Earlier this morning I was informed by Bloomberg (link) that Slovenia officially entered the recession for the first time in the last 16 years. The information has not been surprising since major economic forecasts predicted a significant downturn in the light of deteriorating exports and investment. The data pointed out to a significant economic decline. Gross capital formation shrank by an astonishing 32.3 percent. On the other hand, private household consumption grew slightly by 0.1 percent while government spending grew by 3.8 percent.
The outbreak of the financial crisis led economic policymakers to pursue a robust fiscal stimulus to compensate the decline of investment and consumption spending. Before entering the EMU, Slovenia had to comply with Maastricht criteria, including anchoring the budget deficit at the maximum level of 3 percent of the GDP. This year, the budget deficit soared over 6 percent of the GDP, suggesting a growing pressure on public debt. Earlier this month, John Taylor, a professor of economics at Stanford, wrote a great article in FT discussing the hidden dangers of a growing government debt (link). When credit rating agencies downgraded the sovereign debt outlook for the United Kingdom from "stable" to "negative", it should be obvious to economic policymakers that fiscal stimulus failed the cost-benefit analysis and hardly consolidated the midterm economic outlook and recovery.
Recently, Donald Kohn, the vice president of the Fed expressed concerns about fiscal deficit regarding inflationary outlook (link). The reaction of the fiscal policy included a typical fine-tuning infusion of government spending which produced little effect. Of course, it should be noted that a rather drastic expansion of public debt is not only a consequence of an expansionary fiscal policy but also of significant bailout loans from IMF. IMF's $2.4 billion bailout loan raised Latvia's public debt from 9 percent to 15.2 percent of the GDP in 2008 (link). By 2010, it is estimated to go up to 46 percent (link) of the GDP. The explosion of public debt is a particular concern and an obvious consequence of economy's overheating. The IMF recently reported that overall bank credit to private sector settled at 95 percent of the GDP. Complementary, external indebtedness rose to 130 percent of the GDP (link). Clearly, Bank of Latvia failed to act as a lender of the last resort with unbuilt foreign reserves basis and a balance sheet that couldn't sustain the bailout of the financial sector.
Iceland, definitely one of the biggest victims of the financial crisis has recently been downgraded on sovereign debt by Moody. The assets by the outward-oriented banking sector, fuelled by a stunning interest rate differential and carry trading against uncovered interest parity, skipped the size of the economy by 900 percent. The Moody predicted that Icelandic public debt will reach 145.3 percent in 2009 and shall decline slowly and gradually.
On the annual basis, Slovenia's small and open economy declined by 8.3 percent which is one of the most significant declines in the EU after Baltic tigers and Ireland. The European Commission predicts 3.4 percent decline in output by 2009. Exports are expected to decline by 11.8 percent. Small and open economies are vulnerable to economic crises and external shocks, particularly because its trade-to-GDP ratio stands at 60 percent of the GDP and beyond.
This year's quite striking decline has much to do with Slovenia's main macroeconomic backbones. The inflation rate, which grew significantly during the 2007 economic expansion when GDP growth stood at 6.8 percent annually, has not increased. That is because Slovenia, as other EMU members, experiences the recessionary output gap and also because there were no inflationary shocks from the oil market. The third frontier of explanation for a deflating pressure on economic activity in Slovenia is that during the recession spillovers from the tradeable sector strongly affected domestic retail and service sector. In March 2009, the unemployment rate stood at 8.4 percent. The combination of a weak labor market and significant downturn of private consumption spending weakened the bargaining power of unions over wage determination, although wages in the public sector recently grew by double-digit rates (link). In May, the monthly rate of inflation reached 0.6 percent respectively (link). The industrial production, one of the keenest signals of economic activity, for instance, declined by 20 percent in March 2009 (link). The lack of productivity shocks such as restructuring and innovation further worsened the outlook of industrial production.
In a Keynesian spinning turn, Slovenian government pursued a dramatic fiscal expansion coupled with an easy money policy from the ECB's lowest baseline interest rate since early 2000s. In addition to horrible state of public finance, the government enforced a set of measures to protect the major banks from the failure. After the failure of Lehman brothers, it became obvious that the credit flow to state-owned companies for purposes of acquisitions and oligpolistic consolidation will inevitably decrease significantly as the banks' balance sheets were too soft and, of course, too small to secure loans to the real sector. Not surprisingly, the banks performed dismally at the stock market. SBI20, Slovenia's headline stock market index shrank by an astonishing 68 percent between 2008 and 2009 (link), suggesting that P/E ratios and earnings forecasts were mostly overvalued and distorted by the insider information and inadequate and unreliable signals.
The recent staff report by the IMF on Slovenia (link) suggested the immediate enforcement of structural reforms to boost economic recovery. The historical track record of macroeconomic and structural reforms is quite sluggish. During the financial and economic crisis of 2008/2009, the Slovenian government raised government spending and tax burden.
Additionally, it further regulated the labor market by preventing firings through wage guarantees to temporary unemployed whom employers are obligated to reemploy as the economic recovery goes further. Is this a reminder that a totalitarian political economy is still alive? Yes. It seems that economic policymakers ignored the overwhelming regulatory burden in the business environment (link), extremely regulated, inflexible and costly labor market (link), the lack of scale to develop sound capital and financial markets (link) (link), unfinished privatization, high tax wedge and the lack of judicial enforcement in defending the rule of law and the protection of property rights.
These structural and macroeconomic reforms would strengthen the midterm growth outlook and significantly boost the economic recovery. Nonetheless, these reforms would not inhibit the economic growth in the long-run. The IMF's World Economic Outlook predicts weak growth in 2010 and a consecutive recovery until 2014 when the economic activity is expected to increase by 3.5 percent. However, the economic growth in Eastern tigers is expected to go steadily beyond 4 percent by 2012. By 2012-2014, Estonia's economic growth is expected to set up between 4 and 4.5 percent. Nonetheless, Slovakia, which smoothly matured in macroeconomic stability by entering the EMU in 2008, is set to expand 5.2 percent in 2011 and experience moderate growth ranging between 4 and 4.5 percent until 2014. Even a minor difference in economic growth has a significant long-term effect.
If Estonia and Slovakia steadily experienced 4.5 percent economic growth rate, it would take 16 years to double its GDP per capita. On the other hand, if Slovenia steadily experienced 3.5 percent economic growth rate, its GDP per capita would double in about 21 years. In my workshop on real convergence, I estimated that Estonia and Slovakia shall catch-up with Slovenian level of the GDP in about 12 to 16 years. In 1991, the catch-up gap between Slovenia and Estonia was between 45 and 50 years respectively.
Thus, without bold and strong economic reforms, the future of Slovenia shall be nothing more than a story of a slowly-growing and gradually stagnating economy with close and unfortunate similarities to Italy and France rather than to Singapore or Australia.