The Wall Street Journal

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!”