For every crisis, a silver lining?

  • 1998-10-08
  • Paul Beckman
VILNIUS - Saulius Peciulis, an active participant in the National Stock Brokers Association with a Ph.D. in economics, labels himself an optimist. While his quick smile and occasional chuckle may not be enough to convince everyone to believe his claim, his viewpoint on how Lithuania will fare during the Russian financial crisis is sure to do the trick.

Make no mistake - the mess in Russia is an unwelcome problem, Peciulis says. But woes felt by Lithuania's giant eastern neighbor should not necessarily mean the Baltic country can forget about reaping a few benefits from it all.

"Every crisis has its positive and negative side," said Peciulis. "This crisis is no exception."

Peciulis said he could see three positive factors for Lithuania stemming from the crisis. First, he noted that the Russian economic crisis is occurring along with a raw materials crisis, which has caused world oil prices to sag.

"As most European countries, we are both users and importers of raw materials," said Peciulis. "Their cheaper prices will have a direct effect on our production by making it less costly. The prices of our consumer goods will become higher. Therefore, we stand to turn a nice profit."

The smiling Peciulis continued by explaining a second benefit that can occur from the crisis. The frightening situation in Russia has prompted the Lithuanian government to do some things that should have been done earlier. For one thing, it has encouraged them to get their own financial house in order.

"The crisis has challenged the government to operate more actively and effectively," said Peciulis. "By doing things such as implementing a more strict control on budget spending, the government is now doing something they should have done earlier."

Being forcibly linked to a Russia-dominated, Soviet-styled economy for almost 50 years would seem to have few advantages for Lithuania as it gravitates westward.

Peciulis, however, claims this former connection provides present-day Lithuania with some advantages over the highly-sophisticated business styles of Western Europe. After the crisis began, Russian companies found they had no acceptable currency to pay for products that Lithuania exported. Lithuanian dairy and meat companies were stuck in turn with a load of products they could not sell. The Lithuanian government, therefore began buying up some of the products originally destined for Russia to barter them for resources like oil.

"Lithuania, and probably the same can be said for Latvia and Estonia too, has a great deal of experience using the barter system with Russia, dating back to Soviet times" said Peciulis. "Western European countries do not. They think this style of business is of a lower level and generally do not sell anything unless it is for money. While Russia has no money, they do have products. Competition in this market will diminish."

In order for Peciulis' three points to be realized, he also mentioned that it will be important for the litas to remain stable and to remain pegged to the dollar until the year 2000. Without this tie, Peciulis stated the litas would also fall.

Another factor that would spell doom for these advantages would be a Russian civil war, which could interrupt raw material exports from Russia. Peciulis stated that if the situation remains the same as it is now, however, with products flowing across the borders, Lithuania will not feel such an effect.

Despite not feeling any drastic effects from the crisis, Lithuanian analysts are still considering worst-case scenarios. As the crisis drags on, many feel the negative effects will reach beyond exporters and begin to creep farther into Lithuania's financial structures.

"Now we feel it," Peciulis admitted. "But I think we feel it because the situation changed immediately. Our structures now are too slow to change. The system of barter trading and assurance of foreign trade [needs time] to work. Some of our businessmen also forgot about the barter system. I've spoken to some business leaders and they already have plans for big barter operations."

Peciulis stated that he is not the only voice of optimism in Lithuania on this issue, as his opinions are very similar to those of Prime Minister Gediminas Vagnorious.

Overall, however, analysts are more cautious when expressing possible positive effects. Eugenija Martinaityte, director of the Lithuanian Banking, Insurance and Finance Institute did not attempt to disclaim Peciulis' statements. She also agreed that it was important for the litas to continue being pegged to the dollar and said she was pleased that the government announced last week that it would continue this for the next couple of years.

"The crisis is quite serious, and people here are very attentive," said Martinaityte. "So far, the financial sector has been safe. It is stable today. But no one can say what it will be like months from now."