Thursday, August 18, 2011

What Can We Really Learn From Estonia?

S&P Downgrade of U.S. and Upgrade of Estonia Inspires Misguided Admiration

In the wake of a few recent S&P decisions, fans of budget cuts are practically waving the Estonian flag. They point to Estonia's recent austerity measures and it's Q1 2011 growth as some sort of vindication. "Look, look ... we've got a positive example!" Ah, but if only it were that simple. There's more to Estonia's austerity and growth than meets the eye of the starve the beast crowd who would have us emulate their example. Estonia chose "internal devaluation," including wage cuts. So keep in mind what following the Estonian script would mean: big wage-cuts and a lower standard of living. Who really wants to sign up for that?

But more importantly, one should take a closer look at the impact on the Estonian economy before declaring them a model that everyone should copy. I'd swallow some short-term pain if it made the overall situation better for my country in the long run. But in the case of Estonia, the trouble didn't entirely end with the turn-around from the -13.9% plummeting GDP in 2009 to the 1.8% growth in 2010 and varying more-or-less positive growth forecasts for their future. While Estonia has returned to GDP growth, they're doing so on the backs of their neighbors. The one bright-spot in their economy is exports, which were up 43% from a year earlier in June. (Although June's figures showed a drop from the previous month.) Their unemployment remains high. Their retail sales and non-govt construction are both still down significantly. The domestic market isn't looking so good there. But in Sweden, Russia, and Finland demand is rising. All three of Estonia's biggest foreign markets saw significantly higher GDP growth in 2010 than Estonia. The strong growth continues in Sweden in particular ... plenty to explain why Estonian producers have still had a market in the face of lower internal demand. Having growing trading partners is great. But in the long run it's a poor substitute for steady internal demand. Estonia's internal devaluation has made them even more dependent on their neighbors. Should the growth in Sweden, Finland, and Russia cease or even slow down significantly, Estonia could find itself in deep trouble with no fuel for its economy. That sort of dependence on -- and vulnerability to -- foreign trade partners has lots of drawbacks. Sacrificing domestic demand to gain foreign demand means a weakened domestic economy.

So what can we really learn from Estonia? Mainly that it's good to have trading partners who have money to spend on what you're making. That's not a lever we (or anyone else) can control. It's up to our trading partners to keep their economies moving. Aside from maybe lending the occasional wrench, we can only look to get our own engine revving again. But we can also learn that worrying too much about increasing our exports can cause a nation to become export dependent -- at the mercy of the whims of foreign markets. While that may be nice when those markets are thriving, do we really want to count on them completely and make ourselves export dependent? Wouldn't you rather we fixed our domestic shortage of demand instead of sacrificing what's left of it in the vague hope for an uncertain boost to exports?

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