unemployment benefits

Some good news for the Orbán government, but there are still many questions

Viktor Orbán received a couple of nice presents today for his fiftieth birthday. One was from the Hungarian Central Statistical Office (KSH) and the other from Olli Rehn, European Commissioner for Economic and Monetary Affairs and the Euro.

According to the Statistical Office, the unemployment rate ticked lower to 11.0% in the three months ending in April from 11.8% in the first quarter of 2013. On the surface this improvement seems both rapid and substantial. But, as Portfolio.hu points out, “The change in the number of employed shows the same strong fluctuating pattern as in the previous years. The main cause of the fluctuation is the year-end stoppage of public work schemes.”

Hungarian unemployment Another possible reason for the improving unemployment numbers (although this does not address the issue of seasonality and would take more time to be borne out) is that unemployment benefits run out quickly in Hungary. The Orbán government reduced eligibility for benefits to three months, the lowest perhaps in all of Europe. Whether these people simply drop out of the officially tracked work force after their benefits run out or find a job is hard to say, but we do know that the number of employed workers grew by 61,000 over the same period last year. Some of these people may have found part-time work paying below the minimum wage as employees of the public works program that began full-scale under the Orbán administration. Only a month ago, one of the undersecretaries of the Ministry of National Economy boasted about the very high number of people in the program: 300,000 this year as opposed to 261,000 last year. If his figures are correct, almost 65% of the recent job gains come from the public works program. These people don’t produce any real profit. In fact, they are a drag on the central budget–this year a projected 153.7 billion forints. So I think we should wait before passing final judgment on the employment figures.

The other piece of news came from Brussels in the early afternoon, and it was not much of a surprise to anyone. It has been clear for at least a week that it would be very difficult not to recommend lifting the excessive deficit procedure in Hungary’s case. Due to a series of tax hikes, mostly levies on businesses and banks that affected the population only indirectly, the government managed to decrease the deficit to under 3.0%. Naturally, the government considers this a major victory that vindicates Budapest’s economic policy.

Viktor Orbán had single-mindedly pursued the goal of getting out from under the excessive deficit procedure. Some people argue that he was acting out of fear of a cutoff of EU development funds. But there was never any serious threat of the country’s being deprived of funds because of its deficit, which pales in comparison to the deficits of some other European countries. I suspect that what Viktor Orbán really wanted was to stop the EU monitoring that went hand in hand with being under the excessive deficit procedure. After all, he backed away from IMF funding because they would have closely monitored the Hungarian economy. But, I fear, Viktor Orbán is mistaken. The number crunchers in Brussels will continue to monitor Hungarian economic data closely. Viktor Orbán won’t have a free hand. Hungary, being part of the EU, is expected to follow its advice. If it doesn’t, Hungary may find itself under the excessive deficit procedure once again. Such a possibility is not unheard of. After all, this is most likely what will happen to Malta.

Hungarian deficit between 2001 and 2014 / Ecostat, Népszava, graphics by Szilvia Kőszegi

Hungarian deficit between 2001 and 2014 / Ecostat, Népszava, graphics by Szilvia Kőszegi

Unfortunately, Hungary’s unorthodox economic policies aimed at lowering the budget deficit were costly to both the population and the economy. Trying to hide economic austerity from the general population, the government taxed businesses and banks to death and was unable to stave off an economic recession. Yes, the deficit is low at the moment, but how long can the government continue an economic policy that does not produce growth?

The Orbán government was also fixated on reducing the national debt, which was not higher than in most European countries. They confiscated 95% of all private pension funds, in part to lower the debt. Since then that enormous sum of money has evaporated. Some of it was absorbed into general funds and more than half of it went to the bottomless pit of the national debt burden. Because Viktor Orbán was unwilling to accept the terms of a low interest rate IMF loan, the country was forced to borrow at market rates. The sad result is that the Hungarian national debt is higher today than it was in 2010.

Yes, Hungary is off the hook for the time being, but Brussels made several recommendations and suggested specific steps the country should take to achieve sustainable economic growth.

The European Commission was critical of the Hungarian government for concentrating on the revenue side of the ledger.  They suggested restoring the former competence of the Fiscal Council and advocated a return to normal lending by decreasing the bank levies. They criticized the newly introduced flat tax which favors the rich and over-taxes the poor. They maintained that Hungary should concentrate on employment. Hungary has one of the lowest rates of labor market participation in the Union. They called the attention to the social situation that continues to worsen with 31% of the population at risk of poverty.

They suggested that the country “create a supportive business environment, in particular restore an attractive environment for foreign direct investors, by making the regulatory framework more stable and by fostering market competition. Ensure the prompt implementation of measures envisaged to reduce the administrative burden, improve competition in public procurement and take adequate measures to tackle corruption.”  They criticized the measures introduced in the field of education. As opposed to earlier years when fewer people were dropping out of school, this trend was reversed in 2011. They are concerned about the “ongoing education reform” in higher education. And finally they criticized the regulation of energy prices. In their opinion these regulations should be gradually phased out while “protecting the economically vulnerable.” Public transport should also be more cost efficient.

These are precisely the steps that the Orbán government doesn’t want to take. But if they do not follow this sound advice, it is unlikely that considerable economic growth can be achieved in the long run.