Tag Archives: Tamás Szemerey

György Matolcsy, a headache for Viktor Orbán

In the last few weeks György Matolcsy, chairman of Hungary’s central bank, appeared before parliament twice, and his performances there have been the butt of jokes.

The Hungarian National Bank is supposed to be an independent entity in the sense that its chairman cannot be instructed either by the government or by parliament as far as its monetary policy is concerned. Parliament can, however, exercise a supervisory function over the bank’s activities. Given the recent scandals surrounding the Hungarian National Bank, Matolcsy was required to answer questions from the floor.

On both May 17 and June 13 Matolcsy was asked about the details of the bank’s foundations and the billions these foundations either lent or gave away to Matolcsy’s friends and family members. On both occasions, MSZP’s Gergely Bárándy posed the questions, questions that Matolcsy either couldn’t answer or refused to answer. He simply brushed them aside and repeated three times: “Sham! Sham! Sham!” He declared that anyone who attacks him and the National Bank is doing great harm to the Hungarian currency. In return, Bárándy called him a liar. A few days later the Hungarian National Bank’s press department announced that Chairman Matolcsy is suing Bárándy for slander.

György Matolcsy at his appearance in the parliament on May 17 / MTI / Photo: Tibor Illyés

György Matolcsy at his appearance in parliament on May 17 / MTI / Photo: Tibor Illyés

This first performance was followed by a second, when again the opposition pressed Matolcsy regarding the money that was passed to the small bank of Tamás Szemerey, who happens to be Matolcsy’s first cousin. MSZP members of parliament also wanted to know what Szemerey’s wife was doing on the board of one the central bank’s foundations.

Matolcsy’s answer was curious to say the least. He has many cousins who have not received any money from the Hungarian National Bank. For example, László Trócsányi, the current minister of justice, is also a cousin through the Darányi and Héjjas families. Moreover, Márton Kasnyik, a journalist at 444.hu who is very critical of him, is also a cousin. Trócsányi, “although he greatly admires the bank chairman,” rushed to correct the record. He is in no way related to Matolcsy, he said, although Matolcsy had earlier claimed that the information about the family ties came from Trócsányi himself. As for Kasnyik, Matolcsy’s claim is far-fetched. Their last common ancestor lived sometime in the eighteenth century.

Bárándy didn’t stop at family ties. He also asked the bank chairman about numerology. He wanted to know whether it is true that Matolcsy has something against the number 8, and whether it is true that he banished the offending number both inside and outside of the bank. No more Room 8 inside. And the official address of the bank was changed from Szabadság tér 8-9 to Szabadság tér 9. Also, Bárándy wanted to know whether it is true that only people who were born on August 20, 1984 can work in the secretariat of the bank. Matolcsy’s reaction was one of great indignation. But instead of denying the rumors, he simply insisted that his antagonists are concocting conspiracy theories against him.

It was at this point that people began to question the mental competence of the bank chairman, including Gergely Bárándy himself who expressed his doubts about Matolcsy’s mental state on ATV’s Egyenes beszéd (Straight Talk).

Before I return to Matolcsy’s more serious problems, let me insert a bit of family history here. The Matolcsy genealogy was thoroughly researched by a relative, and the almost 100-page family tree is quite impressive. Students of history know the Matolcsy name mainly because of Mátyás Matolcsy (1905-1953), apparently a brilliant economist who ended up as a far-right politician in the 1930s and 1940s. He became a member of the Arrow Cross party and in 1946 received a ten-year jail sentence. He died in jail. Mátyás is only a distant relative of György.

It is a mystery why Matolcsy felt compelled to bring up the Darányi and Héjjas families. Kálmán Darányi, prime minister of Hungary between 1936 and 1938, is associated with the radical right in Hungarian politics, especially during the second half of his premiership when he appointed Germanophile politicians to his cabinet and had a hand in the preparation of the First Anti-Jewish Law. As for the Héjjas family, Iván Héjjas is synonymous with the White Terror. While Pál Prónay was in charge of the summary executions in Transdanubia, Héjjas was at the helm in the territories between the Danube and the Tisza rivers. Search me why a sane man would brag about such a lineage in connection with an alleged relative who turned out not to be a relative at all.

Turning back to the pressure being brought to bear on Matolcsy. After two years of wrangling in court, the Hungarian National Bank was ordered to release a study Századvég did for the bank for the modest sum of 1.8 billion forints. It turned out that the study the bank received had nothing whatsoever to do with the topic Századvég was supposed to analyze. It was, it seems, just another instance of money being laundered through Századvég with the assistance, in this case, of the National Bank.

Yesterday Matolcsy received a letter from Mario Draghi, chairman of the European Central Bank, who explained again that “Article 123 TFEU prohibits the ECB and national central banks from purchasing public debt instruments directly on the primary market.” In brief, the Hungarian central bank cannot invest in government bonds even if they are purchased on the primary market by its foundations.

And one final note. There are people of some importance in the Fidesz ranks who have reservations about Matolcsy’s activities. One is Gergely Gulyás, one of Orbán’s deputies, who is usually an eloquent defender of everything the Orbán government does. So when he says that “there have been some questionable financial decisions by the foundations,” it must mean that not all the Fidesz bigwigs support Matolcsy, that they are worried about the troubles his activities have brought to the party. Further proof that Gulyás must have reservations about the increasingly shady affairs of the government and other Fidesz-controlled institutions like the prosecutor’s office or the National Bank is that in a recent interview he admitted that several times he had toyed with the idea of leaving politics altogether. Indeed, this articulate, smart, always impeccably dressed “young gentleman,” coming from the upper middle class of the Buda bourgeoisie (budai úri fiú), simply doesn’t fit in with the likes of the brutish Szilárd Németh, his fellow deputy chairman of Fidesz. He comes across as someone who, in a different setting, would be a traditional conservative, and a conservative could never feel entirely at home in Fidesz.

June 16, 2016

Developments in the Hungarian National Bank corruption case

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.

Lajos Kósa explains his interpretation of the connection between György Matolcsy and his foundations

Lajos Kósa explains the connection between György Matolcsy and his foundations

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.

May 2, 2016

The Hungarian National Bank’s foundations and their beneficiaries

Last night, after a legal battle, the lists of all the grants the six Hungarian National Bank foundations approved in the last two years were finally released. It will take some time for analysts to sort through these lists to figure out who got how much for what from the foundations. Not only are the lists long, but it can happen that the same person or company received grants from several foundations.

The six foundations of the Hungarian National Bank have complicated names starting with Pallas Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom, courage, inspiration, and many other virtues. By now only acronyms are used, like PADA, PADOC, and PADS. In any case, György Matolcsy sank 265.65 billion forints or 855.7 million euros of public money into his foundations. He had no intention of ever revealing where all that money would eventually end up. But the Kúria, Hungary’s highest court, decided otherwise. Hence the release of the lists of foundation grants.

These foundations, in addition to serving as sources of grants to the regime’s favorites, also provide job opportunities and extra income for close associates or friends of the management of MNB. The yearly salaries of the six foundation directors amount to 320 million forints. In addition, 30 individuals serve as paid members of their boards. Some people have multiple jobs at different foundations.

It will take some time to determine the greatest beneficiaries of György Matolcsy’s largesse. But so far we can say that they all seem to be politically close to the present government. I would place many of them on the far right of the Hungarian political spectrum.

The building of the Hungarian National Bank

The building of the Hungarian National Bank

One major beneficiary was New Wave Media Kft., whose managing director is István Száraz. It recently acquired two internet news sites: vs.hu and Origo. It also owns two English-language sites: welovebudapest.com and welovebalaton.hu. They seem to be useful sites for potential tourists. One can learn very little about the corporate structure of New Wave from its website, but Hungarian newspapers seem to know that György Matolcsy’s cousin, Tamás Szemerey, is one of the owners.

According to a quick estimate, New Wave received grants from all six foundations, amounting to more than 500 million forints. Over and above this amount 70 million forints was given directly to the ailing vs.hu website. In addition, New Wave received 14 million forints for the translation of three books by George Friedman, a geopolitical forecaster of Hungarian origin who seems to be an admirer of Viktor Orbán.

The foundations poured quite a bit of money into publishing ventures–translations as well as original works. One book found worthy of translating–this time into Polish, Romanian, Czech, and Ukrainian–was Chess and Poker: Chronicle of the Victorious Battles of the Hungarian Economic War of Independence, written by Matolcsy’s secretary, Helga Wiedermann. The book created quite a stir in Hungary when it appeared. Wiedermann recounted that on November 17, 2011, when the Hungarian government officially announced that it had decided to turn to the IMF for a loan, Matolcsy had lunch with three representatives of Goldman Sachs. He told them about the decision four hours before the official announcement. According to Wiedermann, one of three visitors immediately excused himself to go to the rest room, presumably to inform, directly or indirectly, Goldman’s forex trading desk. The EUR/HUF chart from that day shows immediate buying pressure after Matolcsy’s indiscretion. I wrote about this incident shortly after the book appeared in March 2014. So now this book will be available to a larger reading public. The cost of translation, printing, and advertising was 68.5 million forints plus VAT.

Kairosz Publishing House, the favorite of the Hungarian right, received 39 million forints for the publication of a six-volume series on Hungarian history by Dr. Miklós Kásler. And no, his doctorate is not in history. He is the director of the National Institute of Oncology. For a number of years he has appeared on state television with his own version of Hungarian history. The members of the board found the publication of this multi-volume work important because “it can serve as a counterbalance to the strongly globalized historical view arriving from the West.” It is supposed “to form the world view of new generations and to strengthen the patriotic sentiment against the globalist views.” The six volumes cover Hungarian history from the arrival of the Magyars in the Carpathian basin to, I assume, the glorious governance of Viktor Orbán.

A new book–“Unorthodox Eccentrics” (Unortodox különcök)–by István Lovas, the Jewish anti-Semite with a questionable past, was also found worthy of financial assistance. It too was published by Kairosz. The book is supposed to be a comparison of the Hungarian, Icelandic, and Malaysian handling of the recent economic crisis. According to the review I read, it is mostly about Viktor Orbán the brave and “everybody else.”

Among the grant recipients is another “favorite” of mine, Tamás Fricz. He calls himself a political scientist and for a while was actually an associate of the Political Science Institute of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. A few years ago the new director of the Institute had the courage to throw him out since Fricz is a Fidesz propagandist, pure and simple. More about his anti-German and anti-Israeli propaganda can be found in one of my earlier posts. Fricz’s subsidized book is a collection of 80 articles written between January 2013 and October 2014. The publisher received 1.2 million forints to help defray costs.

Finally, a 1.5 million grant was given to the Szabad Piac Alapítvány for the publication of the Hungarian translation of Tom G. Palmer’s edited volume After the Welfare State: Politicians Stole Your Future, You Can Get It Back. The book is available online. Palmer’s introduction begins: “Young people today are being robbed. Of their rights. Of their freedom. Of their dignity. Of their futures. The culprits? My generation and our predecessors, who either created or failed to stop the world-straddling engine of theft, degradation, manipulation, and social control we call the welfare state.”

So far I have spent very little time perusing the lists, but I think that even these few examples give us an idea of the mission of the Hungarian National Bank’s foundations. Not financial literacy, not economic research, but the promulgation of Orbán’s ideology and the dissemination in Hungarian of the limited, questionable support it finds in the West. And, of course, assistance for the government’s friends and family.

April 23, 2016