Wednesday, November 11, 2009

What Eastern Europe can learn from the crisis

by Katinka Barysch

It is 20 years since the Berlin Wall crumbled and political and economic freedom started spreading through Eastern Europe. Today, however, the region is mired in deep recession. The global economic and financial crisis has hit the Central and East European countries (CEECs) harder than any other emerging market region. In February 2009, I asked whether the savage downturn would make the new EU member-states question their entire transition model of trade opening, financial integration and EU-conforming reforms (‘New Europe and the economic crisis’ This has not happened. Dire predictions did not come true: financial systems did not collapse, the steep fall in exports and industrial output has bottomed out and there has been no mass social unrest. Most people, inside and outside the region, seem to agree that the CEECs need to recalibrate their growth model, rather than ditch it. The crisis may harbour some valuable lessons on how to go forward after 20 years of transition.

The fact that the CEECs had sold almost their entire banking sectors to big finance houses from Austria, Belgium, Germany, Italy or Sweden turned out to be a mixed blessing. During the boom years, financial integration did help the CEECs to grow faster (which is not true of all emerging market regions). When the crisis hit, West European banks did not withdraw all funding from their CEE subsidiaries overnight or let them go bankrupt, as many had feared. These subsidiaries did stop lending, as their parent banks scrambled to rebuild capital – but so did local banks.

There were no big banking crises in Eastern Europe. The hastily assembled ‘Vienna initiative’ – a club consisting of pan-European banks, the regulators of the countries in which they operate and international organisations such as the EU and the World Bank – helped to prevent a run for the exit that could have resulted in financial meltdown. The €25 billion put up by three multilateral lenders in support of ailing CEE banks also helped.

The EBRD, in its latest ‘Transition Report’, claims that countries with a higher share of foreign bank ownership did relatively better in the crisis than those with shaky local institutions that relied on short-term liquidity from abroad. However, the EBRD report also admits that the presence of foreign banks fuelled unsustainable credit booms and brought shoddy lending practices to the CEECs, such as giving mortgages in euros or Swiss francs to people without thorough credit checks.

The crisis showed that home country supervision – the basic principle of EU financial market integration – needs to be improved. The authorities of say, Sweden and Austria, did not pay enough attention to what their banks were getting up to in Latvia or Hungary. Some economists think that this will change now that Swedish and Austrian taxpayers are footing the bills for bank bail-outs abroad. But others argue that only stronger cross-border banking regulation and supervision can prevent similar trouble in the future. At the same time, the governments and regulators of the CEE host countries need to work harder to strengthen local capital markets. For example, unhedged foreign-currency denominated loans are a lousy idea as long as exchange rates are not irrevocably fixed.

Eastern Europe’s exceptional openness to trade was a blessing while global growth was strong. But it also left the region vulnerable. No fiscal stimulus programme would have been big enough to compensate for the collapse of eurozone demand in countries where exports typically account for 50 to 80 per cent of GDP. What is more, the crisis highlighted that some of the new EU members had focused rather too much on one industrial sector – cars. Around half of export revenues and up to 20 per cent of value added is generated by the automotive industry in the Central European countries.

Several car factories in CEECs shut down in late 2008 and early 2009. For a while it looked as if the new members might be the losers from a subsidy race among the bigger, richer EU countries. In the end, however, countries such as the Czech Republic and Slovakia benefited from the scrappage schemes that Germany, Austria, France and other West European countries implemented to boost domestic demand. Single market rules held: these schemes did not discriminate in favour of vehicles made at home. The WIIW, a Vienna economic research outfit, even claims that those CEECs that rely most on exports of machinery and cars have suffered milder contractions.

Most countries are now phasing out their ‘cash for clunkers’ schemes, which will translate into lower demand for vehicles made in Eastern Europe. In the medium term, the need to cut costs and overcapacity in this sector worldwide could work in the CEECs' favour as the big car makers will continue to relocate production to countries with low unit labour costs.

Nevertheless, the economic crisis has served as a reminder that the CEECs need to diversify their industrial structures. Wedged between a high-tech Western Europe and a low-cost Far East, there is only one way to go for the CEECs: move up the value chain. To do this, these countries need to improve their education and training systems, make their markets work better and encourage innovation and entrepreneurship.

Such reforms are needed more urgently than ever now that global competition for capital and markets has become fiercer. The EBRD, which tracks economic change across Eastern Europe, finds that there have been few instances of reforms unravelling since the onset of the crisis; but it also finds that there has been little noticeable progress towards better-functioning market economies. So far, populism has been contained in Eastern Europe. But with lay-offs still rising fast, and governments too cash-strapped to do much about it, the elections due in many CEECs in 2010 and 2011 could result in governments promising protection rather than explaining the need for economic change. The risk remains that the CEECs will draw the wrong lessons from the crisis and endanger the economic success of the last 20 years of transition.

Katinka Barysch is deputy director of the Centre for European Reform.

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