Eastern Europe: the binge is over

Investing in eastern Europe used to be a 'licence to print money'. Now, the region is set to be the world's worst-performing this year.

How times change, says FAZ.net. Investing in eastern Europe used to be a "licence to print money". The CECE Index of Polish, Czech and Hungarian stocks rose fourfold in euro terms between 2003 and 2007. Now, emerging Europe is a "crisis zone" set to be the world's worst-performing region this year. Even though stockmarkets have bounced as global risk appetite has recovered since March, the CECE is still down by around 60% from its peak.

One key problem is the area's dependence on exports, which comprise 80% of GDP in Hungary and the Czech Republic and 50% in Ukraine. On top of this, unlike Asia or Latin America, eastern Europe is overleveraged. It has "binged on cheap capital from overseas to fund an unsustainable consumer boom", says Capital Economics. Huge current-account deficits (Latvia's reached 23% of GDP in 2007) and rocketing external debt (worth 50% and 37% of GDP in Latvia and Bulgaria respectively) show just how far beyond its means the region has lived.

Now capital inflows have ground to a halt. While private flows into the region reached $241bn in 2008, this year will see an outflow of $27bn, says the Institute for International Finance. Banks, who hold most of the external debt and have had difficulty refinancing, are clamping down on credit growth, undermining domestic demand. In some countries the banking system has almost collapsed, necessitating rescues by the International Monetary Fund (IMF), which has been called in by Hungary, Romania, Serbia, Latvia and Ukraine.

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All this explains why first-quarter GDP fell by 6.4% year-on-year in Romania, 5.8% in Hungary, 3.4% in the Czech Republic, 16% in Estonia and a startling 18% in Latvia. If the latter's economy keeps shrinking at its current rate it will almost halve this year.

The Baltics are in a particularly nasty pickle. The imbalances were greatest there, so retrenchment is bound to be painful. But what's making things even tougher is the fact that their currencies are pegged to the euro. The Baltics have high levels of foreign currency debt euro-denominated mortgages in Latvia are worth 40% of GDP so ending the peg by devaluing local currencies would be "disastrous", causing defaults to sky-rocket, says Lex in the FT.

This means the region is having to lower domestic demand in other words, clamp down on wages and prices to restore its competitiveness. And the economic freefall is set to continue. "We do not see this as the bottom," says Lars Christensen of Danske bank.

The good news is that outright disaster seems to have been averted. The IMF's resources have been beefed up to $750bn. This input, along with money pledged by the EU and the multilateral development banks, seems "more than enough to address the funding problems" in the region and help recapitalise the banking sectors, according to a recent Bank of America Securities-Merrill Lynch research report.

But economic recovery is a long way off. Banking problems are far from resolved, with non-performing loans still around 3% and expected to exceed 10%, according to Capital Economics. The group also notes that the flipside of IMF help is tighter fiscal policy, which will make the slowdown worse. A lasting upturn would require a recovery in the global economy and especially in the eurozone, eastern Europe's main trading partner, and a resumption in capital inflows to bolster growth. The latter seem especially unlikely while the credit crisis grinds on, says FAZ.net. Don't count on a sustainable bull market in eastern Europe for the foreseeable future.