Baltic stocks paused from their strong 2018 start as banking center Latvia again came under money laundering and sanctions-busting scrutiny, with a US Treasury Department report that the number three lender ABLV had “institutionalized” illicit operations with North Korean missile exporters. The declaration, after reported weeks of behind the scenes attempts to halt the business, prompted a depositor run with 40% of system accounts still controlled by non-residents, and an emergency government appeal for a EUR 500 million rescue. The central bank chief in the post for decades had come under criticism for previous scandals, including connections to the Russia Magnitsky tax fraud and alleged offshore looting of Kazakhstan’s BTA bank by a family member once close to President Nazarbaev. The dirty money implications featured prominently in 2008’s EUR 7.5 billion crisis bailout when Parex Bank collapsed, and were cited by other EU members ambivalent about 2014’s euro entry. The Anglo-Russian management at Nordvik Bank separately accused the governor of soliciting bribes to ignore questionable behavior, but he fired back that it was trying to influence the outcome of an arbitration claim. The prime minister ordered a full investigation and vowed to reduce international depositor share as a future safeguard, while conspiracy theorists pointed to Moscow’s possible hand in sowing public mistrust with the high-profile charges. They argued that the US too was fooled by another disinformation campaign, and that North Korean suspect funding was typically sourced through Asia. Since conducting a cleanup in recent years, penalties for offending banks have been mild, and the suspicious orbit has spread further in Eastern Europe to include Moldova, which had to turn to the IMF as well after wealthy political heavyweight executives bankrupted major lenders. Latvian officials for their part have been forced to strike a delicate balance after emerging from the post-2008 “internal devaluation” era to maintain the then euro peg. Self-imposed austerity crippled wages and incomes as banking remained a relative growth sector still providing high-paying jobs.
The international condemnation underscored the new importance of anti-corruption considerations in EU deliberations, especially with the aid budget under review pending Brexit. The Baltic position is to continue the EUR 1 trillion in “cohesion” assistance which are large portions of middle and lower-income recipient countries’ GDP. Scandinavian donors Denmark and Sweden are in the so-called “Frugal Four” calling for reductions over the next pledging round. Recent entrants Bulgaria and Romania have been most under pressure to combat fraud and improve governance. The former is the poorest of the 28 bloc states with a EUR 10 billion allocation from the current bilateral package through 2020. Decent growth is expected at another 3.5% clip this year, and successive administrations have kept budget balance to support the currency board arrangement. As it takes the rotating EU Presidency, the lack of structural reform amid pervasive graft remains a central issue and has contributed to halving FDI since 2015. Companies cite bribery as a bigger burden than taxation, with a lowly 75th place in the Transparency International ranking. After a big bank failure concern is also mounting about another construction-associated credit bubble. Despite good capital, liquidity and profitability indicators for the industry number four First Investment Bank had a dubious asset quality review in 2016 and since has struggled to wash away residual balance sheet grime.