Statement by IMF Mission to Latvia on 2007 Article IV Consultation Discussions

Press Release No. 07/87
May 4, 2007

The following statement was issued on April 27 in Riga by Ms. Rachel van Elkan, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) mission chief for Latvia:

"The IMF mission visited Riga during April 17-27 to hold the 2007 Article IV consultation discussions on economic prospects and policies. The mission met with Prime Minister Kalvītis, Finance Minister Spurdziņš, Bank of Latvia President Rimšēvičs, Financial and Capital Market Commission (FCMC) Chairman Cērps, senior officials of government agencies, as well as representatives of the private sector, parliament, trade unions and employers' associations.

"Latvia, like other recent EU entrants, has benefited from an accession-related boost to income convergence. Closer integration with the rest of Europe in goods, financial, and labor markets, as well as through access to substantial EU grants, has helped create favorable investment opportunities and attract large inflows of foreign financing. Consequently, capital and technology stocks and consumption and living standards have risen. Employment opportunities—in Latvia and abroad—have allowed citizens to acquire new skills and work experience. As a result, Latvia has enjoyed very rapid convergence in income levels over the past decade.

"Recently, however, fast credit and wage growth has caused the economy to diverge from a balanced and sustainable growth path, with domestic demand outstripping Latvia's supply capacity. As a result, overheating has intensified, bringing higher price and wage inflation, a sharply wider current account deficit, and greater external indebtedness. Rapid credit growth in euros has left large currency mismatches on the balance sheets of households and corporates and a boom in housing prices that has diverted resources from the tradable sector. A pervasive "buy now-pay later" mindset has settled in and is heightening systemic risk. These developments, if not tackled firmly, will thwart a recovery of export growth.

"There is an urgent need for decisive action to unwind overheating pressures and narrow external imbalances by sharply curtailing domestic demand. Notwithstanding actions by the Bank of Latvia to raise risk awareness, recent pressure on the lats signals growing investor impatience with the limited policy response so far. A comprehensive strategy is therefore needed to curb domestic spending and wage growth, and moderate real estate prices to rebalance incentives for investing in tradables sectors.

"The authorities' recent anti-inflation plan is a significant first step, and signals their recognition of the severity of macroeconomic conditions. In our view, however, the high level of imbalances and vulnerabilities warrants more decisive and comprehensive action. We therefore urge the Government, FCMC, and the Bank of Latvia to demonstrate unwavering commitment to a policy that would generate an appreciable near-term adjustment in the current account. A substantial front-loaded fiscal adjustment is essential to begin to counter demand buoyancy while helping convince the private sector of the government's willingness to shoulder its share of the burden. A strong communication strategy is also needed to signal the need for credit and wage restraint by the private sector. The mission's main recommendations are detailed below.

"Fiscal policy: Against the balanced budget targeted in the anti-inflation plan, we consider that a headline general government surplus of 2¼ percent of GDP in 2007 and 4 percent of GDP in 2008 is appropriate. This could be achieved by saving in full revenue overperformance, restraining current and capital expenditures, and abstaining from cuts in taxes, including the personal income tax. Introducing medium-term budgeting, anchored within a conservative revenue envelope, can help balance the need for expenditure restraint with improvements in public sector efficiency. To enhance fiscal transparency and sustainability, all large public investment projects should be evaluated and prioritized within a single unified framework

"Credit and prudential policies: Sharply curtailing and improving the risk profile of new lending is essential to mitigating macroeconomic and financial stability risks. Rebalancing incentives governing credit growth is therefore essential. The mission supports the effective implementation of the credit-restraining measures in the anti-inflation plan, including fully documenting legal income to secure a loan, establishing a comprehensive register of all loans, and requiring a 10 percent minimum downpayment. We also welcome the recent reimposition of limits on banks' open positions in euros. Additional regulatory measures are also needed to slow credit growth and induce banks to internalize systemic risk in real estate and currency markets. The FCMC, working with the Bank of Latvia, should increase its emphasis on monitoring systemic risk through more frequent on-site inspections of large banks and ensuring that foreign banks tailor their credit-risk models to the Latvian context.

"Real estate policies: Rebalancing the structure of the economy away from the nontradables sector, especially real estate, is essential to underpin needed current account adjustment. The mission welcomes the increase in real estate taxation envisaged in the anti-inflation plan, as well as the periodic reassessment of cadastral values, beginning in 2007. To be effective, however, enforcement of real-estate related taxation should be stepped up. To further relieve overheating in the construction sector, it will be necessary to significantly scale back government capital expenditure (planned at 5 percent of GDP for 2007).

"Labor market policies: Efficient labor utilization is critical to expand aggregate supply and contain surging wage costs, which are contributing to overheating and undermining Latvia's competitiveness. The greater flexibility allowed in the use of fixed-term employment contracts introduced in the 2006 Amendment to the Labor Law is welcome, and further steps to facilitate mobility between jobs and regions are needed. The recent decision to allow unfettered labor market access to the newest EU members may help relieve bottlenecks, and wider temporary access should also be considered. Public sector wage agreements should not provide grounds—through demonstration effects—for increases in private wages in excess of productivity. Social partners should secure a broad consensus for appropriate wage restraint. Shifting to higher value-added products requires increasing employer involvement in setting education curricula, and prioritizing EU structural funds to developing human resources, entrepreneurship, and innovation in traditional and new export sectors."



IMF EXTERNAL RELATIONS DEPARTMENT

Public Affairs    Media Relations
E-mail: publicaffairs@imf.org E-mail: media@imf.org
Fax: 202-623-6220 Phone: 202-623-7100