growth. With more than 200 million people out of work worldwide, and with growth in advanced countries forecast at a mere 1½ percent for 2012, getting the pace of consolidation right is therefore of paramount importance. So how do policymakers strike the right balance?

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How to Get the Balance Right: Fiscal Policy At a Time of Crisis


By Anders Borg and Christine Lagarde

Last autumn was a turbulent time for Europe. The debt crisis deepened and financial markets became embroiled in turmoil, driven by fears of widespread restructuring of public debt. The crisis has harmed growth, increased unemployment, and left a large number of people less protected.

We are now seeing some signs of stabilization. Most countries are reducing their deficits and even if debt ratios are still rising, the return back to fiscal health has begun.

The International Monetary Fund and the Swedish Ministry of Finance are hosting an international conference in Stockholm on May 7-8, with the purpose of sharing knowledge and providing guidance on the best way to achieve fiscal consolidation, and on the role that effective fiscal policy frameworks and institutions can play in this endeavor.

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Jobs and Growth: Can’t Have One Without the Other?


By Min Zhu

(Version in Español, in عربي))

As Frank Sinatra crooned about love and marriage, so it seems about jobs and growth:

“This I tell ya, brother, you can’t have one without the other.”

The IMF’s latest World Economic Outlook projects global growth of 3 ½ percent this year. To the person on the street, what matters is how this growth translates into jobs and wages. The news on the jobs  front, unfortunately, remains grim.

Five years after the onset of the Great Recession, 16 million more people are likely to remain unemployed this year than in 2007. This estimate is for a set of countries for which the IMF forecasts unemployment rates; adding in some countries for which the International Labour Organization provides forecasts only boosts the number.

The bulk of this increase in unemployed people has been in the so-called advanced economies (the IMF’s term for countries with high per capita incomes), as shown in the chart below.

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The Art of Shifting Gear


By Anoop Singh

If you needed further evidence about the fallacy of Asia’s economy “decoupling” from that of the developed world, then this month’s Asia and Pacific Regional Economic Outlook would be a good place to look.

The findings in this new report,  just released in the Malaysian capital, Kuala Lumpur, illustrate how Asia’s economic fate remains heavily dependent on events far beyond its immediate borders.

Consider two possible future scenarios to illustrate this ongoing interconnectedness: if global prospects continue to brighten following recent, concerted policy actions in the euro area and, if there are further indications of recovery in the United States, this will all augur well for trade-dependent Asia.   Against this backdrop, the region could enjoy a boost in demand, fresh capital inflows and even a revival of overheating pressures.

But,  were the financial turmoil in the euro area to escalate and spread globally, this would likely result in a sharp fall in demand for Asia’s exports by advanced economies and a possible retrenchment of credit by stressed foreign banks, all of which would be a severe blow to Asia.

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Making Goldilocks Happy


By Carlo Cottarelli

When it comes to adjusting public spending, getting the balance right is important. Fiscal adjustment is taking place in economies around the world, but risks remain high. Bringing debt and deficits down to more moderate levels is important to easing risks.

From one perspective, the sooner this happens, the better.

But, slashing budgets too abruptly can impede the overall economic recovery. And if the recovery stalls, debt and deficits will rise, and so will unemployment.

According to our analysis, what is needed is a steady but gradual adjustment. So, as we’ve been saying at the IMF for a while now, the pace of adjustment needs to be appropriate—not too fast, not too slow, but just right, for countries where financing conditions allow.

Improving picture

Compared to six months ago, there has been some decline in risks. This is primarily because of progress in policy implementation, with progress being made particularly in Europe.

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Mediocre Growth, High Risks, and The Long Road Ahead


By Olivier Blanchard

(Versions in Español, عربي)

For the past six months, the world economy has been on what is best described as a roller coaster.

Last autumn, a simmering European crisis became acute, threatening another Lehman-size event, and the end of the recovery.  Strong policy measures were taken, new governments came to power in Italy and Spain, the European Union adopted a tough fiscal pact, and the European central bank injected badly needed liquidity.   Things have quieted down since, but an uneasy calm remains.  At any moment, it seems, things could get bad again.

This shapes our forecasts.  Our baseline forecast, released by the IMF on April 17,  is for low growth in advanced countries, especially in Europe.  But downside risks are very much present.

Brakes hampering growth

This baseline is constructed on the assumption that another European flare-up will be avoided, but that uncertainty will linger on.   It recognizes that, even in this case, there are still strong brakes to growth in advanced countries:  Fiscal consolidation is needed and is proceeding, but is weighing on growth.  Bank deleveraging is also needed, but is leading, especially in Europe, to tight credit.  In many countries, in particular in the United States, some households are burdened with high debt, leading to lower consumption. Foreclosures are weighing on housing prices, and on housing investment.

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Debt Hangover: Nonperforming Loans in Europe’s Emerging Economies


By Christoph Rosenberg and Christoph Klingen

Some hangovers take more than a good night’s sleep to get over. It’s been three years since the global economic crisis put an abrupt end to emerging Europe’s credit boom, but neither lenders nor borrowers are in much of a party mood. One key reason: many of the loans so readily dished out before the crisis have now gone sour.

Festering bad loans are a problem on many fronts:  banks, credit supply, economic growth, and people all suffer. Take Japan’s lost decade. There too, a credit boom ended in tears, new lending subsequently went from too much to too little, and a vicious cycle of credit squeeze, declining asset and collateral values, and economic paralysis followed.

In emerging Europe, the share of loans classified as nonperforming—many of them household mortgages—have exploded from 3 percent before the crisis to 13 percent at the peak. As can be seen in the chart below, levels in some parts of the Baltics and Balkans are already at par with previous financial crises elsewhere.

Tackling bad loans

Nobody wants this dire script to replay in emerging Europe. Policymakers, bankers, and international financial institutions therefore got together under the Vienna Initiative to identify ways to tackle nonperforming loans. A working group co-chaired by the IMF and World Bank just presented a report that analyzes the problem and offers a way out.

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The Logic and Fairness of Greece’s Program


By Olivier Blanchard

(Version in ελληνικά عربي)

To get back to health, Greece needs two things. First, a lower debt burden. Second, improved economic competitiveness. The new program addresses both.

Bringing down the debt

Some countries have been able to work down heavy public debt burdens. Those that were successful did it through sustained high growth. But in Greece’s case, it had become clear that high growth—let alone sustained high growth—was not going to come soon enough. Debt had to be restructured.

The process was long and messy. After all, bargaining between creditors and debtors is rarely a love affair. In the process, foreign creditors were often vilified in Greece as bad guys—rich banks, who could and should be willing to take a hit. But in the end, banks belong to people, many of them saving for retirement, who saw the value of their bank shares go down in value.

All said, the PSI (private sector involvement) dealthe largest ever negotiated write-down of public debt—has reduced the debt burden of every man, woman, and child in Greece by close to €10,000 on average, a sizable contribution on the part of foreign savers.

Greece now has to do its part―with sustained political commitment to implement the difficult but necessary set of fiscal, financial, and structural reforms that have been agreed as part of the program supported by Greece’s partners in the eurozone and the IMF. It is a huge challenge, no doubt. But it is also an opportunity–to take advantage of the economic space opened up by private and official creditors. Will Greece seize it?

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