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Posts Tagged ‘Lithuania’

I’m a big fan of many of the economic reforms that have been implemented in Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania.

All three of the Baltic nations rank highly according to Economic Freedom of the World. Estonia and Lithuania are tied for #13, and Latvia isn’t far behind at #23.

Rather impressive for nations that suffered decades of communist enslavement.

But this doesn’t mean I’m optimistic for the future of these countries.

Simply stated, they need a lot more reform to prepare themselves for demographic decline.

And demographic decline is a huge issue, in large part because young people are moving away. Here are some excerpts from a Bloomberg report.

According to the UN’s Department of Economic and Social Affairs, nine of the world’s countries most at risk of losing citizens over the next few decades are former East bloc nations. Porous borders and greater opportunity in the west have lured people away. …The trend is hitting especially hard in the Baltics. Latvia, with a current population of 1.96 million, has lost about 25 percent of its residents since throwing off Soviet control in 1991. The U.N. predicts that by 2050, it will have lost an additional 22 percent of its current population…and by 2100, 41 percent. In Estonia, with a population of 1.32 million, the U.N. foresees a 13 percent decline by 2050 and a 32 percent drop by 2100. And in Lithuania, the current population of 2.87 million is expected to drop by 17 percent by 2050. By 2100, it will have lost 34 percent. …Latvian demographer Mihails Hazans said that, as of 2014, one in three ethnic Latvians age 25 to 34 — and a quarter of all Latvians with higher education — lived abroad.

Part of the issue is also fertility.

Here’s a chart from the World Bank showing that all three Baltic nations are way below the replacement rate.

The combination of these two factors helps to explain this map.

As you can see, the Baltics don’t quite face the same challenges as Moldova.

But that’s the only silver lining in these grim numbers.

By the way, people should be free to emigrate.

And women should be free to choose how many children to have.

But when a country also has a welfare state and – over time – there are more and more old people and fewer and fewer young taxpayers, that’s a recipe for some sort of Greek-style fiscal crisis.

Fortunately, there is a solution to this problem.

The Baltic nations need to copy Hong Kong. Fertility rates are even lower there, but the jurisdiction doesn’t face a big long-run fiscal challenge since people mostly rely on private savings rather than tax-and-transfer welfare states.

P.S. One of the reasons I like the Baltic nations is that they cut spending (actual spending cuts, not fake DC-style reductions in planned increases) when they were hit by the global financial crisis last decade.

P.P.S. Even better, Paul Krugman wound up beclowning himself by trying to blame Estonia’s 2008 recession on spending cuts that occurred in 2009.

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I’m a fan of the Baltic nations in part because they were among the first to adopt flat tax systems after the collapse of the Soviet empire. But tax reform was just the beginning. Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania have liberalized across the board as part of their efforts to become prosperous.

Economic Freedom of the World is always the first place to check when you want to understand whether countries have good policy. And the dataset for the Baltic nations does show that all three nations are in the top quartile, with Lithuania and Estonia cracking the top 20.

So are these market-oriented policies paying dividends? Has the shift in the direction of free markets and limited government resulted in more prosperity?

The short answer is yes. The European Central Bank has released some very interesting analysis on the economic performance of these countries.

The Baltic States have been able to maintain an impressive rate of convergence towards the average EU per capita income over the past 20 years. …these three countries have each pursued a strongly free-market and pro-business economic agenda… The three countries are different in many ways, but share a number of key features: very high levels of trade and financial openness and very high labour mobility; high economic flexibility with wage bargaining mainly at firm level; relatively good institutional framework conditions; and low levels of public debt.

And this has translated into strong growth, which has resulted in higher incomes.

The Baltic States are among the few euro area countries (along with Slovakia) in which real GDP per capita in purchasing power standard (PPS) terms has shown substantial convergence towards the EU average over the last 20 years. While in 1995 their average per capita income (in PPS) stood at only around 28% of the EU15 average, in 2015 it reached 66.5% (see Chart A).

Here’s the chart showing how quickly the Baltic countries are catching up to Western Europe.

The ECB report also measured how fast the Baltic nations have grown compared to theory.

The long-term convergence performance of the Baltic States has exceeded what would have been expected based on their initial income level.

And here’s the chart showing how they have over-performed.

The ECB study says that the Baltic countries have been especially good about replacing cronyism with the rule of law.

One of the possible reasons for the fairly strong convergence performance of the Baltic States is the strong improvement in institutional quality in these countries… The Worldwide Governance Indicators of the World Bank, which is a composite indicator of institutional quality, suggests that institutional quality has improved markedly in the Baltic States – especially in Estonia – over the recent decades.

I agree. Indeed, I’ve written that Estonia is a good role model, having reduced corruption by limiting the power of politicians and bureaucrats.

The report also credits the three countries with rapid rebounds from the financial crisis, which is a point I made back in 2011.

While the crisis hit the Baltic States hard, the adjustment of imbalances was very fast. The rapid adjustment in fiscal balances and private sector balance sheets implied that the Baltic States could avoid the accumulation of a large debt overhang. In addition, the fast reduction in unemployment helped to decrease the risk of hysteresis, thus avoiding lasting consequences for potential growth. …The external adjustment of the Baltic States was facilitated by painful but effective internal devaluation. …This relatively fast adjustment in the Baltic States was facilitated in part by a strong initial rebound in employment growth, supported by an adjustment in labour costs.

I also think genuine spending cuts helped produce the quick economic rebound.

Though the report does warn that there are not guarantees that the Baltic countries will fully converge with Western Europe.

International experience suggests that countries that reach a middle income level, like the Baltic States, tend to find it difficult to converge further and achieve a high income level. A World Bank study suggests that out of 101 middle-income economies in 1960, only 13 had become high-income economies by 2008.

This is a good point. As I explained two years ago, full convergence is very difficult. North America and Western Europe became rich in part because of very small public sectors in the 1800s and early 1900s. Indeed, there was virtually no welfare state until the 1930s and the level of redistribution was comparatively small until the 1960s.

Unfortunately, this is one area where the Baltic nations are weak. Yes, the burden of government spending may be modest compared to other EU countries, but the public sector nonetheless consumes more than 35 percent of GDP. And even though these nations have flat taxes, they also have stifling payroll taxes and government-fueling value-added taxes.

Another problem (not just in the Baltic region, but all through Eastern Europe) is that the demographic outlook is unfriendly, which means that the welfare state automatically will become a bigger burden over time.

If the Baltic countries want genuine convergence (or if they want to surpass Western Europe), that will require additional reform, particularly efforts to reduce the burden of government spending to the levels found in Hong Kong and Singapore.

Unfortunately, it’s more likely that policy will move in the other direction. There are constant efforts to repeal the flat tax systems in the Baltic countries. And efforts by the European Commission to harmonize business taxation ultimately may undermine the pro-growth approach to business taxation in the region as well.

P.S. For those who want an in-depth look at a Baltic nation, I recommend this video about Estonia. And if you want some amusement, check out how Paul Krugman wanted people to believe that Estonia’s 2008 recession was caused by 2009 spending cuts.

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I’m a big fan of the Baltic nations of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania.

These three countries emerged from the collapse of the Soviet Empire and they have taken advantage of their independence to become successful market-driven economies.

One key to their relative success is tax policy. All three nations have flat taxes. Estonia’s system is so good (particularly its approach to business taxation) that the Tax Foundation ranks it as the best in the OECD.

And the Baltic nations all deserve great praise for cutting the burden of government spending in response to the global financial crisis/great recession (an approach that produced much better results than the Keynesian policies and/or tax hikes that were imposed in many other countries).

But good policy in the past is no guarantee of good policy in the future, so it is with great dismay that I share some very worrisome news from two of the three Baltic countries.

First, we have a grim update from Estonia, which may be my favorite Baltic nation if for no other reason than the humiliation it caused for Paul Krugman. But now Estonia may cause sadness for me. The coalition government in Estonia has broken down and two of the political parties that want to lead a new government are hostile to the flat tax.

Estonia’s government collapsed Wednesday after Prime Minister Taavi Roivas lost a confidence vote in Parliament, following months of Cabinet squabbling mainly over economic policies. …Conflicting views over taxation and improving the state of Estonia’s economy, which the two junior coalition partners claim is stagnant, is the main cause for the breakup. …The core of those policies is a flat 20 percent tax on income. The Social Democrats say the wide income gaps separating Estonia’s different social groups would best be narrowed by introducing Nordic-style progressive taxation. The two parties said Wednesday that they will immediately start talks on forming a coalition with the Center Party, Estonia’s second-largest party, which is favored by the country’s sizable ethnic-Russian majority and supports a progressive income tax.

And Lithuanians just held an election and the outcome does not bode well for that nation’s flat tax.

After the weekend run-off vote, which followed a first round on October 9, the centrist Lithuanian Peasants and Green Union party LGPU) ended up with 54 seats in the 141-member parliament. …The conservative Homeland Union, which had been tipped to win, scored a distant second with 31 seats, while the governing Social Democrats were, as expected, relegated to the opposition, with just 17 seats. …The LPGU wants to change a controversial new labour code that makes it easier to hire and fire employees, impose a state monopoly on alcohol sales, cut bureaucracy, and above all boost economic growth to halt mass emigration. …Promises by Social Democratic Prime Minister Butkevicius of a further hike in the minimum wage and public sector salaries fell flat with voters.

The Social Democrats sound like they had some bad idea, but the new LGPU government has a more extreme agenda. It already has proposed to create a special 4-percentage point surtax on taxpayers earning more than €12,000 annually (the government also wants to expand double taxation, which also is contrary to the tax-income-only-once principle of a pure flat tax).

So the bad news is that the flat tax could soon disappear in Estonia and Lithuania.

But the good news, based on my discussions with people in these two nations, is that the battle isn’t lost. At least not yet.

In both cases, policy can’t be changed unless all parties in the coalition government agree. Fortunately, they haven’t reached that point.

And hopefully that point will never be reached if Estonia and Lithuania want long-run success.

All of the Baltic nations get reasonably good scores from Economic Freedom of the World. Ditching the flat tax will cause their scores to decline.

Given that fiscal policy is only 20 percent of a nation’s grade, adopting some bad tax policy may not seem like the end of the world.

But the flat tax isn’t just good policy. It also has symbolic value, telling both domestic entrepreneurs and global investors that a country has a commitment to a system that won’t impose extra punishment just because a person contributes more to national economic output.

By the way, the LPGU Party is very correct to worry about emigration. The Baltic nations (like most countries in Eastern Europe) face a very large demographic problem. And every time a young person leaves for better opportunities elsewhere (even if that better opportunity is a big welfare check), that makes the long-run outlook even more challenging.

But imposing a more punitive tax system is exactly the opposite of what should happen if the goal is faster growth so that people don’t leave the nation.

Let’s close with a famous quote from John Ramsay McCulloch, a Scottish economist from the 1800s.

To be sure, progressive taxation didn’t lead to total catastrophe, so McCulloch’s warning may seem overwrought by today’s standards.

But the so-called progressive income tax did lead to the modern welfare state. And the modern welfare state, when combined with demographic change, is threatening immense economic and societal damage in many nations.

So what he wrote in 1863 may turn out to be very prescient for historians in 2063 who wonder why the western world collapsed.

P.S. If Estonia and Lithuania move in the wrong direction, Latvia could be a big winner. That nation already has received some positive attention for being fiscally responsible, and it also has withstood pressure from the IMF to impose bad tax policy. So Latvia is well positioned to reap the benefits if Estonia and Lithuania shoot themselves in the foot.

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I’m in Vilnius, Lithuania, where I just finished speaking to a regional conference of the European Students for Liberty.

I subjected the kids to more than 90 minutes of pontificating and 73 PowerPoint slides, but I could have saved them a lot of time if I simply showed them this Rahn Curve video and then posted just one slide – the one showing that the burden of government spending in Europe used to be very small.

This slide shows that government spending used to consume only about 10 percent of European economic output in the 1800s and less than 15 percent of GDP as late as 1913.

I explained to the students that it was during this period of small government that Europe became a rich continent. It was back during this time that most European nations didn’t have income taxes, so there wasn’t big government to misallocate economic output, and there weren’t high tax rates to discourage economic output.

So no wonder Europe went from agricultural poverty to middle class prosperity (and here’s a post where I specifically discuss how Denmark became prosperous when government was small).

To be sure, fiscal policy is not the only variable that determines prosperity, and I gave some big caveats about the importance of good monetary policy, good trade policy, good regulatory policy, etc, etc.

In my conclusion, I offered the students a good news scenario and bad news scenario. The good news is that we know how Europe became rich and we know that a return to small government and free markets will enable Europe to again enjoy rapid growth.

The bad news is that Europe will probably move in the wrong direction rather than right direction. I shared this data from the Bank for International Settlements, showing that even supposedly sober-minded and prudent nations such as Germany and the Netherlands are going to face Greek-Style fiscal crises.

Which is why I was only half-joking during the Q&A session when I suggested that the students stock up on guns and ammo. If and when the continent-wide fiscal crisis occurs (because Europe has poorly designed entitlement programs, just like America), and there’s no Germany or no IMF to provide bailouts, the looters and the moochers are going to switch from being run-of-the-mill rioters and instead become marauding gangs.

In that Mad Max Dystopia, as I explained last year on the NRA’s TV program, the ability to engage in self defense will be highly prized.

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I got a few cranky emails after my post suggesting the United States should copy the Baltic nations and implement genuine spending cuts. These less-than-friendly pen pals were upset that I favorably commented on the fiscal discipline of Estonia, Lithuania, and Latvia while failing to reveal that these nations were suffering from high unemployment.

From the tone of this correspondence, my new friends obviously think this is a “gotcha” moment. The gist of their messages is that the economic downturn that hit the Baltic nations is proof that the free-market model has failed, and that I somehow was guilty of a cover-up.

That’s certainly a strange interpretation, especially since I specifically noted that the three nations had suffered from an economic downturn. There’s no questioning the fact that unemployment spiked upwards because of the global financial crisis, which was especially damaging to the Baltics since they all had real estate bubbles.

But let’s deal with the bigger issue, which is whether this downturn is proof that the free market failed (and, for the sake of argument, let’s assume that all three Baltic nations are free market even though only Estonia gets high scores in the Economic Freedom of the World rankings).

If you look at the IMF’s World Economic Outlook Database, it does show that the Baltic nations had serious economic downturns. Indeed, if we look at the data from 2008 to the present, the recession was far deeper in those nations than in Western Europe and North America.

So at first glance, it seems my critics have a point.

But what happens if you look at a longer period of data? The IMF has data for all three Baltic nations going back to 1999. And if we look at the entire 12-year period, it turns out that Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania have enjoyed comparatively strong growth. Indeed, as seen in the chart, they even surpass Hong Kong.

In other words, the Baltic nations may have suffered larger-than-average economic downturns, but they also enjoyed stronger-than-average booms. And the net effect is that they are now in much better shape than the nations that had smaller recessions but also less-robust growth.

A sophisticated critic may look at this data and say it’s meaningless because convergence theory suggests that middle-income countries almost always will grow faster than rich nations. That’s a fair point, so let’s now compare the three Baltic nations to three other nations that were at the same level of development at the turn of the century.

As you can see, the Baltic nations are doing substantially better than other middle-income nations. By the way, skeptics should feel free to peruse the IMF data to confirm that I didn’t cherry-pick nations to make my point (indeed, I deliberately picked Thailand since it was emerging from the Asian financial crisis and is an example of a nation that enjoyed very good growth in the 2000-2011 period).

The point of this post is not that the Baltic nations are perfect. Estonia is ranked 12th in the Economic Freedom rankings, which is impressive, but Lithuania is 33rd and Latvia is 55th. Those aren’t bad scores considering that these nations are recovering from communist tyranny, to be sure, but Hong Kong isn’t in any danger of being dethroned.

Instead, my argument is that the Baltic nations are making slow but steady progress, and I’m quite confident that the recent decisions by these nations to reduce the burden of government spending will help put them back on an above-average growth path.

That is something America should emulate.

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