Tag Archives: E-ON

Gazprom stores some of its natural gas in Hungarian facilities

I guess it is high time to talk about Vladimir Putin and natural gas.

First, Putin’s trip to Serbia. Serbia and Russia have had close ties for more than a century. The only exception I can think of is the 1948-1954 period when Tito was considered to be the “chained dog of the imperialists.” But otherwise in all conflicts Russia stood by Serbia. Serbia’s financial situation is pretty grim at the moment, and I understand that without Russian help Belgrade would be in even greater economic and financial trouble than it is. The closeness of the two countries is demonstrated by the fact that the date of the celebration of the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Belgrade by the Red Army was moved forward to accommodate Vladimir Putin’s schedule. The military pomp on display to impress the Russian president was noteworthy, especially in view of Serbia’s insistence that she wants to become part of the European Union.

Putin decided to use this opportunity to deliver a stern message to Europe. He warned Brussels that as long as the Ukrainian crisis is not settled, naturally in favor of Russia, gas supplies to Europe might be disrupted just as happened in 2006 and 2009. He said that he himself will do everything to avoid such an eventuality, but if it does happen it will be the fault of the European leaders.

Almost at the same time news reached the West that Hungary will store Gazprom gas. You may recall that Hungary purchased the German-owned E.ON gas storage facilities in 2013 for an incredibly high price. The story of that purchase is well summarized in an article in the Budapest Beacon, according to which the Hungarian state-owned company, MVM, may have lost $2.6 billion as a result of the deal. Given the pervasive corruption in Hungary, analysts were certain that the purchase of E.ON’s business units was “a success story for certain business circles but a huge loss for the national economy as a whole.” This assessment might not be on target. It is more likely that Viktor Orbán’s eagerness to purchase E.ON at whatever price stemmed from a deal with Gazprom to use Hungarian storage facilities. Aleksey Miller, CEO of Gazprom, visited Budapest in October 2012. At that time Miller agreed to such a deal, but only if the storage facilities were in the hands of the Hungarian state. A year later Orbán obliged.

gaztarolok

So, what kinds of storage facilities are we talking about? E.ON Földgáz Storage Zrt. has five underground facilities in which it can store 3,740 million cubic meters of natural gas. According to Hungarian sources, these underground storage facilities are the best and the largest in the region and  fourth in size in Europe. As a result, in 2009 Hungarians were more or less unaffected by the gas shortage when Russia stopped the flow of gas through Ukraine to Europe.

I was pretty sure by the end of September that something was afoot concerning Russia’s use of Hungary’s storage facilities, but it was only on October 10 that I read an AFP report which noted that although Hungary is steadily buying gas from Russia, it is also storing Russian-owned gas. The article noted that “it is unusual for the company to store gas still owned by Gazprom, which is locked in a dispute with Kiev that some fear could see transit through Ukraine halted for the third time in a decade.” According to the spokesman of MVM, the owner of the facilities, “with this agreement Gazprom will be able to comply with its long-term contract obligations, should there be problems on the transport routes.”

Kyiv Post tersely noted the Russian-Hungarian deal without adding any editorial comment. But Kiev must see the deal as an antagonistic move because, with it, Russia can supply gas to Europe at the same time that it squeezes Ukraine.

As for the amount of stored gas owned by Hungary, this number is difficult to estimate. Throughout September the Hungarian media was full of complaints about Hungarian tardiness in filling the country’s storage facilities. In mid-September HVG claimed that they were only 58 percent full. Moreover, if one can believe MTI, a month later, on October 16, the situation was exactly the same. Opposition politicians naturally blame the Orbán government for its tardiness and predict terrible consequences come winter. But I suspect that something else might be behind the procrastination of the Hungarians. The Russian-Hungarian deal to store Russian gas in Hungary was signed only at the end of September, and it is very possible that in return for its “generosity” Hungary managed to get a lower price on Russian gas. I can’t think of any other rational explanation for not filling the storage facilities as quickly as possible. Especially since other European facilities are 80-90% full. Perhaps we will eventually learn the real story, although I’m sure that the Hungarian government will do its best to conceal it.

Scandal surrounding the purchase of E.ON gas company

The left-of-center Hungarian media is full of stories about details of  the purchase of the German-owned E.ON gas and electricity company by MVM (Magyar Villamos Művek), a state-owned utility company.

Let’s go back a few years to recall the background of this deal. Rumors of the purchase of the company were already circulating in the summer of 2011 because Viktor Orbán made it clear that he found state ownership of utilities of strategic importance to the country. Not everybody shared the Hungarian prime minister’s view. For example, the Financial Times Deutschland at the time called the idea “madness,” arguing that the price of energy cannot be lowered by nationalizing the utility companies.

It is also important to understand the history of E.ON in Hungary. Originally E.ON bought the company from MOL, the Hungarian oil and gas company, when during the initial tenure of Viktor Orbán (1998-2002) the government set the price of gas so low that MOL suffered considerable losses. For ten years E.ON managed to make the Hungarian business profitable, but in 2010 it suffered a blow when the second Orbán government once again froze the price of gas. As a result, E.ON lost money. The Germans decided to bail and sell the company to the Hungarian state. The deal was closed in March 2013. At the time experts found the purchase price too high.

Because of the controversy over the purchase price, atlatszo.hu  (Transparency), an NGO that receives some funds from the Norwegian Grants, decided to ask for documentation about the deal. Although by law the Magyar Nemzeti Vagyonkezelő/Hungarian National Asset Management, the state organization that handles state properties, was obliged to release the documents, they refused. At that point atlatszo.hu went to court and won. The state appealed but atlatszo.hu won again. That did not deter MNV. They decided to go all the way to the Supreme Court (Kúria). But no luck. After a year and a half of legal wrangling the Hungarian state was forced to release the documents. Atlatszo.hu promptly made them public on its website.

On the basis of the documents now released, it looks as if MVM purchased a company that was practically bankrupt. The purchase price of 251 billion forints was considered too high when critics were unaware of the actual financial health of E.ON. As it turned out, the assessors estimated the value of E.ON to be -355 billion forints. Yes, you read it right: minus. So, with the 251 billion paid by the government, the loss to the country is 616 billion forints.

Viktor Orbán was bent on purchasing E.ON regardless of price. In fact, even before negotiations began he repeatedly announced his absolute determination to acquire the company. Not the smartest move. There was not much haggling over price either. The Germans asked 260 billion forints and, it seems, Orbán was happy to pay.

Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and Chairman-CEO of E.ON

Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and Chairman-CEO of E.ON

In fact, he was so eager that he wasn’t bothered by the fact that the Hungarians were unable to examine the financial health of the company thoroughly. The German side announced that certain documents would be released only after the deal was complete.

The negotiators from MNV were aware of the riskiness of the transaction and were afraid to go ahead with the deal without appealing to a higher authority. They wanted to submit their findings to the Ministry of National Development for approval. Mrs. László Németh, then minister of MND, did not feel comfortable with the deal either, so in the end it was Viktor Orbán who personally assured MNV of state guarantees for any losses incurred as a result of the transaction.

Apparently the greatest risk for the health of the company is the “take-or-pay contract” that has existed for many years between Gazprom and the E.ON companies. That means that the company either takes the product from the supplier or pays the supplier a penalty. After 2008, in the wake of the global financial crisis, Hungary’s gas needs decreased considerably. And yet the company was obliged to buy gas regardless of need. Some references in the documentation indicate that after the close of the deal the new owners might be able to negotiate with Gazprom concerning the take-or-pay arrangement. Orbán’s cozy relationship with Putin should help in this regard.

Critics also point to legal irregularities. For instance, owners of E.ON shares were not notified thirty days before the deal was signed. There is also the possibility that Brussels will consider the state subsidies to MVM illegal. (Apparently, the socialists already asked the European Union to investigate the case.)

The new division of MVM cannot stand on its own financially. Not only does it need state subsidies to cover its costs, but two of the gas storage facilities bought from E.ON already had to be closed.

Együtt-PM and DK are bringing charges of mismanagement and abuse of fiduciary duties in connection with the purchase of the E.ON gas business by MVM. MSZP was more modest. The party only asked Miklós Seszták, the new minister of national development, to investigate the case. If I were the representative of MSZP I wouldn’t wait breathlessly for this investigation. The ministry already made its position clear tonight. Hungary cannot be at the mercy of foreign interests in the energy sector, and therefore the purchase of E.ON was necessary for the “defense of the decrease of utility prices.” Getting back the gas company is also of inestimable value from the point of view of national security because of the gas facilities where Hungary can store 70% of its yearly gas consumption.

As for the purchase itself. “Several independent assessments showed the economic justifiability of the purchase in the long run.  The state ownership guarantees the secure gas supply of Hungary and it serves as a solid foundation for future economic growth,” reads the statement of the ministry released to MTI. I must say that this is a pretty weak response to the very serious charge of financial irresponsibility with taxpayer money.

In the right-wing media the silence is deafening. The only article I found was in MNO (Magyar Nemzet Online). It was posted at 17:33 and is a bare outline of how the documents were acquired by atlatszo.hu and what the documents show. It seems that, since the Ministry of National Development hadn’t yet responded to the revelations, the paper’s editors didn’t know what the right position was on this particular issue. I guess they will eventually find their voices.

As for the Fidesz-friendly prosecutors, they were quick to charge socialist and liberal politicians with an abuse of fiduciary duty for selling state properties at prices they considered too low. But it is unlikely they will ever charge Fidesz politicians with the same abuse for buying state properties at prices that are too high.

The latest nationalization plan: Dunaferr

Members of the Orbán government don’t like the word “nationalization.” To be precise, they don’t like the Hungarian word államosítás for nationalization. After all, they claim, the word államosítás can be used only for nationalization without compensation. As it happened after 1945 and especially after 1948. Today the state simply buys companies the government deems strategically important. Mind you, as usual the Orbán government doesn’t tell the whole truth about the recent nationalizations. After all, one of the first  moves of the Orbán government was the nationalization of public schools previously in the hands of the local communities. No one compensated them for their loss. The next step was the nationalization of hospitals. Again, no money exchanged hands.

This government seems to be enamored with the old socialist system of state ownership and centralization although they should be the first ones to realize its pitfalls, which eventually led to the total collapse of the socialist system. But I guess they think they can do better than those old party hacks. I don’t think that I’m alone in thinking that Orbán and his comrades are dead wrong.

I could go on and on listing companies, from MOL to E.ON and Rába, that have been taken over either in full or in part by the Hungarian state. E.ON cost the Hungarian taxpayers 870 million euros and MOL,1.88 billion euros. And now the Hungarian government has offered to buy the ISD DUNAFERR Company Group in Dunaújváros, which is one of the largest industrial firms in Hungary. The company is a diversified manufacturer of steel products. They produce hot rolled, pickled, cold rolled, galvanized strips and sheets, and hollow steel sections for engineering, automotive, and construction products as well as for the production of steel structures, household appliances, and other parts.

The company, owned early on by the Hungarian state, lost money year after year until the government managed to sell it to the Ukrainian Donbass Group in 2004. Later it was taken over by a Russian company. Eventually, the company became profitable but since the 2008-2009 financial crisis Dunaferr has suffered mightily. In an article that appeared on privatbankar.hu today one can see telling graphs of Dunaferr’s losses and debts.

DunaferrA few days ago the company announced that because of its financial losses, it will have to let 1,500 workers go. Such a decision came at a very wrong time for the Orbán government. Dunaújváros plays a key role in the economy of Fejér County. We must also keep in mind that Viktor Orbán’s beloved Felcsút is also in Fejér County. Székesfehérvár, the first capital of Hungary, is the county seat and the city to which the Orbáns eventually moved and where the young Viktor went to high school. So, the whole issue has a personal aspect for Orbán as well.

On Monday morning Economics Minister Mihály Varga was dispatched to talk to the managers of Dunaferr in order to find a solution to the company’s problems. I assume Varga tried to convince the management of Dunaferr to postpone its decision to downsize its work force.  No buyout offer was discussed.

The decision to make an offer was reached hastily that same day during a cabinet meeting, which was conveniently and appropriately held in Székesfehérvár due to the August 20th celebrations.

Such quick decisions are typical of Viktor Orbán’s leadership style. I am certain that this particular decision, just like all the others, was the prime minister’s alone. Given the company’s dire financial straits it’s hard to imagine that no one in the cabinet raised doubts about the Hungarian state’s ability to take on another losing concern. But at these meetings Orbán is surrounded by yes-men; he doesn’t have to fear serious opposition. Perhaps at the meetings of the high brass of Fidesz there are men like László Kövér or even János Lázár who can have some influence over him, but such people don’t exist among the few ministers and the more numerous undersecretaries handpicked by the prime minister.

In the past it happened that the Hungarian state took over companies allegedly in order to prevent a loss of jobs and yet shortly after the nationalization the new owner, the Hungarian state, had to fire hundreds or even thousands of workers. In the case of Malév, the airline actually folded. It would be good to know whether the government has any business plan that would enable the company to continue employing its 7,500 workers and at the same time turn a profit.

I very much doubt that there is such a plan, so it is likely that sooner or later Dunaferr, this time as a concern owned by the Hungarian state, will have to let thousands of workers go. (Probably after the 2014 elections.) Meanwhile good money is being thrown after bad, as the saying goes. How long can all this go on, especially since only today I read that the deficit is on the rise again?

Nationalization Hungarian style

It is hard not to notice that the Orbán government is very fond of state ownership, especially in business sectors that they deem of “vital interest to the nation.” The first major venture of the Hungarian government was the purchase of a 21.1% share in MOL. It was a fantastic deal for the Russian company that owned these shares and a truly rotten one for the Hungarian government. As we discussed at the time, the Orbán government overpaid: 22,400 forints per share. Today the price is 16,350.

The next move was to buy out Rába Automotive Holding, whose stock is languishing on the Budapest Stock Exchange. This was followed shortly thereafter by the purchase of the German E-ON storage facilities. Again the price was too high according to people in the know.

So, one can ask,what is the Orbán government after? When we hear about the nationalization of private property, we tend to think of the kind that took place in 1948-49 when one day the store owner arrived to open up his small store only to be barred from entering. Surely, this kind of nationalization is out of the question today. If the state wants to have a greater share in the economy, it has to find more subtle ways of achieving its desired end.

Policy Agenda, an economic and political think-tank, estimates that up to date the Orbán government has spent more than three trillion Hungarian forints on purchasing or acquiring in one way or the other hitherto privately owned businesses. In most cases, at least outside of the energy sector, the state doesn’t actually want to own these companies. Rather, it wants to change the ownership structure of a particular business sector. In plain language, to take away from some in order to give to others.

Reaching hands / tmblr.com

Reaching hands / tmblr.com

One method is direct interference in the ownership of entire business sectors. The government is able by legal means to force current business owners to give up their businesses and sell them to others. The transfer in such cases is direct; the state is not an intermediary.

A good example of this type of state interference is the pharmacies. Soon after the Orbán government came into power the decision was reached that by a certain date all pharmacies must be owned by a practicing pharmacist working on the premises. Now it seems that relatively few employees want to buy their boss’s pharmacy although the government is offering loans. So for the time being the state will have to step in and assume “temporary” ownership.

Another example of direct transfer of ownership is the heavily criticized land lease program by which state-owned lands are distributed to people close to Fidesz and their relatives. By legal means the government can also achieve a transfer of ownership in the banking sector by demanding a minimum 50% Hungarian stake in all banks in the country.

A second method of ownership transfer is for the state to make a certain segment of the economy a monopoly. Cases in point: the monopolization of tobacco products or, earlier, of  slot machines. Here the state not only interferes with private property ownership but shuts down all activities connected to a market segment. The same thing happened to the so-called Elizabeth lunch vouchers, the issuance of which became a state monopoly. It’s no wonder that the European Commission objects to the practice.

A third method used by the Orbán government to achieve a change of ownership is price fixing. No one doubts that a government has the right to adjust tax laws, but when it also decides the final price of the product the owners of the enterprise might be forced to sell because of financial pressures. The much lauded mandatory lowering of utility prices is a good example of this method.

A fourth method of ownership transfer occurs when the central government takes over the responsibilities of the municipalities and consequently their business activities. This is what happened in the case of schools and hospitals. The municipalities now own the buildings and therefore are responsible for their maintenance but the activities within these buildings are supervised by the central government.

I doubt that we’ve seen the end of the state’s expansion into the domestic economy. If tobacco products could be made a monopoly why not have national liquor stores? I’m also certain that casinos are on the list. Perhaps the transfer of Margaret Island from District XIII to the City of Budapest is the first step in building a state casino on the island.

A final note on the French Suez  Environment  Co. that was part owner of Pécs’s water company. You may recall that shortly after Zsolt Páva, the new Fidesz mayor, took office in 2009 security officers in the dead of night locked out the employees of Suez and the city forcibly took over the company. The head of the company couldn’t even enter the building. Suez naturally sued. It was only a few days ago that Páva proudly announced that they settled with Suez for 7.5 billion forints instead of the 10 billion (34  million euros) originally demanded by Suez. The central government will take over part of the obligation.  Meanwhile the price of water has gone up substantially and local MSZP officials claim that investors cannot be convinced to come to Pécs. They all remember the fate of Suez. Currently unemployment in the city is 13%, well above the national average.

Who ever said that governments were great entrepreneurs?