construction industry

The end of the Hungarian recession?

The big news of the day is that the Hungarian recession has ended. Well, this is technically true, that is, if the quick estimates prove to be correct. A common back-of-the-envelope definition of recession is two consecutive periods of shrinking GDP. By this definition Hungary was mired in recession throughout 2012. The Central Statistical Office (Központi Statisztikai Hivatal) now claims that GDP grew in the first quarter of 2013 by 0.7% when compared to the last quarter of 2012. Measured year over year–that is, comparing the first quarter of 2013 to the first quarter of 2012, however, Hungary has experienced a 0.9% decline in GDP. As Gordon Bajnai’s Együtt 2014-PM said, “a slower rate of decrease is not growth. It simply means that the decline is diminished somewhat.”

Needless to say, the government is ecstatic. András Giró-Szász, the government spokesman, announced that the government’s efforts have paid off. From here on there is no question that Hungary’s economy will grow rapidly. The somewhat surprising figure is considered to be an important watershed. Some right-wing papers compared the Hungarian figures to the disappointing news of the European Union’s deepening recession by pointing out that while the Hungarian figures are in positive territory, the EU reported a 0.7% decline. Yes, but the 0.7% decline must be compared to the Hungarian 0.9% decline on a year over year basis. And, by the way, few Hungarian newspapers bothered to report that Romania’s GDP grew by 2.1%.

Mihály Varga acted as if the government’s predictions made at the end of 2012 were right on target. They knew all along that 2013 would be a turning point, at least for economic growth. Considering how bad the budgetary and economic predictions of Varga’s ministry were, I take his claim with a grain of salt. Viktor Orbán himself predicted that 2013 would be “the year of reaping.” In February 2012 Orbán said that 2010 was the year of collaboration, 2011  the year of renewal, 2012 the year of take-off, and that 2013 would be the year of growth. Since 2012 wasn’t the year of take-off, Orbán’s prediction might be equally wrong for this year. Even the most optimistic predictions talk about only modest growth, under 1%.

One thing that is worrisome is the steep decline in industrial production over the last year. Although the overall decline was only 0.9%, industrial production was down by 2.9%.

An article that analyzes and tries to explain what these new GDP figures mean puts it this way: “Is it growth? Is it a decrease? Is it stagnation?”… None of the above.” After this introduction the author of the article explains that since growth is measured on a year on year basis, Hungary is not out of recession. It is troubling that the figures for the first quarter of 2013 are even worse than the truly terrible figures for the first quarter of 2012. The small growth over the last three months came largely from the building industry and agriculture, which is good news for the poorest section of Hungarian society. On the other hand, it is worrisome that industrial production hasn’t yet regained its 2010 level. Car production has declined and Hungarian-produced durable goods are down a staggering 30% compared to a year ago.

Let me add that the construction industry’s relative growth is most likely heavily influenced by government expenditures.  We have only to think of the billions spent on redesigning Kossuth Square in Budapest and building new football stadiums. If these projects are halted, the construction industry might fall back to its previous dismal performance.

There are also worrying signs as far as the budget is concerned. The cash registers that are supposed to report straight to the Hungarian equivalent of the Internal Revenue Service will not be functioning by July 1 as planned because of technical difficulties, and therefore the rather large amount of revenues that was supposed to come from this source most likely will never reach the treasury. The same problem exists with the e-toll scheme I wrote about earlier. In both cases the Hungarian companies who were chosen couldn’t come up with any acceptable solution.

Longer-term economic growth might be sacrificed for the sake of trying to keep the budget deficit under 3%. (Mind you, building useless stadiums or remaking Kossuth Square to resemble its 1944 self are not productive investments, although Orbán is especially infatuated with “a work-based economy.”) In part because of the heavy tax burden placed on them in an effort to shrink the budget deficit, multi-nationals aren’t exactly swarming into Hungary. And it’s highly unlikely that the small and medium-sized Hungarian businesses that the government is trying to promote can contribute enough to GDP to make up for government and foreign investment shortfalls. Hungary has yet to come up with a compelling growth plan, orthodox or unorthodox.