Why Estonia should not be our economic poster-boy

Estonia has much to recommend it, but a look at its recent economic history should give anyone pause

Baltic boosterism is back. Last week Fraser Nelson used his new Telegraph column to sing the praises of Estonia's economic performance, taking his cue from an earlier editorial in the Wall Street Journal which lavished praise on the small Baltic state for cutting spending and keeping taxes "flat and low". Estonia is growing fast -- motoring along at an annualised 8.4 per cent -- and proof positive according to Nelson that expansionary contraction works. It has cut its way back to prosperity.

Last time libertarians cheer-led for the Baltic states like this was when their flat taxes were in vogue, back in 2005. Flat taxes were said to be sweeping across Eastern Europe towards Berlin faster than the Red Army, as Germany's general election approached. George Osborne even briefly flirted with the idea -- until Gerhard Schroder tore chunks out of Angela Merkel's poll lead by demolishing her on the issue. The libertarians retreated wounded, to regroup and find a new line of attack.

Estonia is indeed a fine country. Its people are resilient and dynamic. Its government is open and transparent and it invests heavily in innovation. Like other Northern European countries, it has historically exercised fiscal prudence. It has much to recommend it.

But a brief look at its recent economic history should give anyone pause for thought. During the financial crisis, Estonia's GDP contracted sharply -- by over 5 per cent in 2008 and then a massive 13.9 per cent in 2009. Unemployment rocketed to nearly 17 per cent -- one of the highest levels in the EU. It is still very high at over 13 per cent.

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Given such a deep loss of output, high unemployment and lower labour costs, one would expect rapid post-recessionary growth. But even then, much of Estonia's recent bounce back has been driven by increased exports, chiefly to its high performing social democratic neighbours. Meanwhile, inflation is high and consumer spending low, and GDP growth is now returning to a trend that is lower than before the crisis in 2008, in part because of the constraints imposed by euro membership.

That the balance sheet effects of the internal devaluations of the Baltic republics were not more severe was largely the result of negligible public debt before the crisis struck, as Roubini has recently spelled out:

The international experience of "internal devaluations" is mostly one of failure. Argentina tried the deflation route to a real depreciation and, after three years of an ever-deepening recession/depression, it defaulted and exited its currency board peg. The case of Latvia's "successful" internal devaluation is not a model for the EZ periphery: Output fell by 20 per cent and unemployment surged to 20 per cent; the public debt was -- unlike in the EZ periphery -- negligible as a percentage of GDP and thus a small amount of official finance -- a few billion euros -- was enough to backstop the country without the massive balance-sheet effects of deflation; and the willingness of the policy makers to sweat blood and tears to avoid falling into the arms of the "Russian bear" was, for a while, unlimited (as opposed to the EZ periphery's unwillingness to give up altogether its fiscal independence to Germany); and even after devaluation and default was avoided, the current backlash against such draconian adjustment is now very serious and risks undermining such efforts (while, equivalently, the social and political backlash against recessionary austerity is coming to a boil in the EZ periphery).

The Baltic republics are also curious poster-boys for British Eurosceptics, who generally favour the break-up of the eurozone, and positively urge Greece to default and bring back a devalued Drachma. It is doubly odd, therefore, that they should commend a country like Estonia for sacrificing everything on the altar of euro membership, particularly as it now has to contribute to eurozone bailout funds.

Still, when you're arguing for expansionary contraction, why let a little matter of intellectual consistency get in the way?

Nick Pearce is Director of IPPR

 

Nick Pearce is Professor of Public Policy & Director of the Institute for Policy Research, University of Bath.

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Vince Cable will need something snappier than a graduate tax to escape tuition fees

Perhaps he's placing his hopes in the “Anti Brexit People’s Liberation Front.” 

“We took power, and we got crushed,” Tim Farron said in what would turn out to be his final Autumn conference as Liberal Democrat leader, before hastening on to talk about Brexit and the need for a strong opposition.

A year and a snap election later, Vince Cable, the Lib Dem warhorse-turned-leader and the former Coalition business secretary, had plenty of cracks about Brexit.

He called for a second referendum – or what he dubbed a “first referendum on the facts” – and joked that he was “half prepared for a spell in a cell with Supreme Court judges, Gina Miller, Ken Clarke, and the governors of the BBC” for suggesting it".

Lib Dems, he suggested, were the “political adults” in the room, while Labour sat on the fence. Unlike Farron, however, he did not rule out the idea of working with Jeremy Corbyn, and urged "grown ups" in other parties to put aside their differences. “Jeremy – join us in the Anti Brexit People’s Liberation Front,” he said. The Lib Dems had been right on Iraq, and would be proved right on Brexit, he added. 

But unlike Farron, Cable revisited his party’s time in power.

“In government, we did a lot of good and we stopped a lot of bad,” he told conference. “Don’t let the Tories tell you that they lifted millions of low-earners out of income tax. We did… But we have paid a very high political price.”

Cable paid the price himself, when he lost his Twickenham seat in 2015, and saw his former Coalition colleague Nick Clegg turfed out of student-heavy Sheffield Hallam. However much the Lib Dems might wish it away, the tuition fees debate is here to stay, aided by some canny Labour manoeuvring, and no amount of opposition to Brexit will hide it.

“There is an elephant in the room,” the newly re-established MP for Twickenham said in his speech. “Debt – specifically student debt.” He defended the policy (he chose to vote for it in 2010, rather than abstain) for making sure universities were properly funded, but added: “Just because the system operates like a tax, we cannot escape the fact it isn’t seen as one.” He is reviewing options for the future, including a graduate tax. But students are unlikely to be cheering for a graduate tax when Labour is pledging to scrap tuition fees altogether.

There lies Cable’s challenge. Farron may have stepped down a week after the election declaring himself “torn” between religion and party, but if he had stayed, he would have had to face the fact that voters were happier to nibble Labour’s Brexit fudge (with lashings of free tuition fees), than choose a party on pure Remain principles alone.

“We are not a single-issue party…we’re not Ukip in reverse,” Cable said. “I see our future as a party of government.” In which case, the onus is on him to come up with something more inspiring than a graduate tax.

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.