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Finns give us lesson in how to manage our fiscal woes

THE German government has revealed in a leaked document that it wants countries like Ireland and Greece to be more like Finland, Canada or the Baltic states, but what does this mean in practice?

What can we learn from these countries and is it realistic to suggest that we can also one day rise from the ashes?

Perhaps the most inspiring lesson from Finland and Canada is that it is possible for great countries to be brought low and then return stronger than ever.

We sometimes forget countries such as Canada stumbled badly in the past. The difference is that they learned from their mistakes and introduced far-reaching reforms which left them able to withstand the present crisis.

The Canadians speak English like we do, were once ruled from London and combine elements of US and European ideologies just as Ireland does.

Excluding Australia, which is really just a giant mine with a country tacked on, Canada is the only major country to dodge the worst of the crisis.

They have managed to do this while living next door to the country which triggered the entire financial collapse.

There have been no bailouts or rescue plans and no serious risk of systemic collapse. The reason lies with the country's banks which are conservative by international standards and risk averse -- just like Irish banks used to be.

The reasons for Canada's strength lie in the fiscal crisis, which resulted in the loss of Canada's AAA credit rating in the early 1990s.

Canada reacted firmly to the crisis and enacted meaningful welfare reforms such as new ways of funding the national pension system, along with tough budgetary measures.

These helped restore the government's finances along with its credit rating. Ireland and most European countries have not even begun to reform pension systems.

A series of major bank failures in the 1980s also forced Canada to reform the mortgage lending model.

Canadian financial institutions hold on to mortgages instead of passing them on to other investors like Irish and US lenders.

This practice meant that loan officers scrutinise the fundamentals of each loan and make wiser lending decisions.

All this meant Canada was in good shape when it headed into the crisis.

Government borrowing was only 28pc of gross domestic product compared to 100pc in the US and lower than the low rate recorded here.

Ireland's story is not unlike Canada; we finally created a decent economy in the mid to late 1990s after a decade of decline.

But unlike the Canadians, we failed to regulate the banks and mortgage lending, which allowed the property sector to expand to gargantuan proportions and ultimately distort and then destroy the real economy.

Curiously, the Finnish crash began just as the Irish economy began to improve in the early 1990s.

The reason was the fall of the Soviet Union -- an important part of the Finnish economy -- along with a bog standard property bust thanks to deregulation of financial services.

Finland quickly nationalised the two largest banks, wiping out shareholders completely, and introduced a cautious austerity programme combined with deep structural reforms.

The shock tactics meant that Finland shrank for three years in succession and unemployment hit 20pc in 1994.

Among the most important structural reforms were changes to the education system which have made the Finnish school system the best in the world. Welfare reform ensured that Finland remained a byword for a decent welfare system while eradicating the worst abuses.

But the reality is that life was very tough for many Finns and Swedes two decades ago.

Arne Karlsson, chief executive of Swedish private equity firm Ratos, said earlier this year that five people he knew committed suicide.

The recovery has also not been complete. Sweden's 12pc unemployment rate has slowly declined since the 1990s crash but never fell back to pre-crisis levels of about 2pc.

The German government also believes Ireland can learn from the Baltic states. This is a much more controversial contention.

While Baltic states such as Latvia have seen improvements in their economies lately, they have also endured gut wrenching austerity which saw governments jettison much of the welfare state so that ordinary citizens suffered almost unimaginable pain.

In Latvia, output fell 24pc -- the worst decline in the world -- and unemployment hit 20pc. This was just about acceptable in countries which were recently part of the Soviet empire but would be very difficult to stomach here.

Still, the Latvians acted quickly to compress the pain into a short period of time.

That allowed reforms before adjustment fatigue kicked in. The government quickly reformed the public sector -- notably education, health care and central administration. This meant that people saw benefits as well as negatives.

At conference in Riga yesterday, European Central Bank board member Jorg Asmussen praised Latvia and tried to draw some lessons.

In an aside that must be aimed at Enda Kenny, Mr Amussen noted that good communication is vital and praised the Latvian government for explaining that adjustments are for the country's own good and not just to please international lenders. This is perhaps the single biggest difference between the reforms instituted here and those in Canada, Finland or Latvia and goes a long way to explaining why they have been able to introduce structural reforms while we are still stuck in an austerity groove.

They have all used a recent crisis to reassess what sort of country they want. We do not have a similar national conversation, which makes reform and austerity almost impossible.

Irish Independent