One goes for a little outing to Felcsút to admire that lovely little choo-choo train and what happens? The Hungarian public learns that, at least in the case of the Pallas Athene Domus Animae Foundation, György Matolcsy, chairman of Hungary’s National Bank (MNB), was directly involved in making its financial decisions. This flies in the face of the official story–that once the Hungarian National Bank parted with 260 billion Hungarian forints (almost $1 billion) of public money the management of the bank had no say in the affairs of the foundations.
Let’s start with the backstory, how the very existence of the MNB foundations and the extent of their funding was unearthed. The information initially came in a letter to the editor of HVG in the summer of 2014, shortly after the foundations were established. The letter called attention to a number of foundations established by the Hungarian National Bank and even mentioned the sum of money that had landed in these foundations. But the amount was so huge that the journalist assigned to the story was certain that the 200 billion forints mentioned in the letter must be either a typo or a figment of the letter writer’s imagination. It was far too large a figure. In August 2014 the journalist, Károly Csabai, who now works for Világgazdaság, started digging into the funding of these foundations. A law suit demanding that the National Bank reveal financial details of the foundations ensued. Verdict after verdict went against the bank, but it kept appealing. It wasn’t until March 2016 that the Kúria, the highest court of the land, declared that MNB had reached the end of the line. It must hand over the information.
Even as the MNB was meeting resistance in the courts, the foundations continued to hand out money without worrying about possible consequences. Perhaps György Matolcsy simply believed that the bank would be able to keep its foundations’ activities secret. People who know him say he is a modern-day Pangloss who believes that everything will turn out just fine regardless of how hopeless things seem. Perhaps he was also encouraged by the lawyers of the bank who were convinced that even if they lose the suit the arrangement would ultimately withstand legal scrutiny. But things are starting to fall apart.
In addition to the media, Bertalan Tóth, an MSZP member of parliament, has been pressuring the central bank via the justice system for more information. Today at last he received the documents concerning the financial decisions of Pallas Athene Domus Animae (PADA). The chairman of that particular foundation was Matolcsy himself, and the documents reveal that all investment decisions were the exclusive right of the chairman. That in itself is bad enough, but what is truly embarrassing is that the bulk of PADA’s money (well over 60 billion forints) was kept in the tiny little bank of Matolcsy’s cousin, Tamás Szemerey. And, worse yet, the foundation lent money to the struggling bank, presumably to avert liquidity crises, at a lower interest rate than the national bank’s stated rate at the time. It is noteworthy that Szemerey’s bank lent a substantial amount of money to Matolcsy’s son Ádám to enable him buy a furniture factory that would otherwise have been way beyond his means. I guess we can say that, in an admittedly indirect way, the Hungarian National Bank financed Ádám Matolcsy’s business venture.
Bertalan Tóth has also calculated that the foundations, by buying government bonds, added the equivalent of 0.7% of the Hungarian GDP to the national budget. In this way they massaged the size of the deficit. Last year’s official deficit was 2.5%, but without the extra money pumped into the budget by the foundations, it would have been over the 3% allowed by the European Union.
Bertalan Tóth and others wanted to question Viktor Orbán and György Matolcsy in parliament today. Neither of them showed up. Matolcsy sent one of his hapless deputies to answer the questions he was supposed to answer himself. András Schiffer of LMP demanded Matolcsy’s resignation from Viktor Orbán, who was also busy elsewhere. In his place András Tállai, undersecretary of the ministry of the economy, claimed that the government has absolutely nothing to do with the central bank. This is true in the sense that the government cannot dictate the bank’s monetary policy. But here we are talking about the questionable financial activities of the bank. Since the bank is owned by the Hungarian government, the government is responsible for any mismanagement that might take place at the MNB. Tóth compared the managers of the Hungarian Bank to the characters in the 2013 American movie The Wolf of Wall Street. His fellow MSZP member of parliament Lajos Korózs called the Hungarian National Bank “the residence of criminals,” saying its decision makers were planning to steal most of the money they deposited in the foundations.
So far Fidesz doesn’t have a competent point man to deal with this scandal. Lajos Kósa, who replaced Antal Rogán as the leader of the party’s parliamentary caucus, is famous for his bungling linguistic performances. This was certainly the case today when Index’s Szabolcs Dull pumped him for his reaction to the documents that demonstrate Matolcsy’s critical role in the financial affairs of PADA. Kósa, after some long and incomprehensible blabbering, could only fall back on the claim that “this assertion has not yet been ascertained” when the facts are there in black and white for everybody to see. The whole pitiful performance is available on the website of Index.
All in all, this is a case that will haunt the Orbán administration for a while. A few days ago the top brass of Fidesz expressed their relief because, according to their poll, only 10% of the electorate had heard anything about the central bank’s foundations. Moreover, they figured that the whole case is far too complicated for the man on the street to comprehend. I wouldn’t be so sanguine in their place. First of all, the scandal can only grow as Matolcsy will have to release ever more information. For example, there are all those “private persons” who received money from the foundations. So far their names haven’t been revealed, but pressure is mounting to release their identities. Moreover, ordinary folks don’t need fancy explanations about private as opposed to public money. It is enough for them to understand that these people, along with their friends and families, stole a heck of a lot of their hard-earned money.