Friday, December 17, 2010

Has Ukraine lost appetite for reforms?

In a study on Ukraine published in October, the CER gave President Viktor Yanukovich credit for passing difficult economic reforms but criticised his efforts to suppress political opposition. Since then, reforms have stalled while the concentration of power in the president's hands has continued unabated.

A recent visit to Kyiv has left me deeply worried. The government continues to amass power. This is in part due to the weakness of the opposition – former leaders of the Orange revolution such as former president Viktor Yushchenko and former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko are genuinely unpopular with voters, who blame them for disappointing economic performance and failure to move Ukraine closer to the EU. Even so, President Yanukovich seems intent on preventing free and fair elections. The October 31st regional poll was marred by widespread use of government powers to help the ruling Party of Regions. The European Parliament notes in its November 25th resolution that "some parties, such as [Yulia Tymoshenko's] Batkivshchyna, were unable to register their candidates". Phil Gordon, the US assistant secretary of state, said that the United States: "does not believe that those elections met the standards of openness and fairness that applied to the presidential election earlier in the year."

The story is not much better on the economic front. Even in those areas, where progress had been made, the government has started to backpedal. For example, the new public procurement law, which the EU helped to draft earlier this year, is being riddled by exceptions: the country's parliament has exempted work on sites for the 2012 European football championship. The EU has viewed the law as key to countering corruption, and its partial reversal dismayed EU ambassadors in Kyiv. Economists also say that the government cheated to comply with a key requirement from the International Monetary Fund (IMF): in order to cut tax refund arrears it simply stopped accepting claims. The IMF is due to decide this month on whether to disburse further aid to Ukraine.

There has been little progress on reforming the country's all-important gas sector. The government has increased domestic gas prices, which has helped to improve the finances of Naftogaz, the country's monopoly – and perennially insolvent – importer and distributor of gas. But there has been no progress on making the company more efficient and transparent. In September 2010 Ukraine acceded to the EU's 'energy community', which groups countries that pledge to uphold each other's security of supply, on the condition that the government separates Naftogaz's gas transit pipelines from other businesses. The Ukrainian parliament passed legislation in July that had ordered Naftogaz to do just that. But nothing has changed: Naftogaz remains untouched and important secondary legislation – to create an independent regulator, for example – is not even under consideration. Meanwhile, Naftogaz is descending into deeper financial trouble. A court in Ukraine has ordered the company to repay nearly $4 billion to one of Ukraine's most powerful businessmen, Dmytro Firtash, who had sued for damages incurred when the previous government cancelled the services of his company in brokering gas purchases from Russia. It is not obvious that Naftogaz has enough money or gas to reimburse Firtash.

The government recently passed a law that would make it easier to explore oil reserves in the Black Sea. These could in the long run lessen Ukraine's dependence on energy imports from Russia. But to extract the reserves, Ukraine needs foreign expertise. So it is baffling that the government has recently imposed a new 40 per cent duty on imports of refined oil (punishing Shell, a key importer) and increased royalties on gas and oil extracted in Ukraine. Foreign energy majors will have little reason to invest in the country. One representative of a Western energy major says that "there is plenty of gas here, in shale and under sea, but no one will tap it because there is zero confidence among investors that they would ever see their money back." Non-energy companies are treated similarly. Deutsche Telekom and Norway's Telenor wanted to buy Ukraine's national telecommunications operator, Ukrtelecom, but the Kyiv government excluded them from the privatisation on a technicality.

Curiously, while the economic reforms have stuttered, relations with the EU have improved, though from a low point. At an EU-Ukraine summit in November, the parties agreed a 'road map' which may eventually allow the Ukrainians to travel to the EU without visas. Talks on a new 'deep and comprehensive free trade agreement' (DCFTA) have also been resumed, after months of paralysis. When the European Commission had threatened in October to cut off talks altogether, President Yanukovich ordered Prime Minister Mykola Azarov "to make all necessary concessions" to restart negotiations. But the order itself is symptomatic of what is wrong with the relationship: Kyiv only pays attention when talks are about to collapse; even then it takes short-term measures: nothing is being done to assess the economic impact of DCFTA on Ukrainian industries or to encourage the losers to move into new lines of business. This guarantees that some of the country's politically powerful oligarchs will eventually revolt against DCFTA.

The EU has limited tools to press for greater political freedoms and proper economic reforms but it is not powerless. The Ukrainians do care what the EU states and institutions think. They have cheered the European Parliament’s November resolution, in which, for the first time, an EU institution (albeit one without decision-making powers in the matter) says that "Ukraine has the right to apply for membership" (something that the Council of Ministers has been reluctant to say). EU High Representative for Foreign Policy Catherine Ashton and senior national diplomats should speak out more forcefully about the state of democracy in Ukraine. EU governments should also use their influence in the IMF to demand real economic reforms. The IMF loans represent the most important leverage that the European governments and the US have in Ukraine today. The current government in Kyiv is capable of tough choices, but only when it feels real pressure.

Tomas Valasek is director of foreign policy and defence at the Centre for European Reform.

Thursday, December 09, 2010

Eurozone: Time for damage limitation

by Simon Tilford

Time is running out to prevent the eurozone crisis from imperilling Europe's banking system and with it the integrity of the currency union. It is beholden on policy-makers to minimise the economic (and hence political costs) to the EU. Three things need to happen: the debts of Greece, Ireland and Portugal need to be restructured as soon as possible; the European Commission and the European Central Bank (ECB) need to do everything to make sure that the adjustments facing the other struggling euro economies are realistic; and there needs to be policy co-ordination between the member-states aimed at ensuring balanced economic growth across the currency union. This requires leadership and an honest and better informed debate about the causes of the crisis. Both are in short supply.

The adjustments facing Greece, Ireland or Portugal were always a tall order. Now that borrowing costs have ballooned, those adjustments are impossible. Under no plausible economic growth forecasts will these economies be able to pay back their debts. However, eurozone policy-makers continue to treat the crisis as one of liquidity rather than solvency, providing indebted member-states with loans (at punitive interest rates) but doing nothing to improve their chances of being able to service them. This is the worst of all possible worlds. Investors have taken fright and pushed up the borrowing costs of countries whose debts might otherwise have proved manageable. Far from limiting creditor losses, they risk spiralling out of control. Piling up more debt when solvency (not liquidity) is the issue is self-defeating.

The bail-out of Ireland simply increases that country's already unsustainable levels of debt, while insulating investors. The ECB and the Commission opposed restructuring the debts of the Irish banking sector. Instead, they have argued for ever more implausible degrees of fiscal austerity in return for extending costly loans. Unsurprisingly, the Irish government's borrowing costs remain prohibitively high. A bail-out of Portugal will be similarly ineffective. It will benefit lucky investors, but do nothing to improve Portugal's prospects. The loss of confidence in the eurozone and resulting surge in borrowing costs threatens to draw Spain into the insolvent camp, ultimately requiring a Spanish debt restructuring. This would be catastrophic for Europe's banks and would impose huge fiscal costs.

Of course, restructuring the debts of Greece, Ireland and Portugal will be costly for creditors. But if debt positions are unsustainable the problem needs to be addressed sooner rather than later. Banks based in eurozone members such as France and Germany, as well as in non-eurozone countries such as the UK and US, would suffer big losses on their investments in the defaulting countries. The ECB would also book losses. This would be messy and governments would have to bite the bullet and recapitalise their banks. But it would ultimately prove less damaging to economies such as Ireland, Greece and Portugal, and the currency union as a whole, than persisting on a course that promises an even bigger restructuring (and bigger losses) down the line.

The second part of the strategy would be to ensure that the adjustment process facing Spain and other hard-hit economies is a manageable one. The ECB could help by launching an aggressive programme of government bond purchases. Monies from the European Financial Stability Fund (EFSF) could also be used to tide the countries over until they regain access to the financial markets on affordable terms. But these countries' fiscal programmes will also have to be consistent with a return to decent economic growth. Crucially, cuts in spending on education and infrastructure must be kept to a minimum, as these would further reduce growth potential. Reforms of pension and healthcare systems would go a long way to address investors' concerns about the long-term sustainability of countries' fiscal positions. 

The third part of the strategy – rebalancing economic growth in the eurozone – will be the hardest to execute, but is essential if future crises are to be avoided. Governments need to support the Commission's drive to foster closer economic integration and to co-ordinate their policies to ensure that they are compatible with balanced economic growth across the eurozone. Huge current account balances are not consistent with a stable currency union, because one way or another they require massive (and hence politically and economically destabilising) transfers between the participating economies. However, even if trade imbalances are reduced, there will have to be greater fiscal supra-nationalism. This could take the form of a common E-bond, some minimal fiscal union, or ideally a combination of the two. Without some element of fiscal supra-nationalism, the adjustment costs facing countries that cede trade competitiveness within the eurozone will simply be too high.

However unpalatable these measures are to eurozone governments, the European Commission and the ECB, they can all be done if governments can summon the political will. Governments have to explain to their voters why debt relief for Greece, Ireland and Portugal and the resulting injection of public funds into banks is necessary in order to head off far greater costs down the line. They have to summon the political courage to make the case for greater economic integration. A fiscal union can also be fashioned in such a way that limits moral hazard. But all of this requires leadership, not least from Germany. The fact that the alternative – a series of ever larger and ineffective bail-outs, culminating in far bigger defaults and a systemic banking sector crash – is much worse, ought to focus minds. After all, under that scenario the political glue holding the union together could dissolve altogether.

Simon Tilford is chief economist at the Centre for European Reform.