Tag Archives: exchange rate

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.

Viktor Orbán and his fellow oligarchs

The Orbán government has given up the idea of solving the forex loan problem quickly and in one fell swoop. For a couple of weeks it looked as if Viktor Orbán was thinking of a radical solution that would have meant making the banks pay the difference between the exchange rate at the time of the issuance of the loan and the current exchange rate. This could have been a tremendous burden. Just to give you an an idea, if someone took out a loan in Swiss francs in 2008 he paid 143.83 forints for one Swiss franc. Today the exchange rate is 241.51 forints to one Swiss franc.

The original idea was borrowed from the Croatian government’s decision a few weeks ago. There is, however, a huge difference in the number of people with forex mortgages in Croatia and Hungary.  Apparently the “nuclear option” was abandoned because the government realized that the entire Hungarian banking sector could go under as a result.

In no small measure Sándor Csányi was responsible for this change of heart or at least for the government’s realization of the possibly grave consequences of such a move. After all, he sold a large number of his OTP shares which by itself prompted some panicky follow-through on the Budapest stock exchange. By now most observers interpret his move as a warning to Viktor Orbán. This is what can happen, and on a much larger scale, if the government goes through with its plan.

Those who don’t quite believe this scenario point out that no one knows how many OTP shares Csányi actually owns. A German source claims that what Csányi sold amounted to no more than 1% of his holdings. So, the argument goes, this shouldn’t have made a great impression on Viktor Orbán, who surely knows the details of Csányi’s finances.

But Ferenc Gyurcsány, who was interviewed on the subject, dismissed this argument. Csányi’s sale of this allegedly tiny portion of his holdings was not itself a threat. But implicit in this sale was the threat that if the government goes through with its plans he may dump the other 99%, the consequences of which might be immeasurable.

Gyurcsány knows Csányi only too well. When he was prime minister he had quite a bit to do with him because, after all, “he is a big player … with a tremendous amount of power.” In fact Gyurcsány agrees with János Lázár that Csányi and the other oligarchs have far too much power, which a prime minister must keep in check.  He himself normally sent them away and told them that they cannot expect special treatment from him. He admitted that as a result his relationship with Csányi and the others was not the best. He didn’t sit with them with in the VIP section at soccer games spitting out sunflower seeds, a reference to Viktor Orbán’s not exactly elegant habit.

As for János Lázár’s reference to Csányi as an octopus, apparently Orbán suggested that his chief of staff sit down for coffee with Csányi to smooth things over but Lázár ignored the suggestion. When Orbán inquired about the meeting, Lázár told the prime  minister that he has no intention of ever apologizing to Csányi. Orbán didn’t press the issue. I guess by then he decided that Csányi didn’t really deserve an apology, especially since he learned that Gordon Bajnai’s foundation had received a small grant from him. I’m sure that this “sin” will not be forgotten by the vengeful Viktor Orbán.

The relationship of Csányi, and the other oligarchs as well, with Orbán is complicated. For one thing, Csányi doesn’t seem to like him as a person. When Orbán was in opposition, Csányi often talked about him disparagingly in Gyurcsány’s presence. Admittedly, it is in the interest of these oligarchs to seek close relations with the powers that be. And yet if they feel that the government is working against their interests and that no amount of pressure will cause it to change its ways, they will not hesitate to abandon the prime minister and his party. Orbán cannot trust Csányi, Demján, and some of the others because they are not his men the way Lajos Simicska is. The behavior of Sándor Demján, who is up in arms about the nationalization of the credit unions, and Sándor Csányi seems to indicate that these oligarchs are fed up with the unpredictable, anti-business policies of the Orbán government.

There is another aspect of the relationship between the oligarchs and Viktor Orbán that has received very little attention. One mustn’t forget, Gyurcsány said, that the Orbán family’s wealth puts him and his family among the top five richest families in Hungary. Orbán has cleverly hid his and his family’s wealth, but he cannot hide behind front men and legal tricks forever. One day he will be caught. He became an MP practically straight out of college and today he is a billionaire. He is using his position to enrich himself and his family. That is not only immoral, it is a crime.

This is not how you become a billionaire

This is not how you become a billionaire

This interview took place with Olga Kálmán on ATV, and the reporter was visibly shaken by the news that the extended Orbán family may have become one of the five richest families in the country. Therefore she decided to follow up on the story. The next day she invited Mátyás Eörsi, a former SZDSZ MP and an old acquaintance of Viktor Orbán. Eörsi was also one of the members of a parliamentary committee that was supposed to find out how the former prime minister managed to acquire so many assets in a few years, allegedly from his modest salary. Unfortunately, creating these investigative committees in Hungary is a waste of time because they have practically no enforcement authority. They can’t even require witnesses to appear. This particular committee was just as useless as was, for example, the investigative committee on the sudden and unexpected decision of the first Orbán government to purchase Gripen fighter planes. Although the family’s enrichment was highly suspicious, the committee didn’t manage to pin anything on him. Olga Kálmán also took a good look at Orbán’s financial statements, the kind every MP must fill out yearly. These statements indicate that, especially given his five children, he could have led at best a modest middle-class life.

Like Gyurcsány, Mátyás Eörsi is convinced that the Orbán family is among the richest in Hungary. In fact, he is pretty certain that way back in 1992 when Fidesz sold the half of a very valuable building it received from the Antall government, the whole amount landed in the Orbán family’s coffers, laundered through about twenty phony companies. These were the companies that were later sold to two phantom buyers for one forint each.

Prior to becoming a member of parliament in 1990 Eörsi had a fairly lucrative legal practice. He didn’t start with nothing as Orbán did. Moreover, Eörsi’s parliamentary salary was a great deal higher than average. He claims based on his own experience that there is no way that Orbán could have saved enough money to buy the house he did after he lost the election.

Eörsi as a lawyer is especially interested in the “legal techniques” by which Orbán manages to hide his immense wealth with the assistance of his front men. As long as he is prime minister he has no problem controlling whatever is being handled by others. But what techniques did he use to guarantee access to his wealth once he is out of office?

One reason for Orbán’s many political successes is that his followers believe that he is a man of modest means who takes their side against the bankers, multinationals, and oligarchs. But what will happen if his people find out that their beloved prime minister is in fact one of those hated oligarchs?