Twenty years after revolution swept communism from Eastern Europe, the region is in the middle of another maelstrom. The global economic crisis has hit countries like Latvia, Hungary and Poland particularly hard. Eastern Europe's boom over the past few years was fueled in part by heavy borrowing from Western banks and easy access to foreign currency denominated loans. Now, with credit dried up, huge debt loads to pay and Eastern European currencies in free fall, the good times are truly over.
The IMF has already issued emergency loans for Hungary and Ukraine. Last week the Latvian government was forced to resign after massive street protests triggered by government austerity measures. Latvia's GDP dropped 10.5% in January alone. There is talk of countries such as Germany having to bail out their smaller eastern neighbors. But rescue prospects are complicated. Western European governments are battling recession themselves and the debt they have taken on to finance domestic recovery packages may make them unable, or unwilling, to aid their Eastern European counterparts. (See pictures of printing money in Germany.)
But not acting could end up costing Western capitals more than helping out. That's because Western banks have huge exposure to emerging European economies, either directly or through local subsidiaries. Austrian banks alone have a more than $293 billion exposure to Eastern Europe, roughly 80% of the Austrian GDP. When, on February 17, rating agency Moody's warned that it might downgrade a number of western European banks with exposure to the region, the euro plunged to a three month low of $1.26 against the dollar. "Given the combination of banking and trade links between Eastern and Western Europe that have been built up over the past five to ten years, it's clear that this cannot be seen as a self-contained regional crisis," says Neil Shearing, Eastern Europe economist at Capital Economics in London.
Says Lars Christensen, chief emerging markets analyst at Danskebank: "If this serious crisis is allowed to run its course without outside intervention, it could be near catastrophic for the region and the impact on the Western European banking system is significant."
The downturn is playing havoc with Eastern Europe's currencies. Since last summer, the Polish zloty has lost 48% against Europe's common currency the euro, the Hungarian forint 30% and the Czech Krona 23%. That makes euro-denominated debt, which has risen dramatically anyway in the past few years, much harder to pay back. In Poland, foreign currency debt held by households has tripled in three years to 12% of the GDP last year, with some 70% of mortgages taken in foreign currencies. In Hungary, foreign currency loans make up 62% of all household debt, up from 33% three years ago. Home owners across the region now face massive debts that they simply will be unable to pay back. "What's happening in these countries is a tragedy," says Christensen. (See 25 people to blame for the financial crisis.)
The IMF, which has already provided $39 billion in emergency loans to shore up Eastern European economies, is discussing a regional bailout package. But the Fund is also struggling; with access to $200 billion in funds, its ability to step in is limited. "So far we've seen disappointing tendencies on the part of Western European governments moving in a more protectionist direction, which is worrying," says Christensen. "But the pressure is increasing on policy makers to find some kind of solution."
All eyes are now on the G20 summit, to be held in London on April 2. "One way to shore up investor confidence and stop the wholesale sell-off would be to get a coordinated response from the G20," says Shearing. "The market is being driven by fear and panic right now, which is what happens in a crisis. They could open up funding for the region through tie-ins with central banks in Western Europe or make available an IMF crisis fund of $500 billion for emerging Europe during the downturn."
Even with stop-gap measures, though, recovery will be slow and painful. Governments are under pressure from the IMF or other international lenders to implement tough austerity measures deeply unpopular with voters. After the economic pain, expect another summer of political turmoil ahead.