foreign banks

An optimistic prediction: The Orbán regime’s inevitable demise

I would like to report on a lengthy article that appeared on on September 18, 2014, written by someone who calls himself “Nolite Timere,” “don’t be afraid” in Latin. The piece has the upbeat title “The NER’s coming demise.” An optimistic title, that is, for those who are opponents of the Orbán regime. It is a prediction few people believe today in Hungary. In fact, an increasing number of editorial and op/ed pages forecast exactly the opposite. So, let’s see on what basis Nolite Timere makes his prediction.

Before I attempt to summarize his argument, let me remind everybody that NER is the abbreviation of Nemzeti Együttműködés Rendszere or, in English, the System of National Cooperation. In the first few months of the Orbán administration one could hear a lot about NER, but by early July I wrote that, despite Péter Szijjártó’s best efforts, the designation had disappeared from usage. Well, the name may have disappeared, but Viktor Orbán’s proclamation of NER signaled the beginning of a new era and a new political system. The text of the proclamation can be found in the above cited post.

Nolite Timere begins his argument by saying that NER rests on shaky foundations. Its support comes exclusively from Fidesz voters. The graph below shows the tight correlation between those Hungarians who support Fidesz and those who are satisfied with the performance of the government.

Therefore, opposition to the government automatically means opposition to the regime. Once this government loses power, the new government will most likely try to dismantle the NER. A lot of economic and political players may even find themselves in legal trouble. Therefore, maintenance of the Orbán system is of vital importance to those in power today.

Blue: the country is moving in the right direction. Orange: voters' support of Fidesz Source:

Blue: the country is moving in the right direction. Orange: voters’ support for Fidesz

The graph shows how the population reacts to financial fluctuations. At the beginning of 2012 only about 17-18 percent of the population was satisfied with the government’s performance, but as soon as utility prices were lowered and the impoverished population got a few thousand extra forints a month, they were once again ready to support Fidesz and its government. Conclusion? Viktor Orbán must make sure that he can reduce the number of dissatisfied voters for twenty or thirty years by increasing the well-being of the population. Nolite Timere’s prediction is that he will not be able to pull this off. At least this is what earlier efforts tell us.

All regimes since 1919 attempted to do two things simultaneously: continuously raise living standards and at the same time satisfy the expectations of their own base. The Horthy regime failed because it was unwilling to break up the large aristocratic and church estates; Mátyás Rákosi favored those who came from the working class and the peasantry to such an extent that by 1952 there was widespread hunger in the country; János Kádár refused to give up the primacy of the communist party in economic matters and therefore could maintain the modest but steady rise in living standards only as the result of  cheap Soviet energy and foreign loans. Once there were no more loans and no cheap oil the regime collapsed. The slow economic growth that began in 1995-96 lasted only as long as there were state-owned companies to be sold. After 2002 the economic growth could once again be maintained only through indebtedness. In 2008 that came to an end.

Hungary’s perennial problem ever since modern capitalism arrived in the region is a lack of capital. Since 1990 almost all capital came from abroad, and this has at least two serious drawbacks: it is expensive and it can be moved at any time. However, a country without its own capital must first rely on foreign sources. This was the case in Hungary between 1867 and 1914. Originally 60% of all investment came from Austria and Germany, but over the next 35 years a new generation of Hungarian capitalists grew up who learned from their foreign colleagues and amassed capital of their own. By 1914 only 25% of investment came from outside of the country. (Note that Viktor Orbán wants to achieve the same shift in the source of investment in a few years. Failure is guaranteed.)

Nolite Timere is convinced that in a country short on capital it is dangerous to build a regime that has only shaky legitimacy, as NER does. “The trick can be achieved only with foreign help … the regime survives only as long as foreign capital is coming in.” There was no appreciable economic growth in Hungary, yet the government lowered taxes, raised pensions, built stadiums. Where did they get the money? In part from foreign companies, in the form of extra levies, the lowering of utility prices, and many other tricks that took away large chunks of these companies’ profits. In some cases the companies even had to dip into their own capital to satisfy the Orbán regime’s appetite.

The second source is naturally the European Union. Between 2007 and 2012 Hungary received subsidies equivalent to 21% of the country’s GDP. In 2013 monies coming Brussels amounted to 5% of the GDP. In 2014 it will most likely be higher. In brief, “the future of the regime depends on the availability of foreign capital.”

The author is convinced that the end is nigh. All the money taken from foreign firms and received from the European Union was only enough to raise real wages modestly in the second half of 2013 and early 2014 in preparation for the coming election. As a result of the large amount of capital pumped into the economy, GDP growth in 2014 is expected to be substantial. Government propaganda points to this as a great success that will continue into the future. This is unlikely, claims our author.

Banks and other foreign companies are at a breaking point; they can absorb no additional levies. Bayern LB, owner of MKB, is a case in point; it threw in the towel and sold its Hungarian holding to the state rather than pay all the debts it accrued as a result of the government’s interference in its business activities. It is very possible that others will follow. If the state then sells these banks and other concerns to its supporters, it will be difficult to extract more taxes from them or even to maintain the low utility prices. After all, there will be no foreign money coming in to replenish the losses.

The leaders of the regime might try to attract foreign companies, especially German and Austrian businesses, to Hungary, but such recruiting has its limits. After all, the government wants to strengthen those Hungarian capitalists who are friends of the regime. That’s why the government makes a distinction between “good” and “bad” foreign investors, thereby limiting their number. Of course, the question is how long a foreign company can remain a “good company” and when Viktor Orbán will decide that, after all, he made a mistake. Moreover, Nolite Timere thinks that unless some kind of miracle happens, the amount of money coming from Brussels in 2016-2017 will decrease sharply as a result of the very nature of the system of disbursement.

And so Viktor Orbán needs capital from outside the European Union and the United States. Hence the “Eastern Opening,” which up to this point has not brought real results. That’s why Orbán turned to Vladimir Putin last year and signed a 10-billion euro secret agreement for a Russian company to construct a new atomic reactor in Paks. Most of that money will not add to Hungary’s GDP because once construction actually begins on the reactor the lion’s share of the work will be done by the Russian company that “won” the contract. In comparison to the EU subsidies, this Russian money is small potatoes, 120 billion euros a year as opposed to the 30,000 billion coming from Brussels. Of course, it is possible that Orbán is hoping for very inexpensive gas from Russia, which would add another 50 billion euros worth of capital a year.

The maintenance of the Orbán regime in the long run needs all three sources of financing: the EU, Moscow, and Western capital via government bond purchases. If any one of these three falters, the regime itself might be in danger. Brussels must pay without delay. Withholding money might upset the delicate financial balancing act of the Orbán government. As far as Paks is concerned, the Russian-Ukrainian crisis came at the worst possible time from Orbán’s point of view. Even before the crisis Brussels was not exactly happy either with the building of the Southern Stream or with the secret Russian-Hungarian agreement to have Russia build a nuclear reactor inside of the European Union. In addition, one never knows what may happen in the internal financial markets that might weaken the forint further. Hungarian bonds might be less attractive to foreign investors if the United States raises its interest rates in the future. All this could have disastrous effects on the Hungarian economy. This is especially so because the capital that is coming into the country is not being used to lay the groundwork for further economic growth. Instead it is being used to artificially raise living standards, lower utility prices, hand out higher pensions, maintain the flat tax, buy companies to be passed on to friends of Fidesz, and erect state-financed projects like stadiums and renovate state-owned buildings. With such a strategy no country ever became highly developed.

Hungary managed to lock itself into a position of total economic dependence. At this stage the regime no longer cares from whom the money comes or how much it costs in the long run; what counts is that comes and that it comes fast. When foreign capital dries up, this regime will inevitably fail.