The left-of-center Hungarian media is full of stories about details of the purchase of the German-owned E.ON gas and electricity company by MVM (Magyar Villamos Művek), a state-owned utility company.
Let’s go back a few years to recall the background of this deal. Rumors of the purchase of the company were already circulating in the summer of 2011 because Viktor Orbán made it clear that he found state ownership of utilities of strategic importance to the country. Not everybody shared the Hungarian prime minister’s view. For example, the Financial Times Deutschland at the time called the idea “madness,” arguing that the price of energy cannot be lowered by nationalizing the utility companies.
It is also important to understand the history of E.ON in Hungary. Originally E.ON bought the company from MOL, the Hungarian oil and gas company, when during the initial tenure of Viktor Orbán (1998-2002) the government set the price of gas so low that MOL suffered considerable losses. For ten years E.ON managed to make the Hungarian business profitable, but in 2010 it suffered a blow when the second Orbán government once again froze the price of gas. As a result, E.ON lost money. The Germans decided to bail and sell the company to the Hungarian state. The deal was closed in March 2013. At the time experts found the purchase price too high.
Because of the controversy over the purchase price, atlatszo.hu (Transparency), an NGO that receives some funds from the Norwegian Grants, decided to ask for documentation about the deal. Although by law the Magyar Nemzeti Vagyonkezelő/Hungarian National Asset Management, the state organization that handles state properties, was obliged to release the documents, they refused. At that point atlatszo.hu went to court and won. The state appealed but atlatszo.hu won again. That did not deter MNV. They decided to go all the way to the Supreme Court (Kúria). But no luck. After a year and a half of legal wrangling the Hungarian state was forced to release the documents. Atlatszo.hu promptly made them public on its website.
On the basis of the documents now released, it looks as if MVM purchased a company that was practically bankrupt. The purchase price of 251 billion forints was considered too high when critics were unaware of the actual financial health of E.ON. As it turned out, the assessors estimated the value of E.ON to be -355 billion forints. Yes, you read it right: minus. So, with the 251 billion paid by the government, the loss to the country is 616 billion forints.
Viktor Orbán was bent on purchasing E.ON regardless of price. In fact, even before negotiations began he repeatedly announced his absolute determination to acquire the company. Not the smartest move. There was not much haggling over price either. The Germans asked 260 billion forints and, it seems, Orbán was happy to pay.
In fact, he was so eager that he wasn’t bothered by the fact that the Hungarians were unable to examine the financial health of the company thoroughly. The German side announced that certain documents would be released only after the deal was complete.
The negotiators from MNV were aware of the riskiness of the transaction and were afraid to go ahead with the deal without appealing to a higher authority. They wanted to submit their findings to the Ministry of National Development for approval. Mrs. László Németh, then minister of MND, did not feel comfortable with the deal either, so in the end it was Viktor Orbán who personally assured MNV of state guarantees for any losses incurred as a result of the transaction.
Apparently the greatest risk for the health of the company is the “take-or-pay contract” that has existed for many years between Gazprom and the E.ON companies. That means that the company either takes the product from the supplier or pays the supplier a penalty. After 2008, in the wake of the global financial crisis, Hungary’s gas needs decreased considerably. And yet the company was obliged to buy gas regardless of need. Some references in the documentation indicate that after the close of the deal the new owners might be able to negotiate with Gazprom concerning the take-or-pay arrangement. Orbán’s cozy relationship with Putin should help in this regard.
Critics also point to legal irregularities. For instance, owners of E.ON shares were not notified thirty days before the deal was signed. There is also the possibility that Brussels will consider the state subsidies to MVM illegal. (Apparently, the socialists already asked the European Union to investigate the case.)
The new division of MVM cannot stand on its own financially. Not only does it need state subsidies to cover its costs, but two of the gas storage facilities bought from E.ON already had to be closed.
Együtt-PM and DK are bringing charges of mismanagement and abuse of fiduciary duties in connection with the purchase of the E.ON gas business by MVM. MSZP was more modest. The party only asked Miklós Seszták, the new minister of national development, to investigate the case. If I were the representative of MSZP I wouldn’t wait breathlessly for this investigation. The ministry already made its position clear tonight. Hungary cannot be at the mercy of foreign interests in the energy sector, and therefore the purchase of E.ON was necessary for the “defense of the decrease of utility prices.” Getting back the gas company is also of inestimable value from the point of view of national security because of the gas facilities where Hungary can store 70% of its yearly gas consumption.
As for the purchase itself. “Several independent assessments showed the economic justifiability of the purchase in the long run. The state ownership guarantees the secure gas supply of Hungary and it serves as a solid foundation for future economic growth,” reads the statement of the ministry released to MTI. I must say that this is a pretty weak response to the very serious charge of financial irresponsibility with taxpayer money.
In the right-wing media the silence is deafening. The only article I found was in MNO (Magyar Nemzet Online). It was posted at 17:33 and is a bare outline of how the documents were acquired by atlatszo.hu and what the documents show. It seems that, since the Ministry of National Development hadn’t yet responded to the revelations, the paper’s editors didn’t know what the right position was on this particular issue. I guess they will eventually find their voices.
As for the Fidesz-friendly prosecutors, they were quick to charge socialist and liberal politicians with an abuse of fiduciary duty for selling state properties at prices they considered too low. But it is unlikely they will ever charge Fidesz politicians with the same abuse for buying state properties at prices that are too high.