Facebook Blogging

Edward Hugh has a lively and enjoyable Facebook community where he publishes frequent breaking news economics links and short updates. If you would like to receive these updates on a regular basis and join the debate please invite Edward as a friend by clicking the Facebook link at the top of the right sidebar.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Biting The Fiscal Bullet In Poland

There is a good deal of speculation in the press at the moment over the tricky issue of whether or not Poland will be able to comply with its agreed deficit-reduction deadline on the basis of the latest budget proposals announced by the government there. Personally, I tend to agree with those analysts who feel the spending and revenue assumptions being made by the Polish government are rather unrealistic, and that they will this be unable to comply with the terms of the Excess Deficit Procedure as laid down for them by the European Commission: difficult territory this in the "post Greek crisis" world, but it would not be the end of the world were the slippage to be justified. Unfortunately, as I will argue below, I don't think it is justified, indeed I think it is just the opposite of what sound economic management principles would prescribe in the Polish case, and seems to respond more to the impact of impending political pressures than to the precepts of good policymaking. So I do agree with the consensus here in feeling that Poland needs to do a lot more to reign in the deficit (which means unfortunately spending cuts, since I think raising taxes which will crimp growth and raise inflation is most undesirable at this point), although my reasons for arguing this are actually rather rather different from those that are normally advanced.

One Fiscal Size Fits All?

The facts of the matter are, more or less, as follows: the European Commission has given Poland until 2012 to meet its deficit limit of 3 percent of gross domestic product, after Poland’s shortfall swelled to 7.1 percent of GDP last year as the impact of the global economic crisis depleted government revenue and increased expenditure costs. Next year’s budget assumes something like 3.5% GDP growth and 2.3% inflation, with nominal wage growth rising by 3.7% employment increase by 1.9%.

The EU Commission expect the deficit to only narrow to 7 percent of GDP next year following a 7.3 percent budget gap in 2010. But given that Poland's debt to GDP level is only around 50% of GDP, and that Poland is one of the few large EU countries to still have dynamic internal consumption, you might want to argue that stimulus should be maintained, if only to help Poland's export dependent neighbours.

I want to argue that this view is basically wrong, and that far from needing more in the way of stimulus, what Poland needs to do is contain an overdramatic expansion of credit based domestic demand, an expansion which, if unchecked, could very easily lead to the sort of structural distortions and competitiveness loss we have just observed in the South of Europe and Ireland.

Poland Largely Escaped The Great Recession

But first, lets step back a bit and see what the problem is.

Poland, as most observers note, escaped the worst of the 2009 great recession.

Poland was basically able to endure without too much bloodletting for three principal reasons.

In the first place the level of household indebtedness is still not excessively high. In the second place Poland had maintained a floating exchange rate which meant that it could let the zloty rise during the heady days of 2008, and then allow the currency to devalue when the crisis hit. An thirdly, the level of Forex lending never rose as high in Poland as it did in some of its East European neighbours, which meant that when the time came to devalue there was not such a threat of increasing the Non Performing Loan rate. As can be seen in the chart, it was starting to take off when the credit crunch came along and (fortuitously) stopped it dead in its tracks.

Interestingly enough then, it has been the very fact of not having gone for early Euro adoption that left the Polish monetary authorities with the flexibility needed to respond to the crisis in an appropriate manner. As the IMF put it in their latest Article IV staff report:

"Staff does not support early euro adoption. While this should remain an important goal, entering ERM2 any time soon would not be advisable in view of the uncertain global outlook and the rigidities in the macroeconomic policy mix discussed above. More importantly, the crisis has underscored the importance of being able to use the exchange rate to facilitate adjustment to external shocks. In staff’s view, the swift change in the real exchange rate was one of the key reasons for Poland’s not falling into recession in 2009".

Indeed, the very rapid way that using currency flexibility to resore competitivenes helped should be evident from the Real Effective Exchange Rate chart below:

As can be seen in the run in to the crisis Poland had been losing competitiveness with Germany, following a well known and well trodden path. But in 2009 the country was able to recover much of the lost ground, simply at the push of a (trader's) button - and the currency is now trading at something like 18% below its pre-crisis peak in real effective terms. This remedy is, unfortunately, no longer available to the likes of Spain, Greece, Portugal and Ireland. Even more interestingly, Poland has been able to carry through the devaluation process without provoking a very strong inflation spike.

Of course, there was another factor in Poland's ability to not fall from grace, the fiscal stimulus package. As the IMF put it:

Fiscal policy is providing significant counter-cyclical stimulus. There was a discretionary fiscal relaxation estimated at 1¾ percent of GDP in 2008 and 2½ percent of GDP in 2009, mainly due to tax cuts enacted in 2007 but coming into effect with a delay. While the government initially intended to offset revenue shortfalls to the extent needed to maintain the state budget deficit below the limit of Zloty 18 billion in 2009—through what would have been highly pro-cyclical expenditure cuts—it appropriately changed such plans at mid-year, when it raised the limit to Zloty 27 billion. As a result, the general government deficit increased from under 2 percent of GDP in 2007 to over 7 percent of GDP in 2009. The strong counter-cyclical stimulus provided by fiscal policy—through a combination of discretionary relaxation and the work of automatic stabilizers—was a major reason for Poland’s not falling into recession during the global crisis.

And it is, of course, the issue of just how to withdraw this fiscal stimulus that is the main topic of debate. Unlike many of its regional neighbours, the Polish economy is now in the process of returning to reasonable levels of growth. The levels will surely not be those (possibly unsustainable) ones seen before the crisis, but rates in the order of 3% for 2010 & 2011 do not seem unreasonable.

Monetary Policy In Times Of The Great Immoderation

The problem is, as the output gap gradually closes, the central bank will increasingly have to think how to formulate a response to the inflationary presures which will inevitably follow in the wake. Evidently, in a era of globalised capital flows, conducting monetary policy is not as simple as it used to be, since simply raising interest rates may prove to be counterproductive, and investors look to get the benefit of the increased yield margin on offer.

In fact, the IMF draw exactly the opposite conclusion, namely that if upward pressures on the zloty persist (see chart below), and inflation remains contained, then they argue that the policy rate should be cut. That is they prioritize (correctly in my view) competitiveness issues over the conduct of orthodox monetary policy.

The recovery in global risk appetite, not least in the demand for assets of countries that have weathered the crisis well, suggest that foreign demand for Polish assets could continue to build, resulting in further zloty appreciation. In that case, staff believes that the MPC should revert to an easing bias and cut the policy rate.

In fact with the central banks policy rate at 3.5% there is room for some easing, and room for increased carry too, if the rate stays were it is as risk appetite grows.

The Fiscal Arm Is The Only Effective One

And this is where the real argument for turning the fiscal screw comes in, not in order to simply comply with the EU's 60% gross debt rule (Poland's government debt to GDP is currently around 50%), but rather because in the absence of applying monetary tightening to contain excesses and avoid (further distortions) the government really do need to drain excess demand from the economy by resorting to fiscal policy.

As I have said, the Polish economy is now showing signs of a renewed burst of growth. Industrial output is up sharply (it is now more competitive with imports, among other things):

While retail sales are also strong

And credit growth has once more taken off again:

If this were to remain modest, then it would be a good sign, but continued growth, and monetary loosening, would surely run the risk of seeing the acceleration go too far. And as if to warn us, construction activity has just seen a strong lurch upwards:

Faced with the danger of all of this getting out of hand the authorities can basically do two things. They can tighten loan conditions for the banking sector, by making the deposits required greater (or the Loan to Value ratios lower), and the income criteria stricter, and starting to move people over from variable to fixed interest mortgage rates on the one hand, and by implementing stricter fiscal measures on the other. Some say this will be difficult for Poland in a pre-election period, but are Polish voters really that unaware of what has been happening in other EU countries in recent years that they would willingly go for a bit of extra consumption now at the price of being another Spain five years on down the road?

Once More Those Structural Economic Distortions

Despite, all that improvement in competitiveness Poland is still running a trade deficit:

And it has been running a current account one for more years than anyone cares to remember.

Maybe the deficit has not been large by prior regional standards, but who really wants to go where others have gone before. And with each new deficit the level of external indebtedness simply grows, and is now reaching the 60% of GDP mark. By no means critical yet, but surely it would be more interesting to turn south before it does go critical. And in any event, the presence of the external debt makes the Polish economy unduly dependent on external financial flows, a point highlighted recently when the IMF announced an agreement to renew the country's US$20.43 billion flexible credit line.

Poland is one of the few large EU countries (alongside France) where domestic demand is (for the time being at least) all but dead and buried. Some of the reasons for this are historic ones, some are just quirks of fate (the crunch came before Forex lending got out of hand) and some are demographic. Curiously Poland, like France, is rather younger than many of its regional neighbours.

So for all these, and as they say many other reasons, I think the Polish authorities would do well to think again, and produce a revised set of budgetary projections for the years to come. If not, someone somewhere will one day ask them: "why didn't you see it coming".

Friday, August 14, 2009

From Original Sin To The Eternal Triangle - Lessons From Central Europe

The non-biblical concept of original sin, as Claus Vistesen notes in this post, when propounded in its standard Obstfeld & Krugman textbook version refers to the situation where many developing economies who are not able to borrow in their own currencies feel forced to denominate large parts of their sovereign and private sector debt in non-domestic currencies in order to attract capital from foreign investors - as evidenced most recently in the countries of Central and Eastern Europe. Well, piling insult upon injury, I'd like to take Claus's point a little further, and do so by drawing on another well tried and tested weapon from the Krugman armoury, the idea of the "eternal triangle".

As is evident, the reality which lies behind the current crisis in the EU10 is complex, and has its origin in a variety of causes. But one key factor has undoubtedly been the decisions the various countries took when thinking about their monetary policy and currency regimes. The case of the legendary euro "peggers" - the three Baltic countries and Bulgaria - has been receiving plenty of media attention on late, and two of the remaining six (Slovenia and Slovakia) are now members of the Eurozone, but what of the other four, Romania, Hungary, Poland and The Czech Republic? What can be learnt from the experience of these countries in the present crisis.

Well, one convenient way of thinking about what just happened could be to use Nobel Economist Paul Krugman’s Eternal Triangle” model (see his summary here), which postulates that when it comes to tensions within the strategic trio formed by exchange rate policy, monetary policy, and international liquidity flows, maintaining control over any one implies a loss of control in one of the other two.

In the case of the Central Europe "four", Poland and the Czech Republic opted for maintaining their grip on monetary policy, thus accepting the need for their currency to "freefloat" and move according to the ebbs and flows of market sentiment. As it turns out this decision has served them remarkably well, since the real appreciation in their currencies which accompanied the good times helped take some of the sting out of inflation, while their ability to rapidly reduce interest rates into the downturn has lead to currency depreciation, helping to sustain exports and avoid deflation related issues.

The other two countries (Hungary and Romania), to a greater or lesser degree prioritised currency stability, and as a result had to sacrifice a lot of control over monetary policy, in the process exposing themselves to the risk of much more violent swings in market sentiment when it comes to capital flows. Having been pushed by the logic of their currency decision towards tolerating higher inflation, they have seen the competitiveness of their home industries gradually undermined, and as a consequence found themselves pushed into large current account deficits for just as long the market was prepared to support them, and into sharp domestic contractions once they were no longer disposed so to do.

A second problem which stems from this "initial decision" has been the tendency for households in the latter two countries to overload themselves with unhedged forex loans, a move which stems to some considerable extent from the currency decision, since in order to stabilise the currency, the central banks have had to maintain higher than desireable interest rates, which only reinforced the attractiveness of borrowing in forex, which in turn produced lock-in at the central bank, since it can no longer afford to let the currency slide due to the balance sheet impact on households. Significantly the forex borrowing problem is much less in Poland than it is in Hungary or Romania, and in the Czech Republic it is nearly non-existent.

The third consequence of the decision to loosen control on domestic monetary policy has been the need to tolerate higher than desireable inflation, a necessity which was also accompanied by a predisposition to do so (which had its origin in the erroneous belief that the lions share of the wage differential between West and Eastern Europe is an “unfair” reflection of the region’s earlier history, and essentially a market distortion). The result has been, since 2005, a steady increase in unit wage costs with an accompanying loss of competitiveness, and an increasing dependence on external borrowing to fuel domestic consumption.

So, if we look at the current state of economic play in the four countries, we find two of them (Hungary and Romania) undergoing very severe economic contractions - to such a degree that in both cases the IMF has had to be called in. At the same time both of them are still having to "grin and bear" higher than desireable inflation and interest rates. In the other two countries the contraction is milder, the financial instability less dramatic, and both inflation and domestic interest rates are much lower. Really, looked at in this light, I think there can be little doubt who made the best decision.


Here for comparative purposes are charts illustrating the varying degrees of economic contraction, inflation, and interest rates. GDP contraction rates actually present a little problem at the moment, since one of the relevant countries - Poland - still has to report. However Michal Boni, chief adviser to the Prime Minister, told the newspaper Dziennik this week that the economy expanded at an annual rate of between 0.5% and 1% in Q1. So lets take the lower bound as good, it is still an expansion.

The economy in the Czech Republic contracted by an estimated 4.9% year on year in the second quarter.

The Hungarian economy contracted by an estimated 7.4% year on year in Q2.

While the Romanian economy contracted by an estimated 8.8% year on year.

Inflation Rates

Poland's CPI rose by an annual 4.2% in July.

The CPI in the Czech Republic rose by an annual 0.3% in July.

Romania's CPI rose by an annual 5.1% in July.

Polands CPI rose by an annual 5.1% in July.

Interest Rates

The benchmark central bank interest rate in Poland is currently 3.5%.

The benchmark central bank interest rate in the Czech Republic is currently 1.25%.

The benchmark central bank interest rate in Romania is currently 8.5%.

The benchmark central bank interest rate in Hungary is currently 8.5%.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Polish Industrial Output Falls Again In February (Updated)

Polish industrial production fell for a fifth month in February, offering just the latest signal that the European economic crisis is really having an impact on Polish domestic growth. Annual output dropped 14.3 percent, following a revised decline of 15.3 percent in January, according to the Central Statistical Office. Output was however up 2.7 percent month on month.

Industrial output is now declining across the export oriented economies of central Europe, including the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary, as exports to the region’s main trading partners in western Europe drop and investment plans are halted, slowing economic growth and pushing up the jobless rate. We also learned yesterday that employment dropped in February ny 0.2 percent over February 2008, registering the first annual decline since 2004. At the same time, wages increased 5.1 percent, their lowest increase in 27 months.

Another interesting detail here, for those who study the details of economics, is that theindustrial output numbers are not that far removed from the picture painted in the Purchasing Managers' Index (PMI) since the PMI for the Polish manufacturing sector rose in February coming in at 40.8 (from 40.3 in January). Thus the slight improvement in February's situation was already evident in the PMI. Analysts at the time said the February PMI figure more than likely marked a rebound after earlier sharp declines and suggested a weaker zloty may have helped cushion perceptions of the downturn by making exports cheaper.

Polish Central Bank Cuts Rates

Poland’s central bank cut its benchmark interest rate by a quarter point on Wednesday, to a record low of 3.75 percent as concerns that the economy is stagnating offset worries that the zloty is weakening.

The bank, which has slashed official borrowing costs by 2 percentage points over the past four months, cut its 2009 economic growth forecast by more than half, to 1.1 percent, in February, with some rate setters saying there’s a risk of recession. JP Morgan and Bank of America expect a 1 percent contraction.

Poland’s inflation rate rose in February, the first increase since July, boosted by higher energy prices and a decline in the zloty. The annual rate rose to 3.3 percent from a revised 2.8 percent in January. Consumer prices increased 0.9 percent from the month before after gaining a revised 0.5 percent in January. The EU Harmonised rate was 3.6% in February.

The IPSOS Consumer Confidence Index fell by 4 points from the February level to 67 reach points. The decline is particularly marked in ratings for the economic climate, which fell by 7 points to 47. Such low ratings for the economic climate have not been seen since 1992. Poles evidently believe that the global economic crisis has now affected the heart of their country's economy.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

How Not To Manage Eastern Europe's Financial Crisis (Part 1)

"Saying that the situation is the same for all central and eastern European states, I don't see that......you cannot compare the dire situation in Hungary with that of other countries."
Angela Merkel, Brussels, Sunday

"Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way"

In Europe, leaders rejected pleas for a comprehensive rescue plan for troubled East European economies, promising instead to provide “case-by-case” support. That means a slow dribble of funds, with no chance of reversing the downward spiral.
Paul Krugman

Bank regulators from Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Poland, Romania and Slovakia met today and issued a joint statement, ostensibly to reduce the some of the impact of what they term "alarmist comments" from the Austrian government about how the regional banking system is now in such a precarious state that it requires urgent action at EU level to prevent meltdown. The Austrian government are, of course, concerned about the impact of any meltdown on their own banking system. The result of this "reassuring statement" can be seen in the chart below (10 years, HUF vs Euro).

Within minutes of the joint statement Hungary's currency plummeted to an all-time low against the euro and to a 6.5-yr low versus the US dollar. In fact the HUF rapidly depreciated to 312 per euro from 307.50 before climbing back in later trading to 310. And the reason for this swift reaction? Hungary was not invited to join the statement. As the forint plunged, Hungary 's banking regulator hurriedly signed up to the statement, blaming the original omission on a communications mess-up, but the damage was already done.

“Each of the CEE Member States has its own specific economic and financial situation and these countries do not constitute a homogenous region. It is thus important first to distinguish between the EU Member States and the non-EU countries and also to clarify issues specific to particular countries or particular banking groups."

Well this just takes us back to Tolstoy, each of them have their own specific problems, but the underlying reality is that they all face problems, and are vulnerable, each in their own way.

Hungary's economic fundamentals are clearly much weaker than those to be found in the Czech Republic and Poland as things stand, but what about Bulgaria and Romania? And the Czech Republic and Poland are about to have a pretty hard time of it as a result of their export dependence on the West, and Poland has the unwinding of the zloty options scandal still to hit the front pages. So there is plenty of food for thought here before throwing Hungary to the wolves. A default in Hungary could very easily lead to contagion elsewhere, and then the impact in the West is very hard to foresee. We should not be playing round with lighted matches right next to our fireworks stock. "Hey, it's dark in here" and then "boom".

Yesterday it was Latvia's turn, and the cost of protecting against a Latvian default (Latvia is the first European Union member priced at so- called distressed levels) rose to a record following the announcement that the unemployement level rose from 8.3% in December to 9.5% in January, the highest level in nearly nine years. In fact credit-default swaps linked to Latvia increased nine basis points to an all-time high of 1,109 basis points, according to CMA Datavision in London. The cost is above the 1,000 level, breached last week, that investors consider distressed, and is now about 270 basis points above contracts linked to Lithuania, the next-highest EU member.

So two countries are being systematically detached here - Latvia and Hungary - and statements by EU leaders are unwittingly aiding and abetting the process. But we should all remember, after they have eaten Latvia and Hungary for breakfast, the financial markets will undoubtedly chew on other luckless countries over lunch (Romania's Q4 GDP data was out today, and it was a shocker, and S&P have already said they are "closely monitoring" the situation), before perhaps moving on to bigger game for supper.

And we should remember here, no one is too big to fall, and I have already been warning about the gravity of Germany's situation, with a rapidly ageing population, a hefty bank bailout of its own to swallow, and total export dependence for GDP growth. Final data from Markit economics out today showed that Germany's composite PMI fell to 36.3 in February from 38.0 in January. That was the lowest level registered since the series began in January 1998. And it means that the German economy - which is highly interlocked with the whole of Eastern Europe (Austria holds the finance and Germany the industrial exposure) - is certainly contracting more rapidly in the first quarter of this year than it was in the last quarter of 2008, and may well contract in whole year 2009 by something in the order of 5%. So maybe someone over there in Germany should be reading the poem you will see below aloud to "our Angela" right now (Oh, and if you don't speak German, you can find a translation here).

Als die Nazis die Kommunisten holten,
habe ich geschwiegen;
ich war ja kein Kommunist.
Als sie die Sozialdemokraten einsperrten,
habe ich geschwiegen;
ich war ja kein Sozialdemokrat.

Als sie die Gewerkschafter holten,
habe ich nicht protestiert;
ich war ja kein Gewerkschafter.

Als sie die Juden holten,
habe ich geschwiegen;
ich war ja kein Jude.

Als sie mich holten,
gab es keinen mehr, der protestieren konnte.

What Last Weekend's EU Summit Did And Did Not Achieve

Well reading the press on Monday morning it would have been fairly easy to reach the conclusion that nothing really happened yesterday in Brussels, and that a great opportunity was lost. The latter may finally be true, but the former most certainly is not.

Let's look first at what was not decided on Sunday. The leaders of the 27 member countries in the European Union most certainly did not vote to back a proposal from Hungarian Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany for a 180-billion-euro ($228 billion) aid package for central and eastern Europe. They did not back it because it was not even seriously on the agenda at this point. These people move slowly and we need to talk them throught one step at a time. So what was on the agenda. EU bonds for one, and accelerated euro membership for the East for a second. And once we have the EU bonds firmly in place, then that will be the time to decide how we might use the extra shooting power they will bring us (boosting the ECB balance sheet would be one serious option they should consider, see forthcoming post from me and Claus Vistesen). That is when the emergency blood transfusion Gyurcsany was rooting for might come into play, but on this, as on so many items, the details of how we do what we do as well as the "what we do" will become important, so the moves we do take need to be well thought out, and systematic, they need to get to the roots of the problem, and not simply respond to problems on a piecemeal, reactive basis.

As Paul Krugman puts it "In Europe, leaders rejected pleas for a comprehensive rescue plan for troubled East European economies, promising instead to provide “case-by-case” support. That means a slow dribble of funds, with no chance of reversing the downward spiral." Amen to that!

But let's look at little bit deeper at what has been decided, or if you prefer, at what has been floated, and may be "decided" at the next meet up. Well for one, we have promised not to be protectionist, and for another, The World Bank, The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) and The European Investment Bank (EIB) have launched a two-year plan to lend up to 24.5 billion euros ($31.2 billion) in Central and Eastern Europe. This sounds a bit like trying to drain an Ocean with a teaspoon, and it is, so predictably the financial markets were not too impressed, expecially when they learned that not much of what was promised was going to be new money (as opposed to theacceleration of existing commitments), and especially when we take this sum and compare it with the likely quantities which are needed to "take the bull by the horms". EBRD President Thomas Mirow (who is more likely to give a low side estimate than a high side one) recentlly told the French newspaper Le Figaro that in his view Eastern European banks could need some $150 billion in recapitalisation and $200 billion in refinancing to stave off the risk of a banking failure in the region. At least.

"(It) sounds like a lot of money, but when (commercial) banks have lent Eastern Europe about 1.7 trillion dollars, 25 billion is peanuts," said Nigel Rendell, emerging markets strategist at Royal Bank of Canada in London. "Ultimately we will have to get a much bigger package and a coordinated response from the IMF, the European Union and maybe the G7."

So let's now move on to the positive side of the balance sheet, since as we know our leaders are a slowish bunch when it comes to grasping what is actually going on here, and an even slower group when it comes to acting on that knowledge once it has been acquired. The biggest plus to come out of last weekend's thrash is most definitely the fact that the idea of accelerating membership of the eurozone for the Eastern countries has now started to gain traction, if with no-one else then at least with Luxembourg Prime Minister (and Finance Minister, he is a busy man) Jean-Claude Juncker, aka "Mr Euro", who was quoted by Reuters on his way into the meeting saying he did not expect any early change to accession criteria for the single currency.

"I don't think we can change the accession criteria to the euro overnight. This is not feasible," Juncker told reporters as he arrived for a summit where non-euro eastern countries are due to call for accession procedures to be accelerated after their local currencies have taken a hammering on markets.

While in the news conference following the meeting he said that there was now a consensus that the two-year stability test required for a currency of a country hoping to join the euro zone should be discussed.

"I can understand that there may be a slight question mark over the condition that one needs to be member of the monetary system (ERM2) for two years, we will discuss this calmly," Juncker told a news conference after a meeting of EU leaders.

So something actually went on during the meeting, even if we are largely left guessing about what. Angela Merkel also left a similar impression that movement was taking place. "There are requests to enter ERM 2 faster," Merkel is quoted as saying. "We can have a look at that."

Now I have already spelt out at some length why I think the Eastern Countries should be offered accelerated membership of the eurozone forthwith (see this post) as has Wolfgang Munchau (in this FT article here).

The Economist, in a relatively sensible leader which I have already referred to, divides the Eastern countries into three groups. Firstly there are those countries that are a long way from joining the EU, such as Ukraine, Turkey and Serbia. As the Economist points out, while it would be foolhardy practically and hard-hearted ethically to simply stand back and watch, European institutions are pretty limited in what they can do apart from offereing some timely financial help or some sound institutional advice, and it is entirely appropriate that the main burden of pulling these countries back from the brink should fall on the International Monetary Fund.

Then there are those East and Central European Countries who are themselves members of the Union, and here it is the EU that must take the leading role. A first group of these is constituted by the Baltic trio (Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania) and Bulgaria, who have currencies which are effectively tied to the euro, either through currency boards, or pegged exchange rates. Simply abandoning these pegs without euro support would both bankrupt the large chunks of their economies that have borrowed in euros and deal a huge psychological blow to public confidence in the whole idea of independent statehood. Yet devalue they must (either via internal deflation, or by an outright breaking of the peg) and either road is what Jimmy Cliff would have called a hard one to travel. As the Economist itself suggests, these countries have suffered the most painful part of being in the euro zone—the inability to devalue and regain competitiveness—without getting the most substantial benefits of participation, so although none of them will meet the Maastricht treaty’s criteria for euro entry any time soon (and since they are tiny - the Baltics have a population of barely 7m, and Bulgaria is hardly bigger), letting them directly adopt the euro ought not to set an unwelcome precedent for others and should certainly not damage confidence in the single currency (any more than it already is, that is).

On the other hand unilateral adoption of the euro is a rather more difficult issue for the third group of countries, those who are EU members, are not in the eurozone and have floating exchange rates: the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Romania. None of these is here and now, tomorrow, ready for the tough discipline of a single currency that rules out any future devaluation, and they are large enough collectively (around 80 million) that their premature entry could expose the euro to more turbulence than it already has on its plate. But so could simply leaving the situation as is, since if these economies enter a sharp contraction (more on this in a coming post) then the loan defaults are only going to present similar problems for the eurozone banking system as their currencies slide. The big vulnerability for Western Europe from the Polish, Hungarian and Romanian economies, arises from the large volume of Euro and CHF denominated debt taken on by firms and households, mainly from foreign-owned banks. As the Economist puts it "what once seemed a canny convergence play now looks like a barmy risk, for both the borrowers and the banks, chiefly Italian and Austrian, that lent to them".

So we now have several EU leaders opening the door for the first time to the possibility of fast-track membership of the eurozone. As we have seen German Chancellor Angela Merkel said after the summit that we "could consider" accelerating the candidacy process, French President Nicolas Sarkozy said that "the debate is open", and Luxembourg Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker, who heads the Eurogroup of eurozone finance ministers, said he was willing "to calmly discuss" such a possibility. So the debate is open. When will the next meeting be? On Sunday I hope. A week in all this is a very long time for reflection in this hectic world. We need proposals, and concrete ones for how to move forward here. Especially since at the present time all our attentions seem to be focusing on the East, and there is also the South and the West (the UK and Ireland) to think about. Perhaps our leaders will be able to make time from their crowded agendas for a series of mid-week meetings on this topic.

And while the leaders dither, the markets react, and as Bloomberg reports the dollar surges as everyone seeks a safe haven during the coming storm.

The dollar rose to the highest level since April 2006 against the currencies of six major U.S. trading partners.... and .... The euro dropped to a one-week low against the greenback as European Union leaders vetoed Hungary’s proposal for 180 billion euros ($227 billion) of loans to former communist economies in eastern Europe. The Swedish krona fell to a record versus the euro on speculation the Baltic region’s borrowers may default, and the Hungarian forint and Polish zloty tumbled.

The Hungarian forint led eastern European currencies lower today, falling 3.1 percent to 243.86, while Poland’s zloty lost 3 percent to 3.7796. The forint fell to a 6 1/2-year low of 246.32 on Feb. 17 as Moody’s Investors Service said it may cut the ratings of several banks with units in eastern Europe. The zloty touched 3.9151 the next day, the weakest since May 2004.

EU leaders spurned Hungary’s request for aid at a summit in Brussels yesterday. Growth in Poland, the biggest eastern European economy, will slow to 2 percent, the slackest pace since 2002, the European Commission forecasts.