Finland Table of Contents

During the seven decades after the establishment of the republic in 1917, Finland made remarkable economic progress. At the time of the collapse of the Russian Empire in 1917, the Grand Duchy of Finland had the most backward economy in Nordic Europe. Situated at the outer edges of the spheres of influence of the major European industrial powers--Britain, Germany, and Sweden-- newly independent Finland appeared destined to remain a poor, peripheral area. By the late 1980s, however, the country had become one of the world's advanced industrial societies, the citizens of which enjoyed a high standard of living and the industries of which dominated world markets for significant hightechnology products. Finland was an industrial society, but it was self-sufficient in staple foods and produced a wide range of goods and services for domestic and export markets. Although the economy still depended on exports, the Finns had developed markets in both Eastern and Western Europe, avoiding excessive dependence on any single market.

Economic Development

Material conditions were difficult at the birth of the Finnish republic. The country's industries had started to develop after about 1860, primarily in response to demand for lumber from the more advanced economies of Western Europe, but by 1910 farmers still made up over 70 percent of the work force. Finland suffered from food shortages when international trade broke down during World War I. The fledgling metal-working and shipbuilding industries expanded rapidly to supply Russia during the early years of the conflict, but the empire's military collapse and the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 eliminated trade with the East. The Finnish civil war and the subsequent massacres of the Reds spawned lasting labor unrest in factories and lumber camps, while the plight of landless agricultural laborers remained a pressing social problem.

During the immediate postwar years, Finland depended on aid from the United States to avoid starvation, but by 1922 industrial production had reached the prewar level. While trade with the Soviet Union languished for political reasons, West European, especially German, markets for Finnish forest products soon reopened. In exchange for lumber, pulp, and paper--which together accounted for about 85 percent of exports--Finland obtained needed imports, including half the nation's food supply and virtually all investment goods.

Despite political instability, the state built a foundation for growth and for greater economic independence. The first and most important step was an agricultural reform that redistributed holdings of agricultural and forest land and strengthened the class of smallholders who had a direct stake in improving farm and forest productivity. The government also nationalized large shares of the mining and the wood-processing industries. The subsequent public investment program in mines, foundries, wood and paper mills, and shipyards improved the country's ability to process its own raw materials. By the late 1920s, agricultural modernization was well under way, and the country had laid the foundations for future industrialization.

Although Finland suffered less than more-developed European countries during the Great Depression of the 1930s, the country nonetheless experienced widespread distress, which inspired further government intervention in the economy. Comprehensive protection of agricultural produce encouraged farmers to shift from exportable animal products to basic grains, a policy that kept farm incomes from falling as rapidly as they did elsewhere and enabled the country to feed itself better. Similar policies spurred production of consumer goods, maintaining industrial employment. As in other Nordic countries, the central bank experimented with Keynesian demand-management policies.

In the 1930s, Britain replaced Germany as Finland's main trading partner. The two countries made bilateral agreements that gave Finnish forest goods free access to British markets and established preferential tariffs for British industrial products sold to Finland. Consequently, Finland's largest industry, paper production, expanded throughout the depression years (although falling prices led to declining export revenues). The economic growth of Finland resumed in 1933 and continued until 1939.

Production and employment had largely recovered from the effects of the depression when the Winter War began in 1939. The struggle marked the beginning of five years of warfare and privation. By 1944, after two defeats at the hands of the Soviet Union and severe losses suffered while expelling German troops, Finland's economy was nearly exhausted. Under the terms of the 1944 armistice with the Soviet Union, the country ceded about 12 percent of its territory, including valuable farmland and industrial facilities, and agreed to onerous reparations payments. To many Finns, it appeared that most of the achievements of the interwar years had been undone.

Postwar reconstruction proved difficult. Resettling refugees from the areas ceded to the Soviet Union required another land reform act, subsidies for agricultural infrastructure, and support payments for displaced industrial workers. Reparations deliveries to the Soviet Union absorbed much of the country's export potential. The need to remain politically neutral precluded participation in the Marshall Plan (European Recovery Program), but Finland arranged substantial loans from the United States Export-Import Bank to finance expansion in the forest industries. High inflation rates inherited from the war years fed labor militancy, which further threatened output.

Despite these setbacks, the tenacious Finns soon fought their way back to economic growth. Reparations turned out to be a blessing in disguise--at least for the metalworking industries, which supplied about three-fourths of the goods delivered to the Soviet Union. In effect, forced investment in metalworking laid the foundations for Finland's later export successes. The fulfillment of the reparations payments in 1952 symbolized the end of the postwar difficulties, but the real turning point probably came in about 1950, with the Korean War boom in the West. During the 1950s, the metalworking industries continued to export to the Soviet Union, a market in which the Finns faced virtually no competition from other Western countries. Extensive borrowing in Western financial markets--especially in Sweden and in the United States--financed investments in infrastructure, agriculture, and industry. The consumer goods and construction sectors prospered in the booming domestic market, which remained protected by import controls until the end of the decade.

From 1950 to 1974, Finland's gross national product (GNP) grew at an average annual rate of 5.2 percent, considerably higher than the 4.4 percent average for members of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). However, partly as a result of continued dependence on volatile lumber exports, this growth was more unstable than that in other OECD countries. The business cycle caused fluctuations in output that averaged 8 percent of gross domestic product (GDP). Finland's structural transformation was brutally quick, driving workers out of agriculture more quickly than had been the case in any other Western country. Although manufacturing output increased sharply, many displaced farm workers could not be placed in industry. At the same time, Finnish inflation, which tended to exceed that of the country's major trading partners, necessitated regular currency devaluations. Yet, despite the costs of economic growth, most Finns were happy to have escaped the hardships of the depression and the war years.

Rapid structural transformation led to innovative economic policies. During the 1950s, the state had maintained strict controls on many aspects of economic life, protecting the country's fragile economic balance, but it had lifted many restrictions by the end of the decade. Moreover, in 1957 policy makers chose to liberalize foreign trade in industrial goods, strongly influencing future economic developments. The achievement of prosperity in the 1960s made possible the extension of the welfare state, a development that did much to reduce tensions between workers and management. Finland's increased foreign trade made industrial competitiveness more important, causing greater interest in restraining the inflationary wage- price spiral. Starting in 1968, the government succeeded in sponsoring regular negotiations on wages, benefits, and working conditions. The political consensus that developed around incomes settlements helped to slow inflation and to increase productivity. Liberalization, welfare programs, and incomes policy thus helped to maintain economic growth during the 1960s and facilitated stronger economic relations with both Eastern and Western Europe.

In the 1970s and 1980s, changes in domestic and international economic conditions posed new challenges. At home, Finland was reaching the limits of extensive economic growth. Expansion was incorporating ever- greater amounts of raw materials, capital, and labor in the production process. The economy needed to shift to intensive growth through better resource management, improved labor productivity, and newer technologies. In international markets, the oil crises of 1973 and 1979 caused particular difficulties for the Finns, who imported over 80 percent of their primary energy supplies. The country did suffer less than other West European countries from increased oil prices because of its special trading relationship with the Soviet Union, which supplied petroleum in exchange for Finnish industrial goods. However, recession in Western markets, growing technological competition, and tighter financial markets made Finland's traditional cycles of inflation and devaluation untenable. Thus, although the country managed to delay austerity measures for five years, in 1978 balance-of-payments considerations compelled the government to introduce a far-reaching reform package designed to ensure the competitiveness of Finnish industry in world markets.

Although the austerity package pursued after 1978 slowed growth in personal consumption, the consensus approach to wage and benefit negotiations remained reasonably intact. In addition, many Finnish workers proved sufficiently flexible to accept transfers from declining sectors to those in which the country enjoyed a comparative advantage. As a result of competent macroeconomic management and favorable trading relations with both Eastern and Western Europe, Finland was able to sustain growth in GDP at an average annual rate of about 3.3 percent from 1980 to 1986--a rate well above the OECD average.

During the 1980s, structural developments in the Finnish economy paralleled those in other West European economies. Although surplus production of animal products plagued agriculture and led to cutbacks in agricultural subsidies, the country preserved family farming. Policy makers continued to monitor forestry, energy, and mineral resources closely, even when falling petroleum prices reduced pressures on the economy. Industry underwent intensive restructuring, eliminating many inefficient producers and consolidating healthy enterprises. Despite mergers and rationalization, Finland lost fewer industrial jobs than most OECD countries, so that unemployment was held below the double-digit levels common elsewhere on the continent. Private services, especially banking and insurance, expanded more rapidly than other sectors, also helping to limit unemployment.

Structure of the Economy

By 1986 postwar economic growth had raised Finland's GDP to about US$70.5 billion, making the country one of the most prosperous in the world. Economic expansion over the years had substantially altered the structure of the economy. By 1986 agriculture, forestry, and fishing had fallen to a little under 8 percent of GDP from nearly 26 percent in 1950. Industry, including mining, manufacturing, construction, and utilities, accounted for about 35 percent of GDP, down from about 40 percent in 1950. Within industry, metalworking had grown most rapidly, its output almost equalling that of wood processing by the late 1970s. In the late 1980s, industrialists looked forward to a shift toward electronics and other high-technology products.

While agriculture and industry had declined in relative terms during the postwar years, the service sector had grown from about 34 percent of GDP to almost 58 percent, leading some observers to characterize Finland as a postindustrial society. Several factors accounted for the expansion of the service sector. Government, very small under the Russian Empire, grew rapidly between the Great Depression and the early 1970s as the state took responsibility for an increasingly greater share of economic life. In addition, transportation, communications, engineering, finance, and commerce became more important as the economy further developed and diversified.

Control and ownership of Finland's economic life were highly concentrated, especially after the industrial and financial restructuring of the 1980s. Thus, by 1987 three firms controlled most shipbuilding, a small number of woodworking enterprises dominated the forest industries, and two main commercial banks exercised wide-reaching influence over industrial development. Large state-owned firms provided most of the energy, basic metals, and chemicals. The country's farmers, workers, and employers had formed centralized associations that represented the vast majority of economic actors. Likewise, a handful of enterprises handled most trade with the Soviet Union. Some observers suggested that the trend toward internationalization might increase the influence of foreign firms and executives in Finnish enterprises, but this effect would make itself felt slowly. Thus, while Finland remained a land of family farms, a narrow elite ran the economy, facilitating decision making, but perhaps contributing to the average worker's sense of exclusion, which may have contributed to the country's endemic labor unrest.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress