forint

The European Commission is not happy with Hungary’s economic performance

Yesterday the European Commission published a press release after the commission staff concluded its fifth Post-Program Surveillance mission to Hungary. After a few encouraging remarks that welcomed recent economic improvements, the authors of the memo delivered some bad news. The better economic indicators are mostly due to artificial one-off stimuli (a decrease in utility prices, the central bank’s low-interest loan program, the workfare program, and greater use of EU subsidies) and therefore one must be cautious when assessing the state of the Hungarian economy. The report also pointed out that “although the general government deficit has been kept below the 3% of GDP threshold, government debt is not yet on a firm downward path.” Furthermore, it warned that based on the Commission’s 2014 spring forecast, “the country appears at risk of breaching the requirements of the Stability and Growth Pact.” They suggested “additional fiscal consolidation efforts, in order to avoid that an inadequate pace of debt reduction could trigger the re-opening of an excessive deficit procedure in spring 2015.”

That was  not all. The mission stressed the “benefits of pursuing growth-friendly fiscal consolidation.” The mission also called for a  stable and more balanced corporate tax system, including “phasing out distortive sector-specific taxes.” They recommended an improvement of the banks’ operating environment, including a reduction in their tax burden. And finally, “the mission called for improving the business environment and emphasized the need to stabilize the regulatory framework and foster market competition, in particular by removing entry barriers in the service sector.”

All this sounds like reasonable advice. Hungarian economists who are more and more critical of Viktor Orbán’s unorthodox economic policies have been saying the same thing for a number of years, to no avail. And it is unlikely that the Orbán government will heed the European Commission’s advice, especially their call to reduce the tax burden on the banks. Viktor Orbán immediately charged the European Commission with serving the interests of banks and multinational corporations when it threatens Hungary with the excessive deficit procedure.

Banks have it hard in Hungary. Here is one example–András Hámori, a senior executive of the Russian Sberbank Europe AG, gave an interview to Reuters that was later picked up by the Moscow Times. Hámori sees good business opportunities in the Czech Republic and Slovakia as both are expanding markets where taxes on banks are contained. But not so in Hungary where the “regulatory environment posed many challenges, which warranted caution.” He continued: “So when a shareholder decides where to deploy capital he obviously has to look at the potential return, and Hungary here does not rank on top, more like the opposite side.”

In addition to exorbitant tax levies banks also have to cope with the forex-loan problem. Prior to 2008, during the tenure of Zsigmond Járai, the Fidesz appointed governor of the central bank, the interest rate on loans denominated in forints was very high; therefore most people took out loans in foreign currencies, primarily in Swiss francs and in euros. It was a great deal while it lasted, but in the last four or five years the Hungarian forint weakened considerably against both of these currencies, placing a heavy burden on the debtors.

The Hungarian government decided to ease the hardship of those people with foreign-currency loans. With the bill that was recently approved by parliament, the Hungarian government seems to put most of the burden on the banks. According to some estimates this piece of legislation will cost the Hungarian banking sector $4.85 billion. Moreover, it looks as if the banks will have to convert foreign-currency loans to loans in forints.

Over the past week or so the Hungarian forint has fallen from 305 to the euro to 312 today. This weakening stems primarily from the central bank’s cutting interest rates to what some consider “dangerous levels.” In the last two years the interest rate was lowered from 7% to 2.3%, and last week there was talk that the central bank is contemplating at least one further reduction. The forint’s decline only accelerated after the forex bill was submitted to parliament for discussion.

Soource: Politics.hu

Source: Politics.hu

The EU is raising the possibility of reinstating the excessive deficit procedure against Hungary in 2015 because of Hungary’s very high national debt, which has been growing instead of shrinking as the Orbán government promised. This growth is especially glaring if we consider that the government could have reduced the national debt by 10% if it had earmarked for that purpose all of the money it expropriated from the private pension funds of millions of Hungarians. Today there is not one red cent left from this pension money, and it’s unclear what new sources the government can tap to bring down the growing national debt.

Reducing the national debt is especially difficult because the Orbán government is a profligate spender. They are especially keen on nationalizing private businesses. Moreover, beginning this year Hungary will have to pay interest on the 10 billion dollar loan from Russia although the actual building of the reactor will not begin for years. That will add considerably to the national debt.

All in all, I am almost certain that the country’s finances are in a shambles. However, Mihály Varga excludes any possibility of any excessive deficit procedure (szó sincs túlzottdefecit-eljárásról). He admitted that “Hungary probably will have to introduce further financial consolidation in order to lower the national debt.” I will be curious to see who’s next on the hit list.

The population hears only about the economic growth Hungary has achieved in the last few months and the higher GDP than earlier anticipated; they have no clue about how fragile the Hungarian economy really is. One could counter: “Well, just think how many times in the past four years critics of the Orbán government have predicted that the whole economic edifice Viktor Orbán and his right-hand man György Matolcsy built will collapse. And look, nothing of the sort happened.” Indeed, until now they were lucky, but how long will that luck last? There will be a day of reckoning, I believe. Mind you, they might manage to keep the country afloat just long enough to make the day of reckoning a problem for their successors.

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“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.

Politics and finances: Orbán’s Hungary today

Judging from the comments, most readers of Hungarian Spectrum consider Sándor Csányi’s spectacular exit from the ranks of shareholders of OTP an event that overshadows all other news, including whatever the current opposition is doing. Perhaps in the long run the panic that took hold of Budapest yesterday following the precipitous fall in the stock price of Hungary’s largest bank might prove to be more significant than any purely political event. However, what happened at OTP cannot be separated from politics.

By now we know that even before Csányi, the CEO of OTP, decided to sell his OTP stock worth about 26 million euros, some other high-level officials of the bank had already gotten rid of theirs. I assume they sold because of the probability that the government will “take care of the Forex loans one way or the other.” The exact way is still not entirely clear, but it is likely that the banks will again be the ones that will have to bear the financial burden of the “government assistance.” This rumor began to circulate about a week ago.

And then came Viktor Orbán’s interview with Margit Fehér of The Wall Street Journal. In this interview Orbán made it clear that the bank levies are here to stay. He has reneged on his initial promise that the very high extra taxes on banks would be needed for only a couple of years. Now the official position is that the bank levies will remain until the national debt is under 50% of GDP–perhaps in ten years “if the euro zone could do better.”

Another political decision that most likely had an impact on the misfortunes of OTP was the government’s abrupt announcement of the “nationalization” of 104 credit unions privately owned but functioning under the umbrella of TakarékBank Zrt. TakarékBank and its credit unions are really the banks of the countryside. They are present in 1,000 smaller towns and villages, which means that they cover about a third of all Hungarian communities. One can learn more about TakarékBank here. One thing is important to know. TakarékBank was run by and with the consent of the individual owners and board members. Clearly, the state wants to take over the whole organization and most likely run it as a state bank. What is happening here is no less than highway robbery. As some people said, the last time something like this happened in Hungary was during the Rákosi period. Sándor Demján, chairman of TakarékBank’s board, swears that they will keep fighting all the way to Strasbourg to prove that what the Hungarian government is doing amounts to nationalization without any monetary compensation.

If Orbán succeeds in the nationalization of TakarékBank, it might pose a serious threat to OTP. All in all, it’s no wonder that OTP officials didn’t think that their investment was safe. The alarm bell might sound in foreign banks as well (don’t forget that Orbán’s plans include a banking sector that is at least 50% Hungarian owned), and if that happens the whole banking sector might collapse. But I guess that would fit in with Orbán’s goal of tearing down all the carry-overs from the past and replacing them with his own original creations.

Let’s return now to the interview Orbán gave to The Wall Street Journal. Some of his statements are just a regurgitation of what he said in his rambling speech to the foreign ministry officials about a week ago but this time in even stronger language. For example: “The future of Europe is Central Europe” and by “now we are once again part of [this] powerhouse.” He also repeated some of his often used lines about the nonexistent strides Hungary has made since he took over: the national debt is falling, foreign trade is rocketing, Hungary no longer needs “other people’s money,” unemployment is falling, and finally that when he took office only 1.8 million people paid taxes but now that number is “close to 4 million.” No one has any idea where Orbán got his figures about the number of taxpayers, but they bear no resemblance to reality.

The interview is a rare self-portrait that could be the topic of another post, but here I would like to bring up two points.

This is the first time, at least to my knowledge, that Orbán openly declared that he really doesn’t want to join the eurozone. This despite the fact that Hungary is obligated to adopt the euro as the country’s currency since it was part of the conditions for membership in the European Union. But today Orbán thinks that Hungary “should exploit the advantages of not being in the eurozone.” I was already suspicious when he insisted that the Constitution should include a sentence stipulating that Hungary’s currency is the forint, but in the interview he was quite explicit on the subject: to change the constitution’s declaration that Hungary’s currency is the forint “will require a two-third vote of Parliament. So, to join the euro will require a strong, unified majority. This guarantees that it will not be a divisive issue. Whether Hungary joins will depend a lot on how well the new, integrated eurozone functions.”

And finally a point that might interest amateur psychologists. Orbán said: “When you have to save your country, to renew your country–that is when a job like this is appealing to someone like me. This is a real challenge, not just like reorganizing a bureaucracy. People like me, we like to do something significant, something extraordinary. History has provided me that chance. Actually, it provided it three times. I’ve always gotten historical challenges as a leader. When things are going well, I seem to lose the elections, because the people don’t need me anymore.” There is a Hungarian saying “A próféta szólna belőled!” meaning I hope your prophecy comes true. But all joking aside, it seems that Orbán is not confident about winning the next elections. He is afraid that all his extraordinary accomplishments will only make an opposition victory more likely. I guess the winning campaign slogan, contrary to everything we know about electorates, would be: “If you’re better off than you were four years ago, throw the bum out!”

Viktor Orbán’s grandiose plans might be thwarted by Strasbourg and Brussels

The bureaucrats, speculators, and foreign press are once again lining up against the Hungarian government.

Let’s start with the forint, which today breached the 300 mark against the euro. The forint’s weakness is the result of several factors: the appointment of György Matolcsy as chairman of the Hungarian National Bank; rumors about the possible exchange of some of the bank’s foreign reserves for rubles; and, the latest, word that the government intends “to assist” Hungarians with their foreign currency loans. The government would convert these loans into ones denominated in forints and would also lighten their burden by paying a certain percentage of their debt. The Hungarian government would use some of the reserves of the Hungarian National Bank for this purpose.

There are political pressures on the Orbán government as well. In the March 5 issue of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung Michael Link, undersecretary in the German Foreign Ministry, wrote a piece that appeared on the op/ed page of the newspaper and available on the website of the German Foreign Ministry or in Hungarian on the Galamus site. The title itself is telling: “Hungary must remain a country of the law.” In the body of the article Link reasserts that “we cannot be indifferent” to what is happening in Hungary. Earlier the European Commission managed to convince the Hungarian government to change some passages in the Constitution. The Hungarian Constitutional Court also found some of the laws passed by the Hungarian Parliament to be unconstitutional. Now, however, there are new attempts to smuggle back all the formerly objectionable passages into the body of the constitution. These “new initiatives limit the freedom of expression for the alleged protection of the dignity of the Hungarian nation.”

rule of lawAs a friend of Hungary, Link would like Hungary “to demonstrate that the country has an effective separation of power between the legislative and the judicial” branches. As it stands, the Constitutional Court hands down judgments that the government ignores. “We need a vibrant parliament with a perceptible opposition and a confident Constitutional Court.” Link also wishes that “the two-thirds majority the Government relies on is used prudently. A two-thirds majority is not a free ride…. The European values that we share in the world, we must also cherish at home.” For good measure Link mentioned that Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle shares these concerns. Common European values “must apply to all EU members, both new and old.” As with each member state Hungary remains “master of its cultural identity,” but there have to be shared values. Among them the rule of law is the most central. “It must be able to develop without any ifs, and, or buts.”

The Hungarian answer that came from Gergely Gulyás, a young Fidesz MP and a member of the parliamentary committee on constitutional matters, was that “it is a misunderstanding” that the Hungarian government wants to limit the competence of the Constitutional Court. To the contrary, its latest amendments were made at the request of the Court itself. What else is new? We know from earlier government statements that everybody misunderstands the intentions of the Hungarian government and Viktor Orbán.

On the very same day the Financial Times came out with an editorial on “Orbán’s threat to democratic values.” It is about the same amendments Michael Link was talking about. The article reminds people that last year Viktor Orbán backed down on aspects of a new constitution that would have posed a threat to judicial, religious, and press freedoms. But this week the Hungarian parliament threatened to revive “curbs that violate European values in an amendment to the constitution. If this goes ahead, the response from Brussels should be rapid and robust.” According to the editorial, Brussels should “set out in precise detail where the amendment violates Hungary’s membership of the EU. But once that is established, it should warn Mr Orbán that it is prepared to use the most powerful weapons in its armoury to defend European values.” The article recalls that the EU was ill equipped thirteen years ago to handle the situation when the Austrian government included a far-right party as a coalition partner. But the editorial stresses that “this time there is greater political consensus that Mr Orbán’s attacks on democratic norms cannot be tolerated.” The FT editors suggest a withdrawal of Hungary’s voting rights and add that “financial sanctions too should be considered…. Faced with an economy in deep recession, and a decline in foreign investment, Mr. Orbán needs the money. Brussels should not hesitate to threaten a withdrawal of structural subsidies, for example, if Mr. Orbán does not call on his party to drop any amendments that violate EU membership. If the Hungarian prime minister insists on flouting European values, he cannot expect Europe’s support.”

And if that weren’t enough, today the secretary general of the Council of Europe called on the Hungarian government to postpone the vote on the latest amendment to the constitution. Thorbjørn Jagland wrote: “I have misgivings concerning the amendments that may not be compatible with the rule of law.”  He further argued that with the incorporation of these amendments the government with its two-thirds majority is forcing its will on the Constitutional Court and is thereby endangering the system of checks and balances. He suggests a postponement of the vote in order for the Venice Commission to study the matter.