Ecofin

“Secrets revealed”: Memoirs about the financial attacks on Hungary

Many opposition politicians, especially before the deal between Orbán and Putin became public, suggested that the coming election should be declared a kind of referendum on the European Union. After all, the majority of the Hungarian electorate still supports Hungary’s membership in the Union while Orbán’s favorite target is the European Union. Well, the Orbán government is prepared. Helga Wiedermann, the right hand of György Matolcsy in the ministry of national development and again in the Hungarian National Bank, came out with her memoirs entitled Chess and Poker.

How timely! The book is not yet available in bookstores, but Magyar Nemzet has an advance reader’s copy from which the newspaper quotes extensively. The upshot of the story is that the European Commission, especially Olli Rehn, commissioner for economic and monetary affairs, is a deadly enemy of Hungary. The European Union, conspiring with leading members of the international world of finance, tried through monetary means to unseat Viktor Orbán as prime minister of Hungary. But in the end Matolcsy’s genius guided by Viktor Orbán’s superior vision triumphed against all odds.

Who is Helga Wiedermann? Mighty little can be found out about her on the Internet, which should surprise nobody. The whole Hungarian government is full of people who have no professional background for the jobs they fill. Political loyalty is what counts. I assume that Wiedermann must have had good Fidesz connections because she began her career in Matolcsy’s ministry as “political adviser.” To accommodate faithful Fidesz supporters this administration creates new positions right and left. Matolcsy either must have been terribly impressed with her political advice or received word that Wiedermann needs a more important and permanent job: she was elevated to be Matolcsy’s chief-of staff. When Matolcsy moved over to the National Bank, his trusted chief-of-staff went with him. They created a new position for her called “director general” (főigazgató). According to a blogger who seems to know a lot about the inner workings of the National Bank, Helga Wiedermann is the only person besides Matolcsy who can hire and fire at will. The same blogger calls Widermann a “professional zero,” nothing more than the person in charge of human resources.

Given this background, one must ask how Helga Wiedermann can report on minute details of Ecofin meetings attended by all the finance ministers of the European Union. How did she learn what transpired there? Clearly, only from her boss, György Matolcsy.

According to her story, Olli Rehn from the very first Ecofin meeting Matolcsy attended was a sworn enemy of Hungary at a time when the country was struggling to conquer the economic crisis. For example, at that very first meeting Olli Rehn tried “to portray Hungary in the worst possible light and claimed that the Hungarian situation was as bad as the Greek when Hungary was in fact in much better shape.” Now, that is really funny! I remember distinctly that it was not a long time ago that Viktor Orbán himself claimed that when he became prime minister Hungary was in worse shape than Greece. Well, what is the truth then? I have the feeling that by now even they cannot tell.

There was incredible pressure put on Matolcsy from day one, even from members of the European People’s Party, to extend the IMF-EU loan and introduce an austerity program. After Matolcsy categorically stated that he was unwilling to follow their advice, “he was put under incredible economic and later political pressure.” And yet he resisted.

Wiedermann then moves on to really juicy stuff. How the European Union, conspiring with the leaders of large European and American banks, tried to remove Viktor Orbán and replace him with another Fidesz leader who would not insist on levying extra taxes on banks and instead would be ready to introduce the much desired austerity program. According to the author, the decision to unseat Orbán was hatched sometime in the spring of 2011. By July 2011 there was an attack against the forint, which until then had moved together with the Polish złoty and the Czech koruna. According to Wiedermann, there was no reason for this sudden weakening of the Hungarian currency. On the contrary, the Kálmán Széll Plan had just been introduced and was well received by the markets. Moreover, in the spring of 2011 the Hungarian treasury floated a successful bond issue.

So, what happened? Why this attack on the forint? Wiedermann has the answer. In the spring of 2011 in a New York restaurant six representatives of American investment banks decided to attack the forint. Why did they conspire to do that? After all, these banks didn’t have subsidiaries in Hungary and therefore they were not directly affected by the extra levies on banks in Hungary. They acted because they realized the danger of the Hungarian example. The poor innocent Hungarian official in the ministry didn’t realize what was going on until September because until then the weakening of the forint was slow and gradual.

Source: tenytar.blog.hu

Source: tenytar.blog.hu

The rest of the book is a tale of the brilliance of György Matolcsy, who managed to lift the sanctions against Hungary despite Ollie Rehn’s concerted efforts. Matolcsy had many friends among the finance ministers. Even the finance minister of Finland and Denmark sided with Hungary, although they were close allies of Rehn. A real surprise came when Great Britain and Sweden voted for lifting the sanctions. In brief, total victory for the efforts of Viktor Orbán and György Matolcsy.

The appearance of the book is well timed. This attack on the European Union and American bankers is supposed to sway Hungarian voters to support the heroic Orbán government, which stands for independence and sovereignty. The members of the “Hungarian team” are the defenders of the nation while foreigners wanted them to suffer the indignity of a draconian austerity program. These guys pull out all the stops.

Another austerity package: The eleventh since the Orbán government took office

The online newspaper Stop warned on May 29, after the news broke that the European Commission would recommend to the Economic and Financial Affairs Council (Ecofin) of the EU that the excessive deficit procedure against Hungary be lifted, that “Brussels is still watching.” Well, it seems that they didn’t watch closely enough. Here we are three weeks after the news so loudly trumpeted by the Hungarian government as a huge victory for its sound economic policies. And it appears that the great planners of the economy in the Ministry of National Economics realized, perhaps with some help from Brussels, that after all the numbers don’t add up.

In today’s Hungarian edition of Portfolio one of the headlines reads: “Surprising austerity package was announced by Varga: Tax hikes are coming.” I don’t know why the financial reporters of Portfolio are surprised. I think it was predictable, given the economic climate in the country, that the deficit was unlikely to be kept under 3% this year. And if it isn’t, Hungary could easily end up being under excessive deficit procedure again in no time.

There was another headline that caught my eye. According to HVG, financial analysts cannot agree on whether this latest austerity package was really necessary. The “expert” from TakarékBank claims that this step was unnecessary and only shakes investor confidence in a more predictable economic policy that everybody was hoping for after the departure of György Matolcsy. His colleague at BudaCash, on the other hand, detected a one hundred billion forint shortfall because only half of the anticipated revenues from the new taxes actually reached the treasury.

I was also fairly amused when I discovered that a Hungarian-language blog awarded Mihály Varga the Pinocchio Prize. At first I thought that awarding this “prize” to the minister of economics was a response to his announcement of the new tax hikes, but I soon discovered that the article was posted at 8 o’clock in the morning whereas Varga’s press conference announcing the new taxes took place only two hours later. The blogger was talking about the exaggerated descriptions of a booming economy very much in the style of György Matolcsy. As several newspapers said, the Hungarian population is still supposed to believe the government “fairy tale.”

Did the government have to adjust the budget again? Was it necessary? You can bet your bottom dollar that it was necessary. Let’s not forget that Ecofin will reach its final decision on the excessive deficit procedure two days from now, on June 19. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if we found out that the Hungarian government received word from Brussels that the figures they submitted didn’t quite add up. Now the only question is whether this last-minute scramble for additional funds will satisfy Brussels’ demands for an economic policy that ensures sustainable economic growth. Or whether they will change their minds, claiming that these periodic adjustments are no remedy for Hungary’s economic ills. In fact, they exacerbate them. One could argue that the very heavy taxation imposed on both consumers and companies may lead the country back into recession.

Here are the main points of the package: (1) a hike of the financial transaction tax (FTT) rate on non-cash transactions to 0.3% from 0.2%; (2) an increase in the FTT rate on cash transactions to 0.6% from 0.3%; (3) an increase in the telecom tax to HUF 3 from HUF 2 per minute or per SMS and a higher cap for corporations from HUF 2,500 to HUF 5,000 per month; (4) an increase in the mining royalty fee to 16% from 12%; (5) a 6% health care contribution to be paid on interest and capital gains; (6) and, what Varga forgot to mention in his press conference, banks will have to pay a 7% tax on the amount of their loans to the municipalities that the national government took over. The rationale? The state is a more reliable borrower than the municipalities. So, the “reliable customer” will not pay back what he owes in full! What can one say?

There are some who have plenty to say. LMP announced that Varga’s economic policy is not one whit more reliable than Matolcsy’s. Its spokesman Gábor Vágó emphasized the need for a total economic turnabout. Együtt PM called attention to the fact that a week ago Varga still claimed that the budget’s cardinal numbers were solid and needed no adjustment. There is still something very wrong with the Ministry of Economics.

The blog that handed the Pinocchio Prize to Varga  published an estimated total of the ten “packages” since the Orbán government took over. They arrived at 3 trillion forints. This last package, the eleventh, is also quite large. Experts estimate it at anywhere between 100 and 200 billion forints.

Estimated amounts of austerity measures (2010-2012)

Estimated amounts of austerity measures (2010-2012)

The forint survived the announcement relatively well. It is still hovering around 291 to a euro. Unfortunately the BUX (the Budapest Stock Market) did not fare as well, with heavy telecom and banking (OTP) losses.

When Varga took over the ministry he indicated that perhaps the government will stop some very expensive and not urgently needed projects such as soccer stadiums and refurbishing the square in front of the parliament. But soon enough it became clear that for Viktor Orbán these mega-projects that symbolize the greatness of his regime are far too important. The government would rather introduce new taxes to pay for his pet projects. Especially if on Wednesday Hungary is released from bondage by Ecofin. In fact, there is speculation that the government never seriously thought of abandoning these “prestige projects.” It was only a ploy to show the EU that the Hungarian government is even willing to sacrifice stadiums on the altar of economic stability.

I predict that this is not the end of the austerity measures. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if within a few months, most likely well before the end of the year, there is another announcement about new taxes. This time to avoid being returned to the group under excessive deficit procedure.