Two statements by senior politicians from Hungary’s governing Fidesz party over past two weeks:
“Obviously, during the planning of next year’s budget we will have to reckon with whether we can meet (the 3 percent 2010 target). We hope we can meet this undertaking by the (previous) Bajnai government, which would bring the budget deficit below 3 percent.”
“Hungary will seek a two-year precautionary deal with the IMF and EU for 2011-12 in the range of 10-20 billion euros and hopes to agree with lenders on a higher budget gap than 3 percent of GDP for next year.(…) The deep structural reforms which the government is planning for 2011 and 2012 will have significant additional costs, and the difficult situation of the euro zone economy could also make deep deficit cuts hard next year. (…)
In Hungary, totally contradictory statements from the government are no barrier to analyzing and predicting political tendencies.
These statements reflect uncertainties over the direction of economic policy within Fidesz. While both Navracsics and Matolcsy agree that the budget-deficit target for 2010 (3.8% of GDP) is carved in stone, the 2011 deficit goal is apparently up in the air.
Hungary’s government is set to meet this month with its main creditors, the EU and the IMF. The Hungarians will probably try to persuade them that minor fiscal loosening, along the implementation of certain reforms, may be a good medium-term investment for the country and won’t endanger economic stability. The success of this move is highly uncertain, as EU leaders and investors are still afraid of financial turbulence – or even wholesale collapse – among its members. Moreover, Hungary’s forint tumbled and its credit-default swap prices shot up following the recent crises in Greece and Romania, demonstrating that Hungary’s economy is still extremely vulnerable and fragile. Both the IMF and the EU are reluctant to let countries loosen their fiscal policies if they are able to keep their budget deficts below 3%.
So the uncertainty remains: The generosity of IMF and EU will decide whether Navracsics or Matolcsy will prevail.
Péter Krekó-Krisztián Szabados
Few institutions generate stronger hatred among emerging-market investors these days than Romania’s Constitutional Court. By striking down the Romanian government’s pension cuts June 25, the court sparked financial panic that led to a general loss of investor confidence in the entire Central and Eastern European region. As a result of the court’s ruling, the IMF decided to postpone its June 28 review of its €20 billion standby loan; fund managers are currently discussing the fate of the loan’s next €900 million tranche – money that the country desperately needs.
The ruling sent credit-default swap prices skywards while currencies across the region tumbled. The Romanian lei hit a record low of 4.37 to the euro on June 28. Not only investors who took the hit: Households and companies that have foreign currency-denominated loans are now at a higher risk of default than ever before, especially in Hungary, where more than 600,000 households have foreign-currency credits. Weaker currencies and higher debt-service expenses can hamper economic recovery; moreover, a rise in non-performing loans may destabilize the banking sector. It would be unjust to blame Romania’s Constitutional Court for all Central Europe’s economic hardships ¬ but its ruling is helping to destabilize the region’s still-unstable economies.
After the court handed down its decision, Romania’s government decided its only recourse was to raise the value-added tax to 24% from 19% as of July 1, or lose its IMF lifeline. Romania now has the second-highest VAT in the European Union behind Hungary, Sweden and Denmark at 25%. This kind of austerity measure will affect all Romanians, and not just pensioners. Is there anyone in Europe who is satisfied with the court’s action (besides maybe a few hundred thousand Romanian retirees)? The fact that the Constitutional Court is one of the most important democratic counterweights to the government is poor comfort to the millions who must bear the brunt of the ruling.
Across the border in Hungary, the problem is just the opposite. There, the governing Fidesz party is systematically eliminating institutional checks on its power, emboldened by a two-thirds parliamentary majority that allows the party to amend the Constitution singlehandedly. Last month, Fidesz MPs watered down the Constitutional Court’s independence by changing the rules for nominating the judges. Under the old system, each parliamentary caucus had the right to delegate one member to a committee that would nominate a judge by consensus. The full Parliament would then vote on the nominee, with a two-thirds majority required for confirmation to the court. Under Fidesz’s new rules, the governing majority will nominate Constitutional Court judges. Parliament still needs to confirm each candidate with a two-thirds majority, but Fidesz controls 68% of the seats. Fidesz can thus appoint and elect Constitutional Court judges on its own.
Fidesz’s efforts have met with harsh criticism at home and abroad. Outgoing President László Sólyom expressed his displeasure by vetoing the law on Constitutional Court nominations. However, Hungarian law makes it easy for MPs to override presidential vetoes, so Sólyom’s gesture was largely symbolic.
Romania and Hungary are grappling with problems that are mirror images of each other: In Hungary, Fidesz is meddling with nomination processes to switch off institutional controls on its powe; the Constitutional Court is just the tip of the iceberg. In Romania, an overly independent Constitutional Court is wreaking havoc across the region. The underlying tension is nothing new: Economic and governmental efficiency and the high principles of democracy are more often enemies than friends.
On the other hand, Fidesz doesn’t necessarily need the Constitutional Court to drive Hungary’s economy to near-bankruptcy; as the events of June 2010 proved, Hungary’s government is perfectly capable of doing that on its own.
Alex has just arrived back from Brussels, where he had the honour of posing a question to Gert-Jan Koopman, economic affairs adviser to European Commission President José Manuel Barrosso:
Alex: In Hungary, the people who are almost sure to win next April’s elections are talking about letting the budget deficit slide to 7.5% instead of the 3.9% agreed with the IMF. Since the country is small and is not a member of the Eurozone, would this pose a problem for the European Commission?
Koopman: “That would obviously be a problem… Hungary has a convergence plan and we would hope that Hungary sticks to it as much as possible.”
“It’s true that Hungary is a small country that doesn’t use the euro. But if every member starts relaxing its budget discipline… then we wouldn’t have much discipline anymore.”
This response strengthens our opinion that Fidesz, which is all but certain to win Hungary’s April elections with an unassailable majority, will face huge difficulties if they ignore the 2010 budget-deficit target of 3.9% of GDP and try to implement fiscal stimulus policies. The main barrier is not IMF, as several analysts have suggested, but rather the European Union as it trembles in the shadow of the financial markets.
In our previous analysis we described the situation following the Greek crisis as possibly advantageous for Hungary:
Predictably, the Greek crisis caused a domino effect in emerging markets as investors became skittish. The prestige of the euro has also been seriously damaged. Even so, Hungary should be grateful to Greece. After 2006, Hungary gained a reputation as the “liar of Europe” – not just because of former Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsány’s infamous “Oszöd speech,” but because of Hungary’s much higher-than-expected budget deficit in 2006. Hungary can now pass on this title to Greece… By tightening their belts and pursuing strict fiscal policy during the recession, Hungarians have become models of prudence, to such an extent that Greek Prime Minister Geórgios Papandréou attempted to calm the markets by saying he would follow the Hungarian path.
At the same time, we added:
The bad news is that Fidesz, the party that is all but sure to win this April’s election, cannot let the deficit climb back upwards.
Fidesz’s chances of renegotiating Hungary’s $15.7 billion (€11.5 billion) loan from the IMF may be better. We should recall the rumours that the IMF had agreed to allow Fidesz to run a deficit of 5.5% of GDP for 2010. While this hearsay has proven false (Fidesz, still an opposition party, is not a typical negotiation partner for IMF), it is based on the fact that the IMF has been open to modifying the terms of its loans in the past.
Fidesz will have a much tougher time convincing the EU that it needs to loosen its deficit target. Koopman’s comment reflects fears of a domino effect – if Hungary wants to loosen the conditions, everyone else will, too. Given the shock over the Greek crisis, the Hungarian economy’s less-than-stellar reputation, and past experience, fears of Hungary falling back into a state of “fiscal alcoholism” would be justified.
Fidesz seems to be getting the message: The party’s policy wonks are talking less and less about fiscal stimulus and Fidesz’s election manifesto is cautious on this question. On the other hand, Fidesz still hopes it will have some room for bargaining – and they probably do. Former National Bank of Hungary Governor Zsigmond Járai, an economist close to Fidesz, recently declared that a 5% GDP deficit would be acceptable for both the IMF and the EU. Given that Fidesz’s “offer” was 7-8% several months ago, we can see a clear tendency toward improvement. And, since serious doubts have arisen about Hungary’s ability to fulfil its 2010 deficit target, 5% may prove quite realistic.
Even if the IMF and the EU are willing to let Hungary’s deficit rise slightly (8% of GDP is out of the question), the price of their indulgence may be deep and extensive economic reforms – an extremely unappetizing prospect for the next government.
Peter Kreko-Alex Kuli