Dunaferr

The latest nationalization plan: Dunaferr

Members of the Orbán government don’t like the word “nationalization.” To be precise, they don’t like the Hungarian word államosítás for nationalization. After all, they claim, the word államosítás can be used only for nationalization without compensation. As it happened after 1945 and especially after 1948. Today the state simply buys companies the government deems strategically important. Mind you, as usual the Orbán government doesn’t tell the whole truth about the recent nationalizations. After all, one of the first  moves of the Orbán government was the nationalization of public schools previously in the hands of the local communities. No one compensated them for their loss. The next step was the nationalization of hospitals. Again, no money exchanged hands.

This government seems to be enamored with the old socialist system of state ownership and centralization although they should be the first ones to realize its pitfalls, which eventually led to the total collapse of the socialist system. But I guess they think they can do better than those old party hacks. I don’t think that I’m alone in thinking that Orbán and his comrades are dead wrong.

I could go on and on listing companies, from MOL to E.ON and Rába, that have been taken over either in full or in part by the Hungarian state. E.ON cost the Hungarian taxpayers 870 million euros and MOL,1.88 billion euros. And now the Hungarian government has offered to buy the ISD DUNAFERR Company Group in Dunaújváros, which is one of the largest industrial firms in Hungary. The company is a diversified manufacturer of steel products. They produce hot rolled, pickled, cold rolled, galvanized strips and sheets, and hollow steel sections for engineering, automotive, and construction products as well as for the production of steel structures, household appliances, and other parts.

The company, owned early on by the Hungarian state, lost money year after year until the government managed to sell it to the Ukrainian Donbass Group in 2004. Later it was taken over by a Russian company. Eventually, the company became profitable but since the 2008-2009 financial crisis Dunaferr has suffered mightily. In an article that appeared on privatbankar.hu today one can see telling graphs of Dunaferr’s losses and debts.

DunaferrA few days ago the company announced that because of its financial losses, it will have to let 1,500 workers go. Such a decision came at a very wrong time for the Orbán government. Dunaújváros plays a key role in the economy of Fejér County. We must also keep in mind that Viktor Orbán’s beloved Felcsút is also in Fejér County. Székesfehérvár, the first capital of Hungary, is the county seat and the city to which the Orbáns eventually moved and where the young Viktor went to high school. So, the whole issue has a personal aspect for Orbán as well.

On Monday morning Economics Minister Mihály Varga was dispatched to talk to the managers of Dunaferr in order to find a solution to the company’s problems. I assume Varga tried to convince the management of Dunaferr to postpone its decision to downsize its work force.  No buyout offer was discussed.

The decision to make an offer was reached hastily that same day during a cabinet meeting, which was conveniently and appropriately held in Székesfehérvár due to the August 20th celebrations.

Such quick decisions are typical of Viktor Orbán’s leadership style. I am certain that this particular decision, just like all the others, was the prime minister’s alone. Given the company’s dire financial straits it’s hard to imagine that no one in the cabinet raised doubts about the Hungarian state’s ability to take on another losing concern. But at these meetings Orbán is surrounded by yes-men; he doesn’t have to fear serious opposition. Perhaps at the meetings of the high brass of Fidesz there are men like László Kövér or even János Lázár who can have some influence over him, but such people don’t exist among the few ministers and the more numerous undersecretaries handpicked by the prime minister.

In the past it happened that the Hungarian state took over companies allegedly in order to prevent a loss of jobs and yet shortly after the nationalization the new owner, the Hungarian state, had to fire hundreds or even thousands of workers. In the case of Malév, the airline actually folded. It would be good to know whether the government has any business plan that would enable the company to continue employing its 7,500 workers and at the same time turn a profit.

I very much doubt that there is such a plan, so it is likely that sooner or later Dunaferr, this time as a concern owned by the Hungarian state, will have to let thousands of workers go. (Probably after the 2014 elections.) Meanwhile good money is being thrown after bad, as the saying goes. How long can all this go on, especially since only today I read that the deficit is on the rise again?