Baltic Cluster Report: Staff Report for the 2014 Cluster Consultation

This 2014 Cluster Consultation report examines common themes and challenges facing the three Baltic countries—Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. It identifies common features and common challenges, and discusses policies—both national and joint—that could help to address these challenges. The Baltic economies have performed well during the last two decades. The global financial crisis exposed vulnerabilities that had built up in the Baltics, but the postcrisis recovery revealed inherent strengths as well. This report highlights that national policies are necessary to address all of the challenges, but collaboration is also important in some areas.


This 2014 Cluster Consultation report examines common themes and challenges facing the three Baltic countries—Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. It identifies common features and common challenges, and discusses policies—both national and joint—that could help to address these challenges. The Baltic economies have performed well during the last two decades. The global financial crisis exposed vulnerabilities that had built up in the Baltics, but the postcrisis recovery revealed inherent strengths as well. This report highlights that national policies are necessary to address all of the challenges, but collaboration is also important in some areas.


1. This report examines common themes and challenges facing the three Baltic countries—Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania (henceforth the Baltics). The aim of the report is to identify common features (including in the Baltics’ revealed preference of economic model) and common challenges, and to discuss policies—both national and joint—that could help to address these challenges. The Baltics are good candidates for a discussion of common challenges and policies, given their similar features and economic model, interlinkages (including with the Nordic countries), and shared history. The challenges and policies covered in this report complement and provide background for those discussed during the individual Article IV consultations for each of the three Baltic countries.

2. The Baltic economies have performed well over the last two decades. Income convergence with the most advanced economies that follow similar economic models (e.g., the Nordic economies and the “Anglo-Saxons”) has been more rapid than in transition economy or emerging market peers.1 Nevertheless, recent economic performance has not always been smooth.

3. The global financial crisis exposed vulnerabilities that had built up in the Baltics, but the post-crisis recovery revealed inherent strengths as well. The Baltics experienced a phenomenal credit boom in the period leading up to the global financial crisis: by 2007, annual credit growth reached an average of 36 percent (and was reflected in surging household and corporate debt), current account deficits soared to 18 percent of GDP, inflation rose to 10 percent, and bank loan to deposit ratios shot up to over 200 percent. However, the Baltics’ rapid post-crisis adjustment was supported by decisive policy action and steadfast adherence to their economic model. After very deep recessions in 2009, they began to bounce back and already in 2011 had the fastest GDP growth rates in the European Union (EU). The recovery was export-led, reflecting the improvements in competitiveness achieved after the crisis. Imbalances that had built up during the boom were largely unwound: current account deficits are now near balance, bank loan-to-deposit ratios have fallen considerably, inflation is low, and household and corporate debt have declined.

4. The Baltics face common challenges, including those posed by (current or prospective) membership in June in the euro area. Given similarities in their size and economic model, the Baltics also have other shared concerns. The challenges that are the focus of this report relate to their ability to sustain robust economic growth: (i) laying the basis for a sustainable recovery of credit; (ii) ensuring a vibrant export sector; and (iii) tackling high unemployment. Progress in each of these areas will be essential to cope with idiosyncratic shocks within a currency union, maintain competitiveness, and underpin continued income convergence.

5. Addressing these common challenges calls for policy action at both the national and regional level. National policies are necessary to address all of the challenges, but collaboration is important or essential in some areas (e.g., infrastructure, in support of a vibrant export sector).

The Baltic Model and Convergence

6. The Baltics form a distinct group within a tightly integrated Nordic-Baltic region. They are small open economies that have adopted a similar economic model of limited government, generally prudent fiscal policy, a relatively favorable investment climate, and flexible labor markets. However, they differ from the Nordics in part because of the legacy of the Soviet economic structures and the challenges they faced upon independence and transition. As a result, the Baltics have large differences with the Nordics in income, institutions, infrastructure, and other physical capital, notwithstanding the strong links between them.

7. The Baltics also stand apart from their transition peers. Both groups came under central planning in the Soviet era. However, countries such as Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary, and the Slovak Republic had a greater degree of autonomy and more institutional continuity before 1991. The Baltics had a more abrupt transition but also more of a “clean slate.”

A. The Baltic Economic Model: Openness and Flexibility

8. The Baltics are small, highly open, economies with strong economic links to the Nordic countries and each other. Their financial sectors are among the most open globally, and their economies are characterized by high levels of FDI and trade. Baltic banking systems are dominated by Nordic-headquartered banks and reliance on parent bank funding is high (but declining fast), suggesting strong financial linkages with the Nordic countries. However, the non-bank financial sector is relatively undeveloped. With respect to trade links, the Nordics and other European countries (including those in emerging Europe) are the Baltics’ main trading partners, although there has been some recent re-orientation of exports toward other destinations. The Baltics also trade increasingly with each other, in part as a result of increased EU integration.


Exports and Imports of Goods and Services, 2005-2012

(Percent of GDP)

Citation: IMF Staff Country Reports 2014, 116; 10.5089/9781484377741.002.A001

Sources: IMF BPTS; and IMF staff calculations.

9. These three economies share a broadly common macroeconomic model (Figure 1).

  • Small government. Government expenditure-to-GDP ratios are low, consistent with light taxation of income, capital, and wealth. But, social security contributions (labor taxes) are relatively high, especially when compared with the incidence of capital and wealth taxation.

  • Prudent public finances. Fiscal deficits in the Baltics have generally been low (or non-existent), but a major effort was needed to contain them after the crisis. Public debt now stands at around 30 percent of GDP for the region and is well below the average for advanced and emerging economy comparators.

  • Limited monetary policy tools. Currency board arrangements helped anchor inflation since the early days of transition, supported by flexible labor and product markets. Estonia and Latvia have adopted the euro, and Lithuania is applying to do so in 2015.

  • Relatively favorable investment climate. The Baltics score well on most business climate indicators, reflecting substantial reforms and general ease of doing business (with the exception of some Transparency International ratings on corruption perceptions). Labor markets tend to be flexible, but more in line with the laissez-faire Anglo-Saxon model rather than the Nordic model (“flexicurity”).2

  • Moderately high income inequality. The Baltics’ tax and expenditure policy mix entails a moderate degree of redistribution, and this may contribute to higher levels of income inequality (as measured by Gini coefficients) than in the Nordics. However, income inequality—which has remained roughly constant in the Baltics over the past decade—is similar to that in the Anglo-Saxons and lower than that in emerging OECD economies, such as Chile and Mexico.

Figure 1.

Common Features of the Baltic Countries

Citation: IMF Staff Country Reports 2014, 116; 10.5089/9781484377741.002.A001

Sources: DOTS; WEO; Eurostat; and IMF staff calculations.

B. Income Convergence: Substantial Progress

10. Income levels are converging toward those of advanced economies. Whether because of their economic model, the links to the Nordics, membership in the EU, or other factors, the Baltics have made substantial progress in reducing the income gap with advanced economies over the last two decades. In this, they are a counter-example to the “stuck in transition” phenomenon explored in the recent European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) Transition Report.3


GDP per Capita

(Percent of Nordic US$ GDP per capita)

Citation: IMF Staff Country Reports 2014, 116; 10.5089/9781484377741.002.A001

Sources: IMF WEO; and IMF staff calculations.

Starting from income levels of around ten percent of the Nordic and Anglo-Saxon countries in 1995, the Baltics have tripled their income levels as a share of Nordic and Anglo-Saxon per capita GDP. Moreover, they have even surpassed the income levels of the CE4 and emerging OECD economies, notwithstanding the generally good performance of these peer groups.

Common Challenges

11. Against this background of resilience and progress, the Baltics face a number of common challenges. In an overarching way, these challenges relate to the Baltics’ ability to sustain their impressive economic recovery going forward, particularly as members of the euro area. The topics chosen for this cluster analysis all fall in this category.

  • Resuscitating credit growth. Significant progress has been made since the crisis in improving the resilience of the Baltics’ financial systems, but they are not yet providing credit to support the ongoing recovery. Credit is still declining in Latvia and Lithuania in spite of the recovery, while it is weak in Estonia—in other words, the Baltics are experiencing a creditless recovery. Reviving credit will be essential to sustain growth and, in the longer term, foster convergence.

  • Securing vibrant export growth. The Baltic’s post-crisis recovery has been characterized by high export growth. Export-to-GDP ratios have grown rapidly in Latvia and Lithuania and have remained very high in Estonia. However, despite this favorable outcome, some aspects of the Baltics’ export performance—including a high concentration in labor-intensive goods—raises questions as to how well positioned they are to extend their good export performance.

  • Addressing high unemployment. Unemployment has remained high in the Baltics even though the labor force has been declining. Staff estimates suggest that much of this unemployment is structural in nature, despite relatively flexible labor markets. At the same time, labor taxation is high and there are substantial skill and education mismatches.

A. Resuscitating Credit Growth: Turning Around the Creditless Recovery

12. The Baltic countries have all experienced a creditless recovery (Figure 2). The credit-fueled domestic demand boom prior to the crisis ended in severe recessions, a collapse in domestic demand, and a sharp reduction in credit in all three countries. Yet despite the strong economic turnaround and substantial economic rebalancing, four years after the crisis, credit continues to decline, raising concerns that it might curtail the recovery.

Figure 2.
Figure 2.

Creditless Recovery in the Baltics

Citation: IMF Staff Country Reports 2014, 116; 10.5089/9781484377741.002.A001

Sources: WEO; Haver; national authorities; and IMF staff calculations.

Baltic Countries: Real GDP and Credit Growth

(Year-on-year percent change)

Citation: IMF Staff Country Reports 2014, 116; 10.5089/9781484377741.002.A001

Sources: Haver; and IFS.

13. The creditless recoveries in the Baltics largely conform to past cross-country episodes. The rapid credit expansion and subsequent sharp correction are features that are found to significantly increase the likelihood of a creditless recovery. But, the rebound in credit in the Baltics—especially in Latvia and Lithuania—appears to be lagging behind what would have been expected at this stage of the recovery, based on past observations. In Latvia and Lithuania, real credit continues to contract, while in Estonia, it has ceased to contract but remains very weak. Private debt-to-GDP ratios in all three Baltic countries have declined considerably but remain elevated compared to pre-boom levels. It may be that the Baltics should expect a somewhat longer-than-average period of negative credit growth, owing to their steeper-than-average boom-bust cycle. That said, the empirical record is clear that a creditless recovery cannot be indefinitely prolonged. If past experience is any guide, the Baltics are at or near the stage when credit growth should resume.

14. Constraints on both credit demand and credit supply appear to be responsible for the continued contraction in credit. Staff analysis suggests that constraints on credit demand and credit supply have both played a role in the evolution of credit during the boom, the recession, and the recovery (defined as the three years after the recession). These findings are based on both regression analysis as well as anecdotal evidence collected during Article IV missions.

  • Boom. During the boom, domestic demand appears to have been a key driver of credit growth. Debt-to-GDP ratios soared as private balance sheets rapidly became more leveraged: non-financial private sector credit peaked at 110 percent of GDP in Estonia and Latvia (from 30 and 40 percent of GDP six years earlier, respectively) and 70 percent of GDP in Lithuania (from 20 percent of GDP six years earlier).

  • Recession. During the recession, credit supply factors appear to have mattered more. Deteriorating bank asset quality (a credit supply factor) was strongly associated with the contraction of credit during this period. And because asset quality deteriorated by a large amount, the economic impact through this channel was very substantial.

  • Recovery. During the recovery, domestic demand again played a role in determining credit, although to a lesser extent than during the boom. Supply factors also remained at play. Lending standards—which were tightened considerably during the recession—have not been substantially relaxed during the recovery, at least in Latvia and Lithuania.4 Non-performing loans (NPLs) have declined substantially but remain high. Discussions with Nordic bank subsidiaries (responsible for the bulk of domestic lending in the Baltics) suggest that, with greater emphasis on credit risk after the crisis, monitoring costs for small and medium enterprises (SMEs) are often regarded as too high, effectively rationing many firms from bank credit. In Estonia, however, supply factors are less important: bank balance sheets are healthier—as reflected in much lower NPL ratios—and real credit has stopped contracting.


Cumulative Changes in Lending Standards

(Percentage points)

Citation: IMF Staff Country Reports 2014, 116; 10.5089/9781484377741.002.A001

Sources: Survey of banks; Bank of Latvia; and Bank of Lithuania.

15. The non-bank financial sector is not sufficiently developed to provide a significant alternative source of credit at this point. Like most emerging economies (and many European economies), the financial system in the Baltics is bank dominated. Capital markets are small and mainly comprise government bond markets (with the exception of Estonia, where public debt is modest). Stock market capitalization is low and venture capital financing is embryonic.


Baltic Stock Markets Capitalization

(Million of Euros)

Citation: IMF Staff Country Reports 2014, 116; 10.5089/9781484377741.002.A001

Source: OMX Nasdaq Baltic.

16. That said, the Baltics have made progress in financial integration among themselves and with the Nordics. Such integration into broader investor pools is important, given the small size of domestic markets. Securities exchanges share a common trading platform with the Nordic exchanges, underpinned by coordinated regulations and supervision. Nonetheless, in the short run, reviving credit will depend on the banking system.


17. The authorities agreed that low credit growth was an issue facing their countries, but views differed on the underlying causes. The Estonian delegation saw weak credit growth a result of poor demand for credit, noting weak investment activity, high retained earnings, and weak external demand. They also emphasized that credit in Estonia is growing, in contrast to the other two Baltic countries. The Latvian and Lithuanian authorities felt that credit supply constraints were also an important factor alongside demand factors, and concurred with staff that anecdotal evidence supported this view.

B. Securing a Vibrant Export Sector: Building on Recent Success

18. Baltic export performance in recent years has been strong (Figure 3). Since 2000, Latvian and Lithuanian exporters have increased their world market shares by 100 and 150 percent, respectively, while Estonia, which had already secured a very strong position prior to 2000, managed a 70 percent increase. Market share gains were broad-based for Latvian and Lithuanian exporters, but more confined to the Nordics and the United States in the case of Estonia. Market shares are lower when focusing on the domestic value-added component of exports, but the trend in market share gains is similar to the one for gross exports. Increases in the export-to-GDP ratio, especially in the post-crisis period, were also impressive.

Figure 3.
Figure 3.

Trade Linkage and Export Performance in the Baltic Countries

Citation: IMF Staff Country Reports 2014, 116; 10.5089/9781484377741.002.A001

1/ Foreign value added of exports plus domestic value added of exports that are used as inputs for exports in country of primary destination. Both are expressed as shares of exports.Sources: WEO; WIOT; Consolidated Direct Investment Survey, IMF; FDI Markets; Eurostat; and IMF staff calculations.

19. This strong performance rests on price competitiveness, trade reorientation, and strong services exports.

  • Improved price competitiveness. A combination of wage restraint and productivity advances in the post-crisis period reduced Baltic unit labor costs by 10 to 20 percent relative to those of western European competitors.5

  • Diverse trading partners. The EU as a whole has been the most important export destination from the mid-1990s. But there has been a steady rise in the importance of trade among the Baltic economies and with Central Eastern and Southeastern Europe. The Nordic countries are consistently important export destinations, above all for Estonia with a share of around 40 percent. The share of the CIS collapsed in the 1990s but made a partial comeback after the Russian crisis in 1999 and remains sizable, especially in Latvia and Lithuania.

  • Importance of services exports. In all three countries, external services accounts have always been in surplus, reflecting large exports of transportation services related to Russian imports that are landed in Baltic ports and transported through Baltic territory to their final destination. However, sophisticated and particularly dynamic services exports, such as information and communication technology (ICT) or “other business services,” play an important role only in Estonia.

  • Globally dynamic exports. A fair proportion of Baltic exports is concentrated in globally dynamic product categories, and Baltic exporters managed to gain market share in most of them. During 2008-12, 35—45 percent of Baltic exports comprised products in markets that expanded relatively strongly at the global level. At the same time, however, there is scope to increase the exposure of Baltic exports to globally dynamic product categories.

Decomposition of ULC Change 2008-12


article image

Negative sign indicates negative impact on ULCs and an improvement in labor productivity.

Sources: Eurostat; and IMF staff calculations.

20. The Baltics have managed to attract substantial FDI. Estonia’s FDI stock (at about 80 percent of GDP) is roughly twice that of Latvia and Lithuania, but all are still above the global median. Swedish companies are the most important foreign direct investors in all three countries, followed by Finland in the case of Estonia, the Netherlands in the case of Latvia, and Poland in the case of Lithuania. The availability of skilled labor at affordable prices and a favorable business environment seem to be the key attractions of the Baltic economies for FDI investors.

21. The Baltic economies also achieved a fairly good linkup to global value chains (GVCs). According to the GVC participation index, Latvia and Lithuania are linked up as much as the global average, while Estonia has substantially higher participation. Nonetheless, all three Baltic economies are considerably less involved in GVCs than the CE4, whose pivotal role in the German supply chain is well known and documented.6

22. However, the Baltics may face challenges related to their export performance. Despite their past good performance, future success of the Baltic export sectors should not be taken for granted. Export volume growth has come down sharply from the double-digit rates achieved in the early years of the post-crisis recovery phase. The Baltic economies have also been less successful in attracting FDI in recent years—their share of global FDI declined from about 0.4 percent during 2005-07 to about 0.2 percent during 2010-12. In any event, continued success of the Baltic export sectors will hinge on their ability to adapt to a fast-changing global economy.

  • Quality of exports. The bulk of the quality catch-up for the product mix that the Baltics export seems to have already taken place to the extent that quality can be measured by relative prices. After strong improvements from the mid-1990s to the mid-2000s, the estimated quality of Baltic export goods has broadly evolved in line with global trends, but has not improved faster than in global market generally. With the bulk of the estimated quality catch-up of the existing product mix already accomplished, the ability to fetch higher prices in global markets going forward will depend on the capacity of Baltic exporters to shift to new products and enhance non-price competitiveness.

  • Labor-intensive exports. The sophistication of Baltic exports has increased over time, but their revealed comparative advantage remains in labor intensive goods and services, although Estonia has carved out a small advantage in knowledge intensive services in recent years. Major Baltic exports with high revealed comparative advantage are wood, food products, animals and vegetables, as well as fuels in the case of Lithuania, reflecting to a large extent the countries’ resource endowments. Classifying exports according to their technology intensity confirms that high and medium-to-high technology goods account for a relatively low share of Baltic exports compared to the CE4 countries and the euro area as a whole (this latter asymmetry could put pressure on the Baltics’ labor intensive production model over time).

  • Lower trading partner growth. Fast growing imports of trading partners facilitated the expansion of Baltic exports in the past. However, according to the latest World Economic Outlook (WEO) projections, trading partner import growth for all three Baltic economies is projected to decline substantially and fall below global trade growth—a sharp contrast with the past decade when it enjoyed a premium.

  • Adverse demographic trends. Demographic aging represents a key challenge for Baltic export sectors, including their ability to attract FDI. Birth rates in all Baltic countries collapsed some 25 years ago in early transition—and have yet to recover decisively. The associated drain on labor supply is a particular challenge when the export sectors are specialized in the provision of labor-intensive goods and services. It will also make it more difficult to attract foreign investors who have traditionally flocked to the Baltic region because of the availability of affordable and skilled labor.

Baltic Countries: Revealed Comparative Advantage by Industry Groups

(In terms of DVA exports, 2007-09 average)

article image
Sources: WIOT; and IMF staff calculations.

Population Age 25-34, 2000-40

(2000 = 100)

Citation: IMF Staff Country Reports 2014, 116; 10.5089/9781484377741.002.A001

Sources: UN Population Division; and IMF staff calculations.


23. The authorities agreed that future export success cannot be taken for granted, but felt confident that they would be able to meet the challenge. Demographic aging and potentially lower trading partner growth were serious issues, but they saw room to further benefit from the ongoing upgrading of the quality of the export product mix and noted that the flexible nature of the export structure would help to smooth the adjustment to external strains. They also saw that, with income convergence advancing, the shift away from labor-intensive products would continue to evolve naturally. While acknowledging that their economies were not as involved in GVCs as the CE4, they noted that their export success was based on small, nimble firms, operating in niche markets, which could be an alternative successful strategy. They stressed that exports had become significantly more sophisticated and diversified over time.

C. Addressing High Unemployment: Achieving the Full Potential of the Labor Force

24. Unemployment remains persistently high in the Baltics and represents a key challenge. While it has fallen significantly from its post-crisis peak, it remains in the 8-12 percent range. It is particularly high for youth, and about half the unemployed have been out of a job for more than one year. Thus, reducing high unemployment is a key challenge for the Baltics.



(Percent, LFS-based)

Citation: IMF Staff Country Reports 2014, 116; 10.5089/9781484377741.002.A001

Source: Eurostat.

25. Staff analysis suggests that high unemployment is likely structural in nature. Using regression techniques, staff estimates that the NAIRU (the level of structural unemployment) in the Baltics is high, stable, and close to the current level of unemployment. For Lithuania and Latvia, the time-varying point estimate ranges between 10 and 13¾ percent, while for Estonia it ranges between 11½ and 16½ percent. Current levels of unemployment are close to the estimated NAIRU (in 2013) for Latvia and Lithuania and somewhat below the estimated NAIRU (in 2013) for Estonia. This implies that with output growing at potential, unemployment would not drop significantly without rising wage and inflationary pressures.


Structural Unemployment in the Baltics

(Estimates from State-Space Model, in percent)

Citation: IMF Staff Country Reports 2014, 116; 10.5089/9781484377741.002.A001

Sources: National authorities; and IMF staff calculations.

26. This finding is supported by a number of robustness checks. First, staff estimates of the NAIRU are not out of line with the historical average of unemployment. Second, real wage behavior around staff’s NAIRU estimates suggests that real wage growth accelerates when unemployment falls below the NAIRU, as theory predicts. Third, staff analysis suggests that the Beveridge curve and the Okun’s Law coefficient (beta) have remain ed stable over time, suggesting that structural unemployment has also been stable. Finally, staff’s estimates of the NAIRU are broadly in line with estimates of other international organizations.


Real Earnings Growth and Deviation from NAIRU

Citation: IMF Staff Country Reports 2014, 116; 10.5089/9781484377741.002.A001

Sources: National authorities; and IMF staff calculations.

27. Labor markets appear flexible. Minimum wages do not appear excessive: expressed as a share of the mean wage, they are below or close to the average found in the OECD. Unemployment benefits are much less generous than in OECD countries on average, providing strong monetary incentives for the unemployed to seek work. Employment protection is also in line with the OECD average. This suggests that labor market impediments are not likely to be a cause of structural unemployment.

28. High labor tax wedges could contribute to high structural unemployment. Economic theory suggests that high tax rates on labor income depress labor supply and employment, and expand the shadow economy. Specifically, the tax wedge—a measure of the difference between labor costs to the employer and the net take-home pay of the employee—should be one of the main determinants of the level of structural unemployment. Reductions in the tax wedge are found to be associated with declines in structural unemployment in both cross-country and event studies.

29. Unemployment and inactivity traps may also contribute to high structural unemployment. High taxes on labor, when combined with the loss of certain social and/or unemployment benefits upon finding employment, also decrease the attractiveness of participating in the labor market, especially for lower-wage earners. This effect—known as the unemployment and inactivity trap—is generally higher in the Baltics than in the CE4, the Anglo-Saxons, and other emerging OECD countries.


Inactivity Trap (wage earners at 50% of average wage) 1/


Citation: IMF Staff Country Reports 2014, 116; 10.5089/9781484377741.002.A001

1/ Participation tax rate for transition into full-time work for persons without entitlement to unemployment insurance but entitled to social assistance. It measures how much the gain from working is reduced (or taxed away) after taking into account the loss of net income from higher labor taxes and reduced benefits.2/ excl. Mexico.Source: OECD.

Unemployment Trap (wage earners at 50% of average wage) 1/


Citation: IMF Staff Country Reports 2014, 116; 10.5089/9781484377741.002.A001

1/ Participation tax rates for a transition into full-time work for persons receiving unemployment benefits at the initial level. It measures how much the gain from working is reduced(or taxed away) after taking into account the loss of net income from higher labor taxes and reduced benefits.2/ excl. Mexico.Source: OECD.

30. Skill mismatches appear important amid mixed education outcomes. Despite relatively strong participation in education, mismatches exist both in terms of the degree of educational attainment needed within a profession/sector and in terms of training in the right profession or sector. All three Baltics score worse than average with respect to skill mismatch. Skill mismatches and educational attainment also interplay with regional divides. For example in the case of Lithuania, rural unemployment—which is much higher than urban unemployment—is concentrated in workers with below-tertiary education.

31. Training and active labor market policies to address mismatches are not widespread. Spending on active labor market policies (ALMPs) amounted to 0.5 percent of GDP in the Baltics, compared with over 2 percent in the Nordics. Of this, only 0.1 percent of GDP was spent on training in the Baltics—less than half that in the Nordics. Moreover, “passive” forms of labor market support, including out-of-work income benefits and (in the case of Latvia and Lithuania) early retirement, account for a significant share of total ALMP spending in the Baltics. Low spending does not appear to be the result of high efficiency of ALMPs, but rather reflects very low participation in these programs. Longer-term averages of unemployment (especially for youth) seem to show a negative correlation with spending on ALMPs, indicating their potential in addressing skill mismatches.


32. The authorities agreed that structural unemployment was high, although views differed on the precise level. The Latvian and Lithuanian authorities agreed that current levels of unemployment mostly reflected structural factors, while the Estonian authorities felt that the NAIRU was probably somewhat below staff’s estimates. Still, they agreed with staff that structural unemployment is likely high. The authorities from all three countries felt that skill and education mismatches were important contributing factors, and that the tax wedge could be an issue, especially for lower-income earners. The Estonian and Latvian authorities felt that skill mismatch was a key cause of high structural unemployment in their country, and emphasized the role played by the opening of the EU common labor market and the impact this has had on labor markets and migration.

Policy Agenda

33. The Baltics have made significant progress since independence in transforming their economies. This progress is a testament of their willingness to undertake deep reforms. The post-crisis policy response has led to a number of other reforms, including to fiscal and macroprudential frameworks. Structural reforms have also continued. Against this background of progress and relative success, new policies will need to be adopted to cope with the challenges posed by a rapidly changing global economy, euro area membership, and demographic trends.

34. Staff and the authorities agreed that addressing the common challenges identified in the cluster work will require policy action. National policies should address these issues, but joint action and policy coordination could help all three countries move forward.

A. National Policies to Address Challenges

35. Policy action at the national level will be essential to address the challenges facing the Baltics. Although the three countries face common challenges, individual country circumstances suggest that policy action is needed first and foremost at the national level. This will allow the Baltics to design policies that best fit their unique circumstances, taking into account legal, tax, and other specificities. At the same time, necessary policies fall into broad categories for all three countries and are elaborated below.

36. To help resuscitate credit growth, national policies should aim to address factors affecting both credit demand and credit supply. Measures to support balance sheet repair could help induce higher credit demand (by further reducing the private debt overhang) and boost credit supply (through improved perceptions of credit risk). Debt ratios remain well above their pre-boom levels, despite substantial deleveraging since the crisis. All three countries have made progress in strengthening their insolvency frameworks, which is important to help them manage idiosyncratic shocks within a currency union. Restructuring and resolution of household and corporate debt could nonetheless be facilitated through further improvements in the administration of the insolvency regimes. This could include fast-tracking the legal system to clear cases, improving implementation of existing procedures where necessary, and exploring arbitration procedures to reduce the caseload on regular courts. Latvia, for example, has recently created more courts to reduce the backlog of legal cases, and allowed cases to be shifted from overburdened courts to other jurisdictions. Insolvency procedures could be further speeded up by encouraging alternatives to the formal legal system, such as mediation or arbitration. At the same time, it is important to recognize that, beyond addressing informational barriers to SME lending, the Baltics may have few direct levers to improve credit supply, given the large presence of foreign banks.

37. Policy action can help the Baltics secure a vibrant export sector, including by strengthening the attractiveness of FDI and linking up with global supply chains.

  • Maintaining competitiveness. The improvement in competitiveness that occurred post-crisis will need to be maintained going forward. This implies that productivity gains will need to continue and that wage growth will need to be aligned with productivity growth, especially given the Baltics’ lack of exchange rate flexibility. Infrastructure investments (see below) will help improve the productivity of existing firms, but a broader and sustained increase will require expansion by productive firms, and entry into new markets involving higher skills. The investment to support this will in turn need to be supported by credit expansion. Other potential barriers to entry—including in product and services markets—may also be present: this is an area that could be explored going forward.

  • Integrating into global supply chains and attracting FDI. The Baltic countries ranked among the best on the World Bank 2014 Doing Business indicators, outperforming most of their EU peers. However, the IMD World Competitiveness Report paints a less favorable picture as the region’s competitiveness is dragged down by limitations in the R&D environment (except for Estonia) and inefficiencies in the legal environment and public services. Similarly, while the Baltics score above average overall in the WEF’s Global Enabling Trade Report (2012), there are areas for improvement: shortcomings in services and infrastructure seem to stand in the way of transshipment connectivity, hiring of foreign labor appears to be difficult, and trade financing is reportedly not easy to come by. Many of the policy recommendations to upgrade skills will also help the Baltic countries remain an attractive destination for FDI—offering an additional source of finance for investment and providing a basis for further integration into global value chains (with the knowledge transfer that this could entail).

38. The Baltic economies will need to adopt more effective employment policies to reduce structural unemployment. Such policies will help them address adverse demographic labor force trends, and raise productivity and competitiveness.

  • Reconsidering labor taxation. Cross-country experience suggests that reductions in the tax wedge can be associated with declines in structural unemployment. At the same time, revenue to GDP ratios in the Baltic countries are already low, suggesting that reductions in labor taxation need to be carefully considered and offset with other sources of revenue. Options include increasing taxation on capital and wealth, base broadening, and improvements in revenue administration. In all cases, changes to the tax system would need to be complemented with improvements in revenue administration to maintain revenue, and adjustments in tax rates could be considered in a coordinated manner across countries.

  • Improving education outcomes. Policies could include better coordination between universities and employers and improvements in the quality of secondary education relative to peer countries, particularly in Latvia and Lithuania. Given their small size, the Baltic countries may, over time, need to exceed educational outcomes in other countries to continue to attract FDI and other investment.

  • Increasing spending and participation in ALMPs. There is ample scope to utilize ALMPs to help reduce skill mismatches, especially among the unemployed. Given the Baltics’ tight links with the Nordics, and the Nordics’ effective use of ALMPs, a policy dialogue which seeks to draw lessons from the Nordic experience could help inform policy choices. Available EU funds could support stronger ALMPs.

  • Reviewing disincentives for work in the benefits systems. While a more thorough analysis is needed, there may be problems with “benefits traps” in which the structure of benefits and taxes discourages moving from unemployment to work that merit further investigation. With respect to rural unemployment, tax incentives for those engaged in agricultural activity and employment in the informal economy in rural areas may be behind the high number of rural unemployed, at least in Lithuania. Policies to address these issues combined with ALMPs could help reduce unemployment.


39. The authorities agreed with the recommendations on national policies but raised some countervailing concerns and qualifications to the recommendations. On credit growth, they agreed that there were few direct levers to influence credit supply by mainly Nordic banks. The Latvian and Lithuanian authorities sought more detailed advice on policy measures to ease credit supply bottlenecks, especially against the background that different national insolvency regimes have not resulted in notable differences in credit dynamics, suggesting that additional measures might be needed to achieve results. On trade and FDI, the authorities noted that they are taking action to improve infrastructure links and the R&D environment. On unemployment, the authorities acknowledged that labor taxes are high. Shifting the tax burden from labor toward consumption is the strategy of the Estonian authorities, and the Latvian and Lithuanian authorities are also working in this direction. They also stressed that not only the quantity, but also the quality of ALMPs needs to be taken into consideration. The Latvian authorities emphasized that increasing vocational training has a role to play in addressing high structural unemployment.

B. Joint Action Can Further Boost Resilience

40. Although much of the work to address the Baltic countries’ common challenges must take place at the national level, joint action can bring benefits in some areas. Given the small size of the Baltic economies and their similarities across several dimensions, there is scope for further integration, harmonization, and collaboration to achieve economies of scale.

  • Developing the non-bank financial sector. The regional integration that has taken place over the last few years should facilitate cross-border investment and enhance firms’ ability to raise capital and lower financing costs. Additional financial sector integration—including through further harmonizing regulatory requirements (accounting, tax, etc.)—would support the existing initiatives. However, these efforts are likely to benefit mainly large and well-established firms. Other measures—including alternative exchanges with less stringent reporting requirements, regional ratings agencies, and securitization—could be explored to improve funding for SMEs. Over the medium term, regional working groups could be established to explore ways to strengthen the alternative exchange market First North, develop regional rating agencies, establish a credit guarantee system, and introduce securitization tools, together with fostering institutional investors in the region to efficiently use the region’s savings. At the same time, it will be essential to ensure that supervision of the non-bank financial sector is bolstered to safeguard financial stability.

  • Upgrading the energy sector. Energy prices are an important cost factor for exports. The Baltic energy sectors remain highly dependent on Russia as their dominant supplier, which also limits the scope for unleashing the full forces of competition in the energy sector. Currently, the Baltic countries face among the highest energy costs in Europe (when adjusted for purchasing power), which weighs on investment and competitiveness. Lithuania has done the most to secure alternative energy options in both electricity and gas, and Estonia has built large-capacity electricity connections to Finland, but all countries could do more, and there are economies of scale from joint projects. Policy makers in the Baltics have rightly made a priority to build the infrastructure that secures access to a variety of energy sources and lift energy efficiency over time.

  • Investing in infrastructure. Given the strong trade links between the Baltic countries, steps toward developing a common, modern, infrastructure would reduce transport costs, improve transshipment connectivity, and advance integration, particularly with Central and Western European countries. Joint action can also help overcome cost issues that often face small economies.

  • Harmonizing rules and practices. This could include harmonizing disclosure and accounting rules for firms, procedures and requirements for acquiring licenses to operate businesses, rules for recognizing foreign degrees and qualifications, and procedures for hiring non-EU workers. These steps could add to the Baltics’ attractiveness as an FDI destination. It could also contribute to investors starting to perceive the region as a larger, economically-integrated entity where they can count on similar standards to apply.

  • Coordinating labor market policies. To the extent that the Baltic authorities agree on the desirability of re-orienting taxes away from labor and toward other revenue sources, there could be good economic and political reasons to do so in a coordinated way to avoid the reality or perception of creating an uneven playing field among the three countries.

  • Enhancing the policy dialogue. Policy fora on key issues, such as tackling high unemployment, could provide a venue for Baltic policymakers to draw on and learn from each other’s experiences. These fora could be expanded to include their Nordic partners in areas where there is a long tradition of relative success, such as in education and training policies.


41. The Baltic authorities broadly agreed on the merits of coordinated policy-making among themselves and within the Nordic-Baltic region. They noted that such coordination and consultation is extensive and works well. On harmonizing rules and practices, they noted that the EU directives had already gone a very long way toward this goal. For labor market taxation, they acknowledged the merits of coordinated action should decisions be taken to lower labor taxation, but they were not fully convinced that the benefits of such tax reductions offset their drawbacks. With regard to energy and other infrastructure (notably improving links between each other and with the EU), the authorities noted that a lot has already been done or is at an advanced stage, but they agreed that more work would be needed to agree on common approaches in some areas such has rail links.

Staff Appraisal

42. The Baltic economies have performed well in the last two decades, both relative to other transition economies and emerging markets globally. While they have not articulated a “Baltic Model” along the lines of the Nordic Model of their neighbors, their economic policies share common features, and their economic performance has common strengths.

43. The Baltics’ performance has been associated with mostly orthodox economic policies. These have included prudent fiscal policies, low inflation in the context of exchange rate-based stabilizations, and free-market approaches to economic regulation similar to those of the Nordic but also the Anglo-Saxon countries.

44. Nevertheless, the Baltic economies face some common challenges, and there are both national and regional policy responses that seem appropriate.

45. The Baltic recoveries have been characterized by robust growth amid contracting credit. Going forward, continued anemic credit could constrain investment and forestall further growth. In Latvia and Lithuania, efforts to reduce the private sector debt overhang by improving the insolvency regime could spur both the demand for and supply of bank credit. Estonia experienced a much lower increase in NPLs and a more rapid decrease to more normal levels, and real credit has ceased to contract. Over the medium-term, the Baltic countries could explore several promising initiatives to deepen non-bank sources of finance.

46. The Baltics have done well in upgrading product quality and expanding export markets shares in the last two decades. However, the gains from product upgrading in the transition from central planning have largely been realized, and all three countries face new headwinds in the form of adverse demographic trends and likely slower growth in trading partners. While the Baltic countries perform well on various indices of competitiveness and business environment, further efforts are needed to maintain export growth. Collective efforts are however necessary to improve infrastructure and infrastructure links to the rest of the European Union, particularly for energy and rail infrastructure.

47. Finally, labor markets in the Baltics have performed well, showing considerable resilience and flexibility during the crisis. Wage flexibility undoubtedly cushioned the impact of the very severe recessions on employment and helped speed the recovery. Nevertheless, the Baltics appear to be at or near full structural employment even though unemployment rates are just above or just below 10 percent. In this context, there would seem to be scope for structural policies to reduce structural employment. Two possible areas for improvement stand out: labor taxation and active labor market policies. Labor tax wedges are high in the Baltics, particularly for low-wage workers, and reductions should be considered in the context of fiscally-neutral tax reforms. Also, while there have been recent increases in spending on active labor market policies, there appears to be considerable scope to reduce skills mismatches and improve productivity through training and education.

Table 1.

Estonia: Selected Macroeconomic and Social Indicators, 2008-14

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Sources: Estonian authorities; World Bank; Eurostat; and IMF staff estimates and projections.

Beginning in 2011, data are for contributions to euro area M2 aggregate.

Domestic credit to nongovernment euro area resident sectors beginning in 2011.

The Estonian kroon was pegged at 15.6466 kroons to the euro. Estonia adopted the euro on January 1, 2011.

Table 2.

Latvia: Selected Economic Indicators, 2008-14

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Sources: Latvian authorities; Eurostat; and IMF staff estimates and projections.

Latvia formally adopted the euro and joined the Euro Area on January 1, 2014

Table 3.

Lithuania: Selected Economic Indicators, 2008-14

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Sources: Lithuanian authorities; World Bank; Eurostat; and IMF staff estimates and projections.

The latest population census has resulted in updated labor force survey (LFS) statistics for 2010-11 only. Further revisions for 2003-09 data are in progress.

Passive projection; does not include government’s stated commitment to further consolidation as measures have yet to be specified. According to national definitions unless indicated otherwise

Fiscal balance for 2012 according to the definition for purposes of the Excessive Deficit Procedure (EDP).

Includes guaranteed loans.


This report and the Selected Issues paper use a largely standard set of comparator countries. The Nordics are Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden; the “Anglo-Saxons” are the majority Anglophone OECD countries (Australia, Canada, Ireland, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the United States); the CE4 are the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and the Slovak Republic; and DEU/NLD is the average of Germany and the Netherlands. Comparisons with these and other groups are explored further in the first chapter of the Selected Issues paper.


The Nordic model of “flexicurity” combines generous social welfare policies (supported by high taxes) with very flexible labor and product markets.


European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, 2013 “Transition Report 2013: Stuck in Transition?” London.


Cumulative changes in lending standards (ACLS) are constructed based on financial institutions’ responses to the Survey of Credit Institute Lending in Latvia and the Bank Lending Survey in Lithuania. More negative value of ACLS means a tighter lending standard. For cumulation, it is assumed that the magnitudes of lending standard changes are similar across periods.


For greater detail on the competitiveness improvements in the Baltics, and measures taken to realize these, see individual Article IV reports from 2010, 2011, and 2012, as well as Bakker and Klingen eds., 2012, How Emerging Europe Came Through the 2008/09 Crisis: An Account by the Staff of the IMF’s European Department.


IMF, 2013, “German-Central European Supply Chain—Cluster Report.”

Baltic Cluster Report: Staff Report for the 2014 Cluster Consultation
Author: International Monetary Fund. European Dept.