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Friday, August 17, 2007

Is Estonia Heading For A Soft Landing?

Regular readers will have noticed that Claus Vistesen and I have been looking particularly closely at the Baltic economies of late (or here, or the dedicated weblog I have opened on Latvia). They seem to be experiencing a series of structural difficulties which make them particularly interesting for economists at this point in time. They also could find themselves right in the eye of the storm if the current bout of market nervousness ends in tears.

With all of this in mind I couldn't help noticing, earlier in the week, a number of reports in the press suggesting that the recent (2nd quarter 2007) decline in the Estonian growth rate was an indication of the fact that a "soft landing" was now to be expected there. This article from Bloomberg more or less typical of the reception with which the data release was greeted:

Estonia's economy grew at its slowest pace in two and a half years in the second quarter, as manufacturing output ebbed and oil shipments from Russia declined.

The $15.1 billion economy grew an annual 7.3 percent, compared with 9.8 percent in the first three months of the year, the Tallinn-based statistics office said on its Web site today. ``The number takes out the worst fears about overheating,'' said Mika Erkkila, a senior analyst with Nordea Bank in Helsinki in an e-mailed comment.``However, 7.3 percent is still above the long-run sustainable rate and hence it will still take a quarter or two with further slowing growth before we can conclude that we are out of the woods.''

The central bank said the data was in line with its previous forecasts the economy will make a ``soft landing.'' Trade data also indicated the current-account deficit has stopped growing, it said in an e-mailed statement.

The finance ministry said growth should slow further in the third quarter, citing weaker business and consumer confidence. The slowdown in the second quarter was more than expected, but still ``welcome'' after prolonged growth above potential, the ministry said in an e-mailed statement.

Now I was intrigued by all of this since in the first place I don't think any decision on hard and soft landings is something you can take on the basis of a simple quarterly GDP reading (leaving aside for the present time the question of what exactly we mean by hard and soft landings in this context, a topic which I have attempted to address in this post), and in the second place I don't think you can even begin to address the issue in an emerging markets context (and yes, the Eastern Europe EU 10 are in the sense that counts here still "emerging markets")without taking some account of the final landing the financial markets will have when the current bout of turmoil ends. But still, as I say, I am intrigued by the way people can make such assertions, and what they think the grounds for making them are. So I started to dig a little deeper. And here is what I found.

In the first place it may be useful to take the arguments as they are being presented one at a time, since the way people justify their opinions is important, and I do think there is some confusion abroad about is being talked about here.

What is being asserted is:

1) That the year on year growth as measured by quarters has slowed in Estonia (this is certainly true, it has).

2) That the growth rate needs to slow further to "get out of the woods".

3) The Finance Ministry consider the slowdown greater than expected, but still "welcome".

4) The data is consistent with the possibility of Estonia having a soft landing.

Points (2) to (4) seem to me to be misleading, and now I'll try and explain why. (Incidentally, here is the original Estonia statistical office release which lies behind the report. It is worth noting that what we have here is only a "flash release", the complete initial data will only be available in September, together with what promises to be a complete overhaul of recent Estonian GDP data, so we well may be in for some surprises yet awhile, but still, if we want to decide whether or not we face a possible hard or soft landing at this point we have to work with the data we have, such as it is).

One of the difficulties about measuring economic growth is that you are never sure just which numbers to look at. You could look at GDP evolution (by quarters, lets stay with quarters here) in straight current money terms, a process which for some strange reason we economists refer to as viewing the data in "nominal" terms. So lets start here, and to do this here's a chart for Estonian GDP at current prices and non-seasonally adjusted since the start of 2006.

Well this chart is reasonably easy to interpret, and there is no big mystery here, in the sense that it is clear that the Estonian economy is, and has been, growing. So, lets dig-down a little deeper: here's a chart for Estonian GDP at current prices and non-seasonally adjusted since 2000.

Now the interesting thing to notice, is that in these "raw", non-adjusted, figures, you can see a clear decline in GDP in Q1 each year when compared with Q4 in the previous one. So the annual data have a rather irregular flavor, and this will be important when we get to what is happening in 2007.

Ok, so now let's look at the data from 2005 on a seasonally adjusted and constant (2000) price basis, ie what we economists call in "real GDP growth" terms.

Here what we can see here is that while the Estonian economy has been growing, the rate of growth has been slowing for some quarters now. This slowing becomes even clearer if we look at the quarterly growth in real terms.

Here it becomes apparent that the Estonian economy probably peaked somewhere between the 3rd quarter of 2005 and the 1st quarter of 2006. But what stands out even more is what happened in Q2 2007 (with a quarterly growth rate of only 0.2% according to my calculations). This is almost - in Baltic economy terms - to grind to a halt. Indeed since the Q1 2007 figures are seasonally corrected, and it is not clear to what extent the "correction" being used is valid during such a sudden slowdown, the deceleration may be more equally distributed over the two quarters than it seems, but still, the drop is real and evident enough.

The issue is however compounded by one additional factor, which only adds to our difficulties: the bronze soldier factor. Back in April Estonian authorities exhumed the remains of 12 Soviet soldiers and moved the associated bronze statue to a military cemetery on the outskirts of Tallinn. This move provoked significant protests in Tallinn and other Estonian cities, disturbances which lead to the detention of over 1,000 people, to dozens injured and to the death of one Russian national.

Predictably the Russians have responded in kind, by taking administrative economic measures against Estonia.

Tiit Vahi, Estonia's former prime minister and owner of the Silmet plant, is quoted in the Estonian press as saying the downturn was predictable, given that the economy was bound to be negatively affected by any worsening in relations with Russia.

"Russia has used administrative measures, scaling down rail service and limiting exports to Estonia and imports from Estonia," he is quoted as saying.

This view is also shared by Tiit Tammsaar, head of Baltic Panel Group, who said his company, which produces plywood, has been experiencing a shortage of raw materials from Russia.

The state-controlled railway Eesti Raudtee has also indicated that the volume of rail shipments fell 35% in July, year-on-year, to 2.5 million metric tons, while the volume of oil shipments in July fell 34%, year-on-year, to 1.55 million metric tons, and coal shipments declined 60% in July, year-on-year.

As a result of this Eesti Raudtee has had to lay off 200 employees due to a fall in the volume of freight traffic to Russia.

So what can we conclude from all this? Well in the first place the obvious point would be that it is very important when you enter a critical economic period as Estonia has, not to shoot yourself in the foot. But then this is exactly what Estonia seems to have done.

Clearly the dispute with Russia has produced a dramatic screech of the brakes in Estonia. Does this mean that a hard landing is now inevitable? Well, not necessarily, since to know the answer to this question we need to know what happens next in the financial markets, but what we can say is that the possibility of a hard landing has risen considerably, while what we most definitely can't say is that this slowdown is positive (or "welcome" even, given its scale) or that it provides evidence of a soft landing. Au contraire and caveat emptor.

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