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Monday, December 28, 2009

Hungary's Economic Correction Still Fails To Convince

"Hungary’s potential economic growth should be 2 percentage points over the corresponding EU figure in order to ensure convergence".
Prime Minister Gordon Bajnai, speaking in London in October
Two contrasting pieces of news about Hungary's economic plight have caught my eye over the last week. In the first place, and in an evident sign of the times, retail sales reportedly fell at their fastest annual rate in over ten years in October, whilst secondly, and more surprisingly, I learnt that Hungary’s economic-sentiment index rose to its highest level since the October last year, when the gale force wind sent by the fall of Lehman Brothers engulfed the country. How can this be, I thought? These two pieces of information would, at least on the surface, seem to be pretty contractictory, with the former suggesting the deepest recession in living memory is getting even worse, while the latter seems to add backing to government claims that the worst is now behind them.

In fact Hungary’s retail sales dropped 0.6% month on month in October, just slightly more than they did in September (-0.5%). In fact Hungary’s retail sales have risen only twice in monthly terms over the past 12 months, and one of these months was June (+0.2%) when consumer anticipation of an impending 5% VAT hike drove large crowds into furniture and household electronics stores. Not unexpectedly this was followed by the July numbers, which saw the largest monthly drop in a decade (-2.3%).

But a glance at the chart below should also reveal that the decline in retail sales is now long term, and not just a product of the recent crisis. Sales peaked in mid 2006, and have since been falling steadily, and while the year-on-year drop was as large as 7.5% in October - another decade long negative record - in fact they are now down nearly 12% from the August 2006 peak, and there are no strong grounds for believing that this trend will now reverse. And the reasons are obvious since in addition to shrinking personal income levels, and a tighter credit environment credit, Hungary's ageing and declining population is also increasingly acting as a damper on household consumption.

In fact the situation with vehicle and auto part sales (which are not included in Eurostat retail sales) is even worse than the above data indicate, since given that Hungary is in the midst of a fiscal crisis, there is no room for a cash for clunkers type programme, and sales volume fell an annual 40.1% in the ten months to October, with the decline in October alone being 50.5% (following a 52.3% annual drop in September).

And there is worse news to come for the car sector, since even though the government hiked both the excise tax on petrol and the rate of VAT to 25% from 20% in July, sending fuel prices up like never before, yet another excise tax increase is now on its way. The excise tax on fuel is set to go up as of 1 January 2010 driving the price of gasoline and diesel up by roughly HUF 11 and HUF 7 a litre, respectively. As VAT is levied also on the excise tax, the VAT burden will also increase even if the rate itself won't change.

Confidence Rises

On the other hand according to the GKI sentiment index, confidence is now back at its highest level since October last year, when the credit crisis engulfed the country. The rise follows widely publicised government forecasts that the economy is now heading out of its worst recession in 18 years. The GKI sentiment index rose to minus 25.4 in December from minus 27.5 in November and a record-low of minus 46.2 in April. Business confidence rose to minus 16.7 from minus 18.9 and consumer confidence increased to minus 50.1 from minus 51.9.

According to Finance Secretary of State Tamas Katona Hungary’s economic decline bottomed in the third quarter of 2009 and the rate of contraction should ease in the final three months of the year. Katona suggested the economy may shrink 5 percent in the fourth quarter after contracting 7.1 percent in July-September. The economy is likely to contract an annual 6.7 percent this year and 0.6 percent next year before a return to growth in 2011, according to government forecasts (the EU Commission forecast a 6.5% decline in 2009, and a 0.5% one in 2010, while the IMF are predicting a 6.7% drop this year followed by a 0.9% drop next year). In the short term therefore, all are agreed that the economy will keep contracting, even if the possibility of a quarter of positive growth (which would technically mean exiting recession as currently defined) is not excluded.

The real issue is thus not 2010, but the extent of any rebound in 2010. It is on this rebound, and the level of inflation associated with it, that the future Hungarian fiscal deficit numbers, and the even more critical debt to GDP numbers, sensitively depend. The EU Commission currently forecasts 3.1% growth in 2011, while the Hungarian Central Bank is forecasting 3.4% growth in 2011 (see chart below).

The question is, are these expectations for such a strong rebound in 2011 really realistic, and even more to the point, is there any evidence for Prime Minister Bajnai's claim that a large number of analysts share his governments view that Hungary’s long term GDP trend growth potential is around 4%. Certainly I can say that this analyst doesn't. Even the reasonable and ever moderate Portfolio Hungary were moved to raise an eyebrow at this claim, saying they "read Bajnai’s statement with a measure of surprise, as GDP estimates for Hungary have been typically way below 4%". The most pessimistic forecast they had seen was below 2% (this would certainly be my view, possibly 1% trend growth would be realistic at this stage), and they stated they were unaware of any "serious estimates above the 3% mark". What is so striking (and in my view so unrealistic) about the Bank of Hungary forecast chart above, is that not only the median estimates seem to assume a "V" shaped rebound, even the outer limit, worst case type scenarious are based on the idea of a fairly strong rebound, and almost no consideration is given to the idea that this may not happen, and that the country may be stuck nearer to an "L" shaped non-rebound, where rates of contraction slow, and slow, but growth proves to be surprisingly elusive and hard to come by.

These issues are not new, and I have blogged about then before (in this post - Hungary's Trend Growth And Debt Sustainability - about the scenarios offered for debt repayment in a paper by Lajos Deli and Zsuzsa Mosolygó from the National Debt Agency. Despite protests to the contrary, and despite the IMF's argument that "In emerging market countries with debt overhangs, the “Keynesian” effect of fiscal adjustment is likely to be outweighed by “non-Keynesian” effects related to expectations and credibility" it is really all about growth, more growth, and only about growth.

Non-Keynesian effects have to do with the offsetting response of private saving to policy-related changes in public saving. In particular, if fiscal adjustment credibly signals improved public sector solvency, a fiscal contraction could turn out to be expansionary, as private consumption rises based on the view that future tax hikes will be smaller than previously envisaged.
IMF - Hungary, Request for Stand-By Arrangement, November 4, 2008
The simple issue is, if domestic demand is (for demographic reasons) not able to rebound as the IMF (and the signitaries of the very influential Oriens Report "Recovery, A Programme For Economic Revival In Hungary") imagine how is GDP growth going to be strong enough to reduce the weight of debt to GDP?

As everyone recognises, if domestic demand remains weak, growth will critically depend on exports, but the export potential of the economy will depend on the pace of recovery elswhere in the EU, and on relative prices as expressed through the value of the HUF, and almost no consideration is given to the possibility that either the HUF is overvalued compared to the need to export or that EU growth may also be weaker and harder to come by than most median forecasts are assuming.

The real question, as ever, is where the ingredients for growth are going to come from. Remember, Hungary's population is now declining steadily.

and ageing

and the working age population is also irredeemably falling.

As I said about the retail sales data above, they have now been falling since mid 2006, so it is hard to believe that we are going to see any significant resurgence (taking retail sales as a proxy for private consumer demand), especially as it seems Hungarian's are not now borrowing to anything like the extent they were two or three years ago (see below).

Where Is The Growth Going To Come From?

"Looking at the structure of the Hungarian economy I frankly have difficulty seeing where the growth is going to come from. Without a major devaluation (and even then given international circumstances) Hungary will have problems attracting FDI in even the reduced quanities it has been doing over the last five years. The domestically owned private sector has enormous problems and is tied closely to the level of state spending. The financial sector and business services suffers from international problems and it isn't as if Hungary's largest bank - OTP - doesn't have some fairly serious problems of its own tied up in Ukraine, Bulgaria etc. Agriculture and food processing? Well, perhaps - but that isn't in that great a state either."

"It is worth pointing out that except for a brief period at the end of the 1990s when privatization receipts and above trend economic growth eased the situation Hungary has had a long term problem with its external debt going back to 1978 that it has never really escaped from. Successive Hungarian governments have prioritised the precise payment of the debt and have refused to seek rescheduling or restructuring on the grounds that this would damage business confidence. One can actually read the history of economic policy prior to 2000 as being about securing Hungary's public financing needs given this policy choice, to the detriment of the needs of the real economy. I read the relaxation of budgetary discipline after 2000 (and especially post-2002) as being about the interaction of mounting frustration at low living standards among the population with the dynamic of party competition."

"That having been said, if one looks at the long view it is difficult to believe seriously that Hungary's debt burden will ever be paid off. Given that servicing these debts will depress the level of economic growth, I think it really is time that the EU, IMF and the authorities in Budapest swallowed hard and accepted reality - a realistic debt consolidation/restructure that takes in both the public and private sector debt is a fundamental condition of stablizing the situation. This is what no-one wants to recognise."
Mark Pithaway, Senior Lecturer in European Studies, UK Open University

Hungary’s third-quarter GDP contracted by 7.1% year on year in the July-September period compared to the 7.5% fall in Q2 .Quarter on quarter the economy contracted by1.8%, the sixth quarter in a row that the economy has shown negative growth.

Quarter on quarter Hungary's export-driven economy shrank 1.8 percent following a revised 1.9 percent contraction in the second quarter. This was the sixth quarter in a row that GDP growth was negative. The rate of contraction is down considerably on the 2.6% rate of fall seen in the first quarter, but the velocity of contraction is still alarmingly high.

In fact domestic demand fell by 13.3% year on year in the third quarter (see chart below), so the fall in GDP would have been much larger if it had not been for the impact of net trade.

Hungary’s export-import gap rose again in October, to 9 percentage points from 5.9ppts in September, after a record of 13.5 ppts in July, which was by far the largest in recent years.

This impact, of course, was not caused by a strong recovery in exports, but rather by the fact that imports fell even more than exports (on an annual basis). Basically, GDP when there is a movement in the net trade balance caused by a drop in imports GDP falls more slowly (following a pattern we have already seen in Spain, Greece etc). In fact, for statistical reasons a fall in imports appears as an INCREASE in GDP because the net trade position improves. But unless this drop in imports is accompanied by a significant improvement in the competitiveness of domestic industry (and hence a trade surplus driven by exports) then all you have is economic stagnation and falling living standards, since, for example, house prices will continue to fall, and everyone will feel worse off. Unemployment will obviously also rise, as those involved in the retail sector selling the imports will lose their jobs. People working in the ports for domestic directed external trade trade ditto.

This is the whole argument for devaluation in these kind of circumstances (Greece, Spain, Latvia, Hungary etc), since the devaluation not only helps export industries, it also helps the domestic sector by making imports more expensive. Thus, if demand was there, then a fall in imports would be compensated by a rise in domestic supply, and your interpretation of the equation would not hold.

The whole problem, however, in the cases of the former current account deficit countries is that the internal demand is now longer there, since it was based on unsustainable borrowing in the first place, borrowing that appeared to be supported by rising property values or state guarantees (in the case of fiscal deficits) as collateral. The property prices are now falling, and the deficits are now being slashed back, and neither are going to rise back again anytime soon and therefore the kind of borrowing we saw before isn’t coming back again anytime soon. So the bottom line is there is a sharp fall in consumption, whatever the headline GDP number says.

In fact the causal mechanism is that the absence of capital inflows leads to a drop in consumption, which in turn means there are less imports. But my big point is that the accounting mechanism used to generate the GDP number (making Net Exports a positive input convention) masks to some extent the actual drop in living standards, since Net Exports was previously negative (and hence a drag on GDP), and the drop in domestic consumption and imports simply makes it less negative.

Of course, there are two ways to make imports less attractive, one is devaluation and the other is structural reform to make the domestic sector more competitive, and that is the Oriens/Bajnai approach, and there is little objection at all to much of what they propose, except that, as we are seeing in one country after another this procedure doesn't act quickly enough to undo the severe distortions that had been produced earlier, but then I doubt, from what they say, that the Oriens signitaries would accept that these distortions were as severe as I argue they are - just look, for example, at the drop in domestic consumtion - 13% - and this after three years of near economic stagnation. Hope against hope.

This having been said, exports, and the current account balance have been improving in recent months, although not by a long way fast enough to push the economy back up towards growth. Hungary posted another huge foreign trade surplus of EUR 471 million in October, according to the latest revised numbers released by the Central Statistics Office. October marks the ninth month in a row when Hungary posted a trade surplus in the EUR 320-550 million range.

Despite this significant improvement in the trade balance the Current Account only just managed to sneak into surplus in the second quarter, largely as a result of the very strong negative balance in the income account, which is a product of the very negative net investment position of the Hungarian economy (ie non Hungarians own a long more of Hungary than Hungarian's own of the rest of the world, and this creates a huge imbalance, and as Mark Pittaway says the bullet will have to be bitten - one way or another - about what to do about this at some point.

In October, exports dropped 11.8% year on year (on a euro basis), while imports plunged by 20.8% year on year.

This gradual improvement in Hungarian exports has also lead to a modest recovery in the industrial sector, mainly due to stimulus-programme-induced stronger demand in western Europe. Industrial output fell 15.6 percent in the third quarter, down from a fall of 20.5 percent in the previous three months, while recent data showed output grew month on month for the second time in a row in October.

Against this background, weak exports, and domestic demand in full retreat it is not surprising that investment has been falling, and dropped 6.8% year on year in the third quarter.

What these continuing declines in investment mean is that the level of investment is now at much lower levels than it once was - below the 2005 level according to the rough and ready index I prepared for the chart below.

Construction activity is also well down, and has been for some long time now, following the sharp drop between summer 2006 and summer 2007 on the back of the first austerity programme (see chart).

Government consumption is also contracting due to the pressure to reduce the fiscal deficit.

All in all, the third quarter GDP data indicate that Hungary's domestic economy is not showing any signs of recovery whatsoever, nor should we expect it to do so. The hike in VAT in July hurt private consumption while capital spending has been continually cut back given the failure of export demand to rebound as strongly as hoped. The need to maintain a restrictive fiscal policy stance will also indirectly weigh on consumer and corporate spending, with the consequence that in my view GDP will decrease by nearly 7% in 2009 and then by around 1.5% in 2010.

Monetary Policy Tangle

Hungary's central bank (NBH) last week cut its base rate by 25 basis points to 6.25%. The move which suprised the market participants (the consensus had been for a 50-bp reduction in surveys conducted by both Portfolio.hu and Reuters) now means the benchmark rate has been cut by 3.25% since July. Not everyone was surprised however, since in an interview on 10 December, Centrak Bank MPC member Péter Bihari had said it would be wise to calm rate cut expectations. "Any overshoot in (rate cut) expectations can backfire later. We (the central bank) need to stay sober, and we also need to communicate this sobriety outside," he said.

Although Hungary’s inflation outlook might have justified a 50-bp cut, the recent weakening in the forint (the HUF hit a 6-week low vs. the EUR last week) and the rise in the 5-yr CDS spread to a 3-month may well have signalled the need for a more cautious move, since following events in Dubai and Greece questions are rising about how long the relatively favourable global investor mood can last. Also, the imminence of elections, and the dangers of fiscal loosening (either before or after the election) urge prudence, especially in the light of what we have just seen in Greece.

The smaller than expected move also suggests that easing will be cautious in the first months of next year, and that the bank will be sensitive to any signs of worsening market conditions (especially ahead of next spring’s elections). Weaknesses in the real economy still argue for lower rates, and without moving towards closing down the interest rate gap forint loans will never become competitive with Euro or CHF ones"

Despite this afternoon’s decision by the National Bank of Hungary (NBH) to cut interest rates by a smaller than expected 25bps to 6.25%, there is a good case for further monetary easing over the coming months. We continue to think that the profile for interest rates priced into the market is too high."

"Both we and the consensus had expected a larger 50bps cut today, although the fact that one member of the Council voted for a smaller 25bp reduction in November did suggest that a slowdown in the pace of easing was possible. The forint gained 0.25% against the euro immediately after the decision."

"Nonetheless, while policymakers may now move in smaller steps than we had previously thought, the case for further monetary easing remains strong. The decision to cut by just 25bps today is likely to have been motivated in part by signs that output in some sectors (notably industry) has started to pick up. But while the prospects for some parts of the economy have undoubtedly improved in recent months, the overall pace of recovery will remain subdued."

"In particular, domestic demand will remain a significant drag on growth. A combination of a fragile banking sector, a high proportion of fx-denominated debt and the continued rise in non-performing loans, means that the overall availability of credit remains constrained."

"And although the bulk of the tightening measures have now been implemented, a public sector wage freeze, and private sector wage restraint needed to offset the recent sharp rise in unit labour costs, means that the pain will linger into 2010 and 2011."
Neil Shearing, Capital Economics

Inflation Overshoots Expectations In November

Hungary’s consumer prices rose 5.2% year on year in November, an acceleration from the previous month (4.7%). Month on month prices were up 0.3% . This was an upside surprise since analysts forecasts had been for a rise of 5.0%.

The main reason for the increase was an increase in the prices of unprocessed food (especially fruits and vegetables), energy and fuel. Disinflation is slowing in tradable goods, driven mainly by the durable goods sector (especially new and used vehicles and televisions), while market services disinflation came to a halt (most service prices increased except for tourism and books).

The impression is that the underlying disinflation process has started to slow and there are risks to the medium term inflation outlook. The seasonally adjusted core inflation has been stagnant at around 5% since July, while the CPI adjusted for tax changes started to accelerate in November (it moderated from 3.7% YoY in June to 0.9% in October and picked up to 1.4% in November).

Which means the NBH’s inflation forecast of 1.9% for 2011 may come under pressure. Inflation may well accelerate to 5.6% in December and peak at around 5.8% in January and can then fall to below 3% by the end of 2010. As Neil Shearing says "Despite the uptick in inflation to 5.2% in November (from 4.7% in October), we support the Central Bank’s view that it will "significantly undershoot" the 3±1% target when July’s VAT hike drops out of the annual comparison." Still maintaining this sort of price range with the present Forint value is simply going to prolong and prolong the economic downturn.

Employment Falling As Unemployment Rises

Unsurprisingly, against this background unemployment is rising and rising, hitting 9.9% of the labour force in October, according to Eurostat seasonally adjusted data.

Total employment has been on a downward trend since the middle of 2006.

But one of the impacts of the economic crisis has been that employment in the public sector, after falling under the austerity programme has risen sharply since the spring (due to a number of employment schemes designed to keep unemployment down, especially in the regions), and is now back up above its earlier level.

Real ex-bonus wages (the central banks targeted measure of wage inflation) has been in negative territory (by around 1%) since the summer.

Bank Credit Turning Negative

As is well known a very high proportion of mortgages in Hungary are non-forint denominated (over 85%, mainly in Swiss Francs), but the HUF value of these mortgages has been falling for over a year now.

As has the total value of outsanding mortgages in any currency.

Although the stock of mortgages had not been high by some West European standards (around 50% of GDP), they had been growing at a rate of around 20% per annum over the last several years (see chart) but the crisis brought this to an end, and the year on year increase was down to only 2% by October, and will more than likely be negative by the end of the year. Which means, credit expansion and new house construction will NOT be driving any coming Hungarian recovery.

In the current climate, with unemployment rising, and wages falling, and an economy contracting at nearly 7% a year, it isn't hard to understand why not that much new bank lending is going on. Those who are creditworthy are trying hard to save, while those who need to borrow normally aren't that creditworthy, so pleading to the banks to lend more is rather like asking them to subsidise new bad debts, and that is really not something you can do. What kicked the whole current process off in Hungary was a short sharp credit crunch, but now it is the contraction in the real economy which is following its own dynamic, till someone finds a way to put a stop to it. It is the drop in output that is preventing banks from lending, and not banks being unwilling to lend that is causing the contraction to continue.

Election Chaos Looming

Having seen the shennanikins which have recently taken place in Greece, it was obvious that the run in to the coming election was always going to be complicated, with accusation and counter-accusation being thrown from one party to another. The big problem is that neither party has exactly clean hands in this context, but one thing seems sure, that the 2010 budget is liable to slippage, whether because of the current ruling party moving invoices from 2009 to 2010 (on the assumption that they are going to lose the election, so what the hell), or because the incoming party is going to make promises which will lead to an overspend which they will then blame on their predecessors.

A group of economists close to opposition party Fidesz now claim next year’s budget "is full of tricks", including unrealistic macroeconomic assumptions that will lead to a deficit far larger than the cabinet’s projection. The current Finance Ministry Péter Oszkó played down the criticism as politicking ahead of the coming elections, and this may well be, but some of the points they make to not, for all that, lack validity.

The 29 economists, who promoted a 'no’ vote on the 2010 budget bill in November, include Zsigmond Járai (Finance Minister of the Fidesz government and former Governor of the central bank), Ákos Péter Bod (Ministry of the Industry in the MDF cabinet and former Governor of the NBH), György Szapáry (former Deputy Governor of the NBH, currently responsible for international relations in Fidesz), Tamás Mellár (head of the statistics office (KSH) during the Fidesz government) and Károly Szász (head of financial markets watchdog (PSZÁF) in the Fidesz era).

Zsigmond Járai argues that, on the one hand the 2010 budget is based on unrealistic macroeconomic assumptions - e.g. only a 0.6% economic contraction while GDP may well shrink by considerably more, possibly by as much as 1.5%, while on the other planned austerity measures, like reduced subsidies, will also worsen the balance. Among his list of "overestimation tricks" the former central bank head mentioned VAT and corporate tax revenues. The economists claim that the underestimation of the GDP contraction will result in something like HUF 200 bn less budget revenues, adding that another HUF 200 bn shortfall due to smaller-than-expected revenues from taxes and contributions.

The current official estimate for the general government deficit in 2010 is 3.8% of GDP, a target which is considered to be realistic by both the IMF and the European Commission. The Fidesz economists claim the gap - without supplementary bufget changes - could be as high as 7-8% of GDP. György Matolcsy, a leading Fidesz economic spokesman stressed that such a large deficit would be unacceptable for Fidesz as well, and made clear that they are not saying such a massive budget overrun should be tolerated.

Matolcsy said the 2010 budget included no reforms or system overhauls to jumpstart growth in the second half of 2010 as the cabinet expects, and that in his opinion a sustainable growth path is unlikely to be reached before 2013.

The document has not been slow to attract criticism, and apart from Finance Minister Ozskó, Lajos Bokros, Hungary’s former Finance Minister and PM candidate from the minor opposition party MDF, lashed out at the group saying their argument was "ridiculous".

In an interview with public television MTV, Bokros said that "the only alternative to sovereign default was to cut budget spending, take away welfare contributions, e.g. the 13th-month pension and 13th-month wage in the public sector that spun the economy into catastrophe and that led to (government) debt to surge sky high." "How do you create growth from these (measures)? Only via reforms," he stressed.

A large part of the issue seems to revolve around what to do with the bulging debts of quasi governmental institutions like hospitals, the state-owned railway company MÁV and the Budapest Transport Company (BKV) . Fidesz seems to assume that these debts will need to be swallowed. Bokros does not agree: "If a budget were about consolidating the debts of every (state-owned) companies automatically and without restraint the next year, it would be but a rejection of any reform," he said. "Reforming" according to Bokros means not covering the debt of "inefficiently operating public institutions", because these liabilities had probably been accumulated due to their profligacy."So, what do you have to do then? [You need to implement] reforms and a create a competitive situation that will have inferior companies go bust and good-quality institutions double in size."

While sympathising with Bokros in the spirit, it is not clear to me that things are going to be so easy as he imagines in the letter. One thing is however clear, he is right that if solutions are not found for these issues, especially in the problematic pensions and health sectors, Hungary will go bankrupt.

One thing is clear though, life is not going to be easy in post election Hungary. If Fidesz is voted back to power it will create a new budget, a new tax regime and a new labour policy for as early as July, according to György Matolcsy, and the new government should also sign a new Stand-By Arrangement with the IMF. Matolcsy reiterated that Fidesz has three scenarios for the tax system: one proposing a radical reduction of personal income tax with a flat family rate; another which would decrease rates on the entire spectrum of taxes; and a third which would cut social-security and health-insurance contributions for employers and employees alike. The only thing which doesn't seem clear is how he expects to pay for all these, especially since he doesn't anticipate a serious return to growth before 2013.

Matolcsy also claims that the budget deficit will be 3-4 percentage points higher than the targeted 3.8% of GDP, citing central bank staff projections in their Inflation Report that the gap is likely to be 4.3% of GDP. Fidesz expects the gap to come in at 4.5% and foresees that state-owned enterprises such as the railway company would need debt consolidation amounting to 3% of GDP. Matolcsy also pointed out that there may be other downside risks to next year’s budget beyond the 7.5% deficit he claims it already incorporates, including a larger-than-expected contraction in consumption, unemployment and a fall in lending to households that could lead to smaller tax revenues. All of these points are not without some validity. Further the ongoing drop in investment will continue to eat into tax revenues and lower-than-forecast inflation could decrease budget income next year, he added.

Fidesz The Likely Winners, But By How Much?

The gap between Hungary’s two main political parties has narrowed slightly of late, according to the latest opinion survey by Medián. While an increasing number of voters reported a lack of strong party affiliation, Fidesz has witnessed some decrease in its supporter base. Support for Fidesz within eligible voters has been gradually melting away in recent months, and is now down to 40% in December from 43% in November and 47% in July. The Hungarian Socialist Party meanwhile saw a only a minor and not statistically significant increase in support. But this change in percentage support is more due to an increase in undecided voters than anything else, since 66 per cent of respondents — all decided voters — would vote for Fidesz in the next legislative election, up one point since October.

The ruling Hungarian Socialist Party (MSZP) remains a distant second with only 19 per cent, followed by the Movement for a Better Hungary (Jobbik) with 10 per cent. Support is much lower for the Hungarian Democratic Forum (MDF), Politics Can Be Different (LMP), and the Alliance of Free Democrats (SZDSZ).

We should not forget that although Bajnai is portraying himself as being the head of a technocratic government, he is in reality the head of a government which is supported by MSZP. It is clear that the 2010 elections are lost. The game is already for 2014 elections. The government now have apparently stabilised the forint, slowed down the shrinking of the economy, and restored some kind of order and feeling of leadership. The price is high, but it seems that the population by and large accepted the situation as it is. The slight increase of popularity of MSZP and Bajnai himself may support this statement. Now, compromises have been made for a short time with major public service sector agents to accept the restrictions. But, somewhere around next August everyone will be up in arms for new financial support. The latest move of the government, to finally accept the long term and symbolic demand of FIDESZ to cut the VAT on the gas-price to 5% is already, I think, a mine for FIDESZ laid down to explode next year. All the messages of the members of the government are now portraying the government as a similar "responsible" stabilisation force as the 1995 Bokros package was, which would propel again Hungary into a "sustained" high growth as was experienced between 1997-2005 (of course now we all see better the price of this decade of growth). So what we are seeing here is a creation of a "new development" discourse, which it is expected will be destroyed by the "incompetence" etc of the Orban government. - Andras Toth, Sociologist

Huge Structural Reforms Gamble

Well, I think I have said more than enough already in this post, so I think I will leave your with the thoughts Gábor Egry (a Hungarian political scientist) expressed in an e-mail interview with me.

Gábor Egry - Research Fellow, Poltikatörténeti Intézet (Institute for Political

Maybe it is worth taking a look at the history of this idea of 4% trend growth. As far as I can recall it - apart from the constant remarks of politicians that Hungary needs a growth 2 points higher than the EU core states and this was somehow always expected to be 4% - both before and after the last elections a group of economists started putting forward ideas for the renewal of sustainable growth in Hungary and they elaborated a series of - let's put it this way - Slovak-type measures would very soon result in 4% trend growth. As the then government chose another type of policy mix for their budget consodilation, these critics never failed to emphasize that with this Slovak-type set of measures not only would the slow growth period after the budget (austerity, 2006) restrictions have been avoidable, but that these Slovak measures were the only possible way to elevate the trend growth to 4%. Usually it was the same guys coming with the same proposals, just branded differently. (CEMI, Oriens etc). Then, when in 2008 the Reform Aliiance was formed, they recycled these ideas. And even though the Bajnai government is an MSZP supported one at least initially it was the result of Gyurcsány's attempt to compell the party to accept the Reform Alliance program. From this persepctive Bajnai's statement is quite logical: they are implementing measures that were proposed by experts with the promise that they would lead to a 4% trend growth. Anyway, the idea that such measures will restore a higher and sutainable trend growth is deeply anchored in the Hungarian economist's thinking, and most of them - among others Bajnai, who was the loyal but critical supporter of these ideas in the Gyurcsány government - will adhere to it as it was the main component of their criticism of earlier policy and as such it is a core component of their common identity.

Beyond the historical anecdotes I see some serious faults and gaps in the reasoning behind the approach, especially as their reasoning is really causal, but rather based on the use of analogies. The main thrust of the approach is not simply to make production in Hungary wage-competitive by cutting the so called tax wedge, but also through making labor cheaper for local companies and attracting FDI, thus raising the employment rate. So, they work with both a direct causal relationship between tax rates and the employment rate and with an indirect one, but they then connect this second one causally to the tax rates again. I would argue, that such soft factors, as labour mobility have had at least as as important impact in the Hungarian case. According to Oriens, the FDI sector in Hungary is said to be overcapitalized, but I'm not sure whether this is because of the relatvely high labor costs or is a result of the immobility of the workforce. It is really important to observe how unemployment is geographically distributed in Hungary, and how this geographical distribution has not changed in the last two decades, despite efforts to change this situation with methods in principle similiar to the present ones, i.e. giving incentives indirectly through economic policy to market forces.

There really are areas where even near-starvation was not capable of moving people out of their villages and making them go look for employment elsewhere. I know that there are counter-examples in the sense that in huge areas a lot of people remained deliberately unemployed as they have found easier ways of making money in the grey or black economy, for example, near the Ukrainain border. Such people, instead of being moved by the modern dynamic of the market economy, resorted to - let's put it vaguely - pre-capitalist methods of work organization and resource redistribution. I don't really see how any kind of tax cuts will move them out from these places and as they have no significant taxable or taxed income it won't generate surplus demand for local companies either. Otherwise, I wouldn't neglect the fact that the fall of unemployment and the rise of employment in many Eastern countries coincided not only with lower taxes, but with EU accession, making it much easier for people to seek work in the West. And in fact millions did it. (For example at least 10% of the Slovak workforce worked abroad before the crisis.) But this is mobility is more or less lacking in Hungary, and Hungarians by and large never left for the West seeking work.

On the question of the deficit, it wouldn't surprise me if there was some accountancy massaging going on behind the scenes. The government may well have put a part of this years deficit on last year's one, raising that from 3,2 or 3,4% to 3,8 and they try to convince the state railways not to reclaim their VAT this year etc. Oszkó conveys self-assurance but he is paid for that. I wouldn't be surprised to find out at the end that this year deficit will be higher than forcast, but I don't see too much room for the IMF to protest, either.

They let Latvia raise its deficit a number of times, Romania is not only doing the same but may even finance the deficit (or in a more populist tone, this year's pensions) from IMF money and - at least as far as I can see - even accept political arguments regarding government incapability to implement unpoular measures before specific elections as arguments to support non compliance. Maybe Hungary will overshoot the deficit, but at least on the surface - in terms of measures implemeted - it is adhering to the terms. The government can simply tell them, ok, guys we did what you proposed, a slightly higher deficit was the result, accept it. Moreover, with the animal spirits currently prevailing around the world I really don't think the news of a 4,1% deficit will do any harm as long as markets are in love with recovery, while even a surplus can not prevent a collapse if their mood changes fundamentally...

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Global Manufacturing, France Outperforms, As Spain Continues To Flounder

Well, it is not as if I relish rubbing salt into old wounds, but this quote from the latest piece by Ben Hall in Paris and Ralph Atkins in today's Financial Times is just too good to resist.

French manufacturing output rose at its fastest rate for nine years, according to a survey on Monday, confirming that France has become the economic powerhouse of continental Europe. Purchasing managers’ indices for manufacturing showed France performing significantly better than the continent’s other main economies – thanks to robust domestic demand.

Plenty of food for thought in this paragraph it seems to me. As foreshadowed in this earlier post, it is the French economy - and not the German one - which is rebounding sharply, and this seems to be for essentially three reasons:

i) there is still life in domestic demand, due to the fact that demographics are good, and lending to households (at an average rate of increase of 11%) was a lot less during the last boom than it was in the bubble societies (20% per annum in Spain and Ireland

ii) France's more favourable demography means that the French government has more space for fiscal stimulus (when compared with Germany) which means the "cash for clunkers" can roll on a bit longer.

iii) the combination of these above two factors means that stimulus actually can work, since it can fire up domestic consumption which is not already dead on its feet. That is, the situation is a win-win one in the classic sense (although, as I was arguing at the end of last week, the ECB will now need to do some pretty adroit monetary footwork if it wants to avoid firing up an asset bubble in France, to follow hot on the heels of the one which has just deflated in Spain.

As Jack Kennedy, economist at PMI survey organisers Markit put it:

“The strong recovery in French manufacturing continued in October, with output rising at the fastest pace for nine years. While some of the current strength reflects a rebound from the extreme financial crisis, it nevertheless offers further evidence that the France is towards the front of the pack among developed economies in emerging from the downturn. Domestic demand remains the key driver of growth as confidence continues to recover.”

Climbing The Tourmalet

The current recovery could be conceptualised as a group of Tour de France cyclists set on scaling the slopes of the notorious Tourmalet. One group of riders - mainly emerging economies like China (current PMI 55.4), Brazil (53.7), India (54.5) and Turkey (52.8) are out in front, with just two developed economies having "escaped" from the main group to try and catch them, France (55.6) and Sweden (56.7).

Then comes the main group, who continue to show a modest recovery, howevering around or even (at last) somewhat over the 50 point break even mark (Germany (51), the US (55.7), Japan (54.3), the UK (53.7), the Netherlands (50.5), Austria (51.1), etc). In Eastern Europe, the Czech Republic (49.8) and Poland (48.8) though still weak continue to gain ground, while the Russian team this month unexpectedly had a puncture, and dropped back into contraction territory (49.6), after registering growth in September.

And then come the stragglers lead by Italy (which is peddaling furiously, but - with a PMI of 49.2 - doesn't seem to ever quite make it over that critical 50 mark, oh well, next month perhaps),followed closely by Hungary (48.2), Greece (48), Ireland (48), South Africa (47.8) and of course, in last place, I think the rider is now so weary he is getting off to walk the bike up the hill, comes poor old Spain (46.3), where more or less predictably, the contraction continues. In particular Spain stands out as almost the worst case scenarion now, with a manufacturing sector which continues to bleed jobs in a country where no one seems to have any serious proposals about what to do except wait in the hope that things might get better eventually, and of their own accord. The sky in front with always be clearer mañana, of course.


Commenting on the Italy Manufacturing PMI survey data, Andrew Self, economist at Markit said:

“Italian manufacturers reported that their recession which has spanned eighteen months finally ended in October, two months behind the Eurozone as a whole. Production rose for the first time since March 2008, driven by a marginal return to growth of new orders. Although the October survey represents a step in the right direction on the road to recovery, weakness persists which suggest that a sustainable upturn is by no means guaranteed."


Hungary's manufacturing purchasing manager index dropped 0.8 percentage points to 48.2 points in October, according to the Hungarian Association of Logistics, Purchasing and Inventory Management (HALPIM). The October reading suggest the steady improvement that started in the spring may now have come to a halt.


The seasonally adjusted Markit Greece Purchasing Managers’ Index fell marginally to 48.0 in October from 48.5 in the previous month. The latest reading signalled another slight deterioration in operating conditions across Greece’s manufacturing economy.

Commenting on the Greece Manufacturing PMI survey data, Gemma Wallace, Economist at Markit said:

“The hope raised in August of an imminent recovery in Greek manufacturing production has dwindled somewhat over the past two months, as the PMI has sunk back into negative territory. Nevertheless, the headline index continued to signal only a slight weakening of the business environment. Additionally, almost all of the surveyed variables are improved on their twelve-month averages – in most cases noticeably so. These are clear signs that progress has been made and therefore show that the sector is on the right path to stabilisation and recovery, even if it has not quite got there yet.”


In Ireland the October data indicated that, while operating conditions at Irish manufacturers continued to deteriorate during the month, the sector moved a step closer to recovery. Both output and new orders fell only slightly, and purchasing activity decreased at a markedly slower rate. The seasonally adjusted NCB Purchasing Managers’ Index rose to 48.0 in October, from 46.6 in the previous month. This signalled that the rate of deterioration in business conditions eased to the weakest since February 2008.

Commenting on the NCB Republic of Ireland Manufacturing PMI survey data, Brian Devine, economist at NCB Stockbrokers said:

“The output and new orders components very nearly breached the sacred 50 mark in October. New export orders did however fall away marginally after breaching 50 last month. The fall in new export orders reflected sterling weakness which is continuing to squeeze the manufacturing sector. With UK exports under pressure it is a welcome sign that the US economy posted impressive GDP growth in Q3, even when account is taken of their scrappage scheme. With global economic activity gathering momentum we are still hopeful that the Irish economy will begin growing in Q4 of this year and the latest PMI was comforting in this regard.”

South Africa

South Africa’s purchasing managers’ index rose to its highest level in 16 months in October as the country’s first recession in 17 years eased, according to the monthly report from Kagiso Securities. The seasonally adjusted index increased to 47.6 from a revised 45.9 the month before. The index has been below 50, which points to a contraction in output, since May 2008.


Operating conditions in the Spanish manufacturing sector continued to deteriorate in October. Output fell further over the month, while new orders contracted at the sharpest pace since May. Supplier lead-times lengthened for the first time in nineteen months.

The seasonally adjusted Markit Purchasing Managers’ Indexcontinued to signal a marked decline in overall business conditions, posting 46.3 in October. Operating conditions have worsened in each month since December 2007. Output decreased modestly in October as the wider recession in Spain continued to impact negatively on demand. Production has now contracted in twenty of the past twenty-one months.

Commenting on the Spanish Manufacturing PMI survey data, Andrew Harker, economist at Markit, said:

“Spain's recovery continues to lag the upturn seen across the Eurozone as a whole, and a steeper contraction of manufacturers' order books in October will be of particular concern as it points to a further delay to any prospects of stabilisation.Competition is so intense that firms are being forced to slash prices, despite their raw material prices increasing. The stabilisation of unemployment in the third quarter signalled by official figures is likely to be only temporary with PMI data continuing to show considerable falls in employment in the manufacturing sector as firms seek cost cuts.”

Global Improvement - But Watch Out For The Stragglers, And Those Overly Dependent On Exports

So, as JPMorgan say in their Global Manufacturing report, the Global Manufacturing PMI hit a 39-month high in October, and at 54.4 posted its highest reading since July 2006. The PMI has now remained above the neutral 50.0 mark for four successive months. But while the general picture is one of solid, if modest, growth, the group of stragglers at the back of the pack (to which would could add names like Latvia, Portugal, Romania, Finland, and Ukraine, where PMI surveys do not currently exist) point to potential problems further on down the line in 2010.

Also of concern is the way the index in export dependent countries like Germany and Japan (both suffering the added impact of having a high currency following the ongoing dollar weakness) continue to struggle for air. This is more apparent in the German than the Japanese case at this point, but the survey organisers specifically highlightend the way in which survey respondents in Japan are already reporting a lack of "bounce" in export orders, and this once more serves to highlight the weak spot in the current recovery picture - where are all the customers for all those exports eventually going to come from.

Commenting on the Nomura/JMMA Japan Manufacturing PMI data, Minoru Nogimori, Economist of Financial & Economic Research Centre at Nomura, said:

“October’s Japan Manufacturing PMI fell for the first time in nine months, by 0.2 points to 54.3. It remains above the key dividing line of 50.0, indicating that production activity continues to recover, but suggesting that the pace of improvement is slowing. The New Export Orders Index, a leading indicator of Japanese exports, fell 2.5 points to 51.6. Although this is the fifth consecutive month in which the figure has been higher than 50.0, the October reading suggests that the pace of improvement has obviously slowed. An improvement in export demand was the main factor behind the rebound in Japanese manufacturing output. Therefore, we think that the strong rebound in production activity in Q2 and Q3 now looks likely to run out of steam from 2009 Q4.”

This final point, along with the negative impact that problems among the "stragglers" may present for the main group later on up the hill suggests, to me at least, that while many emerging markets remain strong, we will almost certainly not see anything resembling a "V" shaped global recovery, and especially not in the OECD countries. As far as I am concerned this hypothesis can already be safely discarded.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

As Hungary's "Correction" Heads For A Dead End, Time For A Change Of Course?

Hungary's economic correction still fails to convince. Indeed I am not the only one who remains unconvined by the viability of what is currently taking place it seems, since according to the opposition supporting local daily newspaper Magyar Hírlap, none other than the Hungarian Prime Minister himself may be having doubts, as he is reportedly thinking of leaving the helm of the struggling ship placed under his charge before the next general election, which is scheduled to take place sometime early next year.

If this version of events is ultimately confirmed it will only add to the IMFs growing problems out East, since events in Latvia are not going at all according to their liking - see FT Alphaville's Izabella Kaminska's "Another Latvian wobble" of last Friday - and indeed Latvia’s government rapidly cobbled together another 275 million lati ($575.6 million) in spending cuts for 2010 yesterday after EU Economic and Monetary Affairs Commissioner Joaquin Almunia called on Latvia on Friday to “renew a national consensus”, and Prime Minister Valdis Dombrovskis paid a flying vist to Brussels, following a parliamentary vote against sending a real-estate tax bill through to the committee stage, implicitly rejecting part of an agreement with the IMF and EU. How many times this year does that now make it that the national consensus has had to be urgently renewed under directives from either Washington or Brussels, could someone please remind me?

Further, Hungary's main opposition party - Fidesz - which looks well-positioned to win next year's general elections, are threatening to rewrite the current ever-so-carefully written 2010 budget when they comes to powe next year, according to the latest statements from party president Viktor Orban.

"This (the IMF text, EH) is the most dangerous budget of the past 20 years ... never before has a budget put hundreds of. thousands, or even millions of Hungarian families at such grave risk," Orban told private broadcaster Hir TV in an interview late on Friday. "This budget will not remain in place, we will draw up another one instead," said Orban, a former prime minister, adding that if in power, his government would create one million new jobs in 10 years.

Well, things certainly do not look good either for Gordon Bajnai or for the EU Commission/IMF team who are behind the budget. Perhaps that is why the IMF's representative in Hungary, Iryna Ivaschenko, told national news agency MTI yesterday that while the government was committed to its 2010 fiscal targets, there were economic and implementation risks on the nature of which she declined to elaborate.

As Political Pressures and Bad Loans Mount, While The Economy Retreats Underground, It Is Hard To See How The "Correction" Can Work

Clearly the above mentioned report about the PMs intentions does come from a rather biased source, but it is interesting to note that credibility is being given to it by normally more impartial sources like Portfolio Hungary, and as they themselves point out there has been no outright denial of the suggestion from government sources.

Perhaps even more astonishing was the statement by the Hungarian Finance Minister Peter Oszko to Dow Jones Newswire on Friday that the most difficult reforms to address economic imbalances have now been completed. "I believe the most difficult part of our job is done - our package creates not only short-term but mid- and long-term fiscal balances" he said. I say astonishing, since as far as I personally can see (take a look for yourself at the charts below) the changes that are needed haven't even begun yet. The whole emphasis have been on cutting the deficit, with little serious thought being given about how the Hungarian economy can get back to growth - which is the only real way the fiscal balances can become stable - all that seems to have happened is a 5% VAT hike to squeeze domestic consumption even further, and some compensatory tax changes on the other side to stimulate employment, but the real economic imbalances have been left untouched. A supply side micro-economists paradise, whisper the words "long term steady state growth" to yourself three times, cross your fingers, and hope for the best.

However, the underlying mirky political realities may soon burst their way into the parlour room, to disrupt this happiest of happy families. Indeed everything may well now hinge on getting the budget through parliament and then disrcetely leaving by the side entrance, since Magyar Hirlap suggest that the Hungarian Parliament may well be dissolved directly after the vote on the 2010 budget - which is currently scheduled for 30 November. Apparently everyone's calculations have been thrown awry by the early re-election of José Barroso, and the imminent reappointment of the EU Commission. Plenty of food for thought here.

The paper also suggests that Prime Minister Gordon Bajnai now totally accepts that the forthcoming electtions are inevitably lost - the only bit of realism I can see in all this - and as a consequence seeks to have them advanced to February from the currently probable date of April or May.

In this way Bajnai would be able to offer himself to replace the present Hungarian representative László Kovács, who is currently Commissioner for Taxation and the Customs Union. Bajnai, it will be remembered, has only been Prime Minister since last April, but then, with these sort of techniques it doesn't take that long to put a country straight, now does it?

Advancing elections in a situation where the present budget proposals are massively unpopular may make perfect sense according to a certain democratic political logic, but the economics lying behind the idea must be making people in Washington and Brussels throw up their arms in despair.

More evidence to back the idea that the current programme is not working came in the latest report released by the committee which monitors the long term legalisation of Hungary's underground economy. The process is not only not advancing - it has been thrown into reverse gear, it seems.

According to Committee president, and Central Statistical Office analyst, Csák Ligeti some HUF 100 billion (EUR 369.17 million) in tax revenues were lost in the first half of the year due to a ressurgence in the growth of the black economy. In his report he noted, by way of contrast, that during the previous two years the state budget had received around HUF 200-250 billion (EUR 738.1-922.6 million) in extra revenue due to the "whitening" process initiated in the autumn of 2006 as part of a programme to correct the large fiscal deficits the country was running.

On another front, the IMF warned last week that while Hungary's banking sector had so far weathered the crisis reasonably well - thanks to the multilateral rescue programme - and now has sufficient capital buffers, asset quality still looks set to deteriorate steadily due to weakness in the domestic economy, and especially rising unemployment. This, of course, is another good reason why they should have been including a rapid return to export lead growth in the correction strategy, since obviously if you simply sit back and wait to see what happens, there will be no big surprise - the percentage of Non Performing Loans will just go up and up.

"Developments in the banking sector have been positive; so far so good, and in line with one of the main objectives of the (IMF) program to preserve financial stability," Iryna Ivaschenko, the IMF's resident representative in Hungary, told Down Jones in an interview on Thursday.

However she immediately added that the IMF projects the amount of non-performing loans, which stood at a "still moderate" 4.8% of overall loans at the end of June, "will peak and at least double in the first quarter of 2010,".

This IMF warning follows a Standard and Poor's one at the end of August. The financial profile of Hungarian banks is set to weaken over the near term as a result of the country's ongoing recession, the weak and volatile national currency, and pressure on funding, according to the S&P report.

The report, which was entitled "Banking Industry Country Risk Assessment: Hungary", followed the recent decision by Standard & Poor's to revise its ranking of the Hungarian banking system to reflect increased economic risks in the country (BBB-/Negative/A-3) and structural weaknesses in the country's economy and banking industry.

"Hungary's significant external financing needs, which stem from high public-sector leverage and large external imbalances, represent a structural weakness that exposes the economy to the tight and expensive funding conditions in global markets," according to Standard & Poor's credit analyst Harm Semder, who wrote the report.

The report argues that nonperforming loans and depressed recovery rates are likely to cause a material rise in credit losses, which will in turn subdue bank profits and capital through 2011.

Credit risk is heightened by the rapid growth of unseasoned loans - particularly commercial real estate mortgages - over the past five years and a significant increase in loans denominated in foreign currency that lack the foreign currency revenues to service them.

The report estimates that cumulative gross problematic assets, which include restructured loans and repossessed collateral, could increase to 25%-40% of total loans during the course of the current domestic recession. It further suggests that the eventual recovery will be slow.

Which Way To Turn?

The entire situation in Hungary vis-a-vis wages, employment and inflation continues to be preoccupying. The country is in the midst of a huge correction, and depends on improving exports in order to attain economic growth.

Yet the correction is not proceeding as planned. Inflation - at an annual rate of 5% in August, is far too high in contrast to benchmark German inflation which remained negative in August (minus 0.1% ) to be recovering competitiveness. Real wages have continued to rise, and only sneaked into negative territory for the first time in over six months in July - with a 1.1% drop in the benchmark ex-bonus hourly rate in the private sector. Total employment is falling slowly, but even this process masques an important shift towards public sector employment, as the number of public employees has risen substantially in recent months while the number of employees in the private sector has continued to fall - exactly the opposite of what was meant to be happening. Meanwhile the country continues to get ever deeper in debt thanks to the relatively generous financing conditions offered by the EU and the IMF. The point is where does this all end? Where is the correction here?

The National Bank of Hungary is struggling to find an adequate monetary response. The bank lowered its benchmark interest rate by 50 bp to 8% last week, but this still represents a real interest rate of around 3%.

The move followed a surprise 100-bp rate cut at the end of July. While a month ago, the market was expecting 50 bp easing, this time there was no real surprise. As for the future, the National Bank of Hungary release uses standard central bankspeak that intentionally remains ambiguos and guarantees the Bank Council is not committed in any particular direction. As long as there is no change in the international environment over the coming months, the the Council will be most likely having to decide whether to cut a further 50 bp or more.

So while the bank has evidently eased policy considerably, monetary conditions are evidently still far too tight to stimulate dynamic activity in the private sector, which is almost literally wilting on the vine at the present time.

Meanwhile, in a further sign that the recession is settling in for the long haul, Hungarian retail sales extended their decline to 29 months in June as IMF/government measures to narrow the budget deficit continued to sap consumer spending.

True Love In The Eternal Embrace?

Well, despite the fact that many may think the expression "eternal triangle" in the present context refers to the Hungarian government, the EU Commission and the IMF, they would be wrong since one convenient way of thinking about what just happened in Hungary could be to use another kind of eternal triangle the one developed in Nobel Economist Paul Krugman’s model of the same name, which postulates that when it comes to tensions within the strategic trio formed by exchange rate policy, monetary policy, and international liquidity flows, maintaining control over any one implies a loss of control in one of the other two.

In the case of the Central Europe “four”, Poland and the Czech Republic opted for maintaining their grip on monetary policy, thus accepting the need for their currency to “freefloat” and move according to the ebbs and flows of market sentiment. As it turns out this decision has served them remarkably well, since the real appreciation in their currencies which accompanied the good times helped take some of the sting out of inflation, while their ability to rapidly reduce interest rates into the downturn has lead to currency depreciation, helping to sustain exports and avoid deflation related issues.

The other two countries (Hungary and Romania), to a greater or lesser degree prioritised currency stability, and as a result had to sacrifice a lot of control over monetary policy, in the process exposing themselves to the risk of much more violent swings in market sentiment when it comes to capital flows. Having been pushed by the logic of their currency decision towards tolerating higher inflation, they have seen the competitiveness of their home industries gradually undermined, and as a consequence found themselves pushed into large current account deficits for just as long the market was prepared to support them, and into sharp domestic contractions once they were no longer disposed so to do.

A second problem which stems from this “initial decision” has been the tendency for households in the latter two countries to overload themselves with unhedged forex loans, a move which stems to some considerable extent from the currency decision, since in order to stabilise the currency, the central banks have had to maintain higher than desireable interest rates, which only reinforced the attractiveness of borrowing in forex, which in turn produced lock-in at the central bank, since it can no longer afford to let the currency slide due to the balance sheet impact on households. Significantly the forex borrowing problem is much less in Poland than it is in Hungary or Romania, and in the Czech Republic it is nearly non-existent.

The third consequence of the decision to loosen control on domestic monetary policy has been the need to tolerate higher than desireable inflation, a necessity which was also accompanied by a predisposition to do so (which had its origin in the erroneous belief that the lions share of the wage differential between West and Eastern Europe is an “unfair” reflection of the region’s earlier history, and essentially a market distortion). The result has been, since 2005, a steady increase in unit wage costs with an accompanying loss of competitiveness, and an increasing dependence on external borrowing to fuel domestic consumption.

So, if we look at the current state of economic play in the four countries, we find two of them (Hungary and Romania) undergoing very severe economic contractions - to such a degree that in both cases the IMF has had to be called in. At the same time both of them are still having to “grin and bear” higher than desireable inflation and interest rates. In the other two countries the contraction is milder, the financial instability less dramatic, and both inflation and domestic interest rates are much lower. Really, looked at in this light, I think there can be little doubt who made the best decision.

Hungarian GDP - The Big Slide

While wages and prices more or less steadily wend there way upwards, we have no hurry hear, you understand, GDP has been in freefall. Year on year it was down an annual 7.5% in Q2 (and a seasonally adjusted 2% from the first quarter) . The Hungarian government currently expects the economy to contract 6.7 percent this year, in the largest drop in outout since 1991. My view is that we have a total policy trap in operation here, since neither monetary or fiscal policy are available to an adequate degree (even after today's change interest rates are still at 8%), and there is thus little support available to put under the economy at this point. The only way to break the circle in my opinion is to violently kick start exports by letting the forint drop, bringing down interest rates, and restructuring all those CHF loans.

If, instead of browsing over all those diplomatic statements we look at what is going on on the ground, then we find that private sector employment is now well down, by 9.2% y-o-y in July. While in the same month industrial output was down 19.4% over a year earlier. Something just doesn't seem to be working as it should be here.

Unbalanced Movements In Employment

Not surprisingly given the strength of the contraction total employment fell back again, for the second consecutive month, in July, and stood at was 2.657 million. There were 1.803 million in the private sector and 765 thousand in the public sector. Total employment was thus down 4.4% over July 2008.

Private sector employment is well down in Hungary, by 9.2% y-o-y in July.

On the other hand, public sector employment has been chugging away on the up and up, due to job creation under the short term stimulus programme, courtesy indirectly of the IMF, who have permitted a larger than anticipated budget deficit.

But don't get me wrong, it's not the stimulus I am quibbling about here, it is what it is being used for, and the absence of a realistic plan. It's easy enough to run up debt, especially when the EU Commission and the IMF guarantee you, but its a lot harder to pay it down again later, and Hungarian debt to GDP now looks set to go through the 80% of GDP level in 2010. So, the outcomes we are seeing simply don't seem to me to be producing a large enough structural change in the right direction. On the other hand, even this public sector employment boost now seems to have started to turn, since even public sector employment fell back on the month in July - for the first time in six months - although it was still up 5.6% year on year.

Hungary's gross average ex bonus private sector real wages entered negative territory in June, for the fisrt time in over six months, and fell at annual rate of minus 1.1 percent.

Real public sector wages continue to fall sharply, and contracted by an annual 11 percent year-on-year in July following a 13.4 percent contraction in June - although some of the volatility here is the result of a changed system of payment for the additional (13th) month's salary. What is happening in Hungary is really an obvious example of "sticky wages" if ever there was one as far as I can see, since employment in the private sector is falling, and unemployment rising, so you would expect the opposite effect to operate, and real wages to be falling sharply at this point. According to Erika Molnarfi of the stats office, the upward drift in average private sector salaries is the outcome of a sharp decline in production workers which was not accompanied by a decline in administrative workers, exactly the opposite result to that you want to see.

Inflation Stubbornly High

Far from the current recession leading to a significant downward shift in wages and prices, real wages had been rising continuously until July, while Hungary's consumer prices were still running year on year at 5% in August - up from 3.7% in June due to the VAT effect, and still far to high to start restoring competitiveness. . If the current trend continues, and the HUF remains in the region of its current euro parity, then Hungary's agony looks set to continue unabated well into 2010.

And Hungarian manufacturing output fell back again in July, and industrial output decreased by 19.4% compared to July 2008. The volume of production was 22.1% lower over the first seven months of 2009 than in the same period of the previous year. The volume of industrial production fell back in July by 0,7% on June according to seasonally and working-day adjusted indices. Industrial export sales declined by 25.2% in the first seven months of 2009 and by 19.8% in July compared to the same period of the previous year, as a result of a sharp fall in external demand.

So Hungary is suffering from a generalised drop in demand - domestic, export, government, and investment - for which it is difficult to see any short term remedy.

Investments fell in the second quarter of 2009 by 4.7% compared to the same period of 2008. In the first half of 2009 investments in the national economy were 6% down over the corresponding period of the previous year. Investments did however increased by 0.4% quarter on quarter, but when we break this down we find that of the 4.7%annual drop in investments in the second quarter those in machinery and equipment fell by 11.6%, while the volume of construction investments – due to investments in dwellings and motorway constructions – grew by 1.1% compared to the same period of 2008. But when we look at the construction data we find that the improvement in construction is all about civil engineering, so any increase in machinery and equipment investment is still some way off at this point.

Evidently the first sign of any real recovery in the Hungarian economy will come when machinery and equipments investments stabilise and even start to increase, since that will be a reflection of the expectation of future demand arriving further down the pipeline, and will be a measure of real employment creating possibilities.

But things don't look set to improve soon, since Hungary's purchasing manager index dropped by 3.4 points to 45.8 points in August, according to the most recent report from the Hungarian Association of Logistics, Purchasing and Inventory Management (HALPIM). The latest data is highly disappointing not only because Hungarian manufacturing has now been contracting for 11 straight months, but because the August eurozone PMI index showed a larger-than-expected pickup. This thus suggests that Hungary is being left behind in the scramble.

Exports Remain Weak, And Imports Are Even Weaker

Hungary recorded its fifth monthly trade surplus in June, coming in at 457,3 million euros slightly below the 490.1 million euros acheived in May but well above the 30.8 million euros of June last year.

Now good news is always good news, but it is important to understand that this result was almost entirely achieved via a dramatic drop in imports, which plunged an annual 30.4 percent in June (following a 32.3 percent decline in May). It is impossible to talk of any marked improvement in exports, since these fell by an annual 21.1 percent, decelerating from the 24.1 percent drop in May, but still very large. While in the short term this substantial drop in imports (and hence rise in the trade balance) is GDP positive, it is very negative for living standards in the longer term, and the whole situation needs to be reversed by a large boost in exports leading imports as the eurozone economy eventually recovers. But to be able to achieve this Hungarian industry needs to do more, much more, to achieve competitiveness.

Over the January-June period, the volume of exports and imports fell by 20 and 25 percent, respectively, compared to the same period of the preceding year. The trade balance showed a surplus of HUF 606 billion (EUR 2,055 million), which meant an improvement of HUF 534 billion (EUR 1,766 million) compared to the surplus of HUF 72 billion (EUR 288 million) in January-June 2008. In January-June 2009, the forint price level of exports and imports both increased by 6 percent, respectively, The forint exchange rate had however weakened by 17 percent with repsect to a basket of leading foreign currencies, and within this by 14 percent to Euro and by more than 30 percent to the dollar. So, if getting the growth needed to drive GDP is the objective, and this is any evidence, then there is still a long long way for the forint to fall.

Over January-June 2009, the export and import volumes of machinery and transport equipment, which constitute 60 percent of exports and nearly 50 percent of imports, fell by and above average 24 percent in the case of exports, and by 27 percent in the case of imports.

Domestic Demand Drifts On Downwards

Construction activity was down by 5.1% in July as compared to July 2008. In the first seven months of 2009, output was down by 2.4%. In comparison June, production fell by 12.2% in July according to indices adjusted for seasonality and working days. This large drop is really only a reflect of the pre VAT introduction surge registered in June.

The two construction sectors are moving in opposite directions at the moment. Within the 5.1% aggregate increase, building construction was down by almost a quarter, while civil engineering works expanded by 19.6%. From the start of the year the construction of new buildings is down by 12.7% while civil engineering works are up by 12.3%.

From the September 2006 peak construction activity as a whole is now down by 27.58%. September 2009 will mark the start of the third year of contraction.

Hungary's retail sales fell by 2.2% in June compared to June 2008, although sales did increase by 0.5% compared to the previous month. Of course, we need to remember in this case that the 5% VAT hike was introduced on 1 July, so it is perhaps surprising that the increase wasn't bigger.

Thus the month on month increase is very misleading, since it was evidently driven by the government decision to raise value-added tax on the first of July - in an attempt to compensate for revenue losses which will be produced by forthcoming reductions in personal income and payroll taxes . So the increase in sales was in fact due to an attempt to avoid the 5% rise in VAT, and we should be ready for a sharp drop in July. Prime Minister Gordon Bajnai is in the process of implementing spending cuts worth 1.3 trillion forint ($6.9 billion) over a period two years in an attempt to keep the budget deficit in check.

While The Central Bank Is Caught In A Policy Trap

Hungary’s central bank cut its benchmark interest rate to the lowest level in 17 months at the end of August to try to help jolt the countryt out of its worst recession in almost two decades. The Magyar Nemzeti Bank lowered the two-week deposit rate to 8 percent from 8.5 percent. Monetary policy makers voted for the 50 basis-point cut with an “overwhelming” majority over a reduction to 7.75 percent according to central bank President Andras Simor. In fact the minutesd showed that the bank cut interest rates by a seven to one majority, with one member voting for a 75 base point cut.

In fact many analysts now see further easing in the pipline, but in taking this stance they need to think about two points.

i) The Hungarian government is still incredibly complacent about the inflation problem, and currently forecasts that inflation will only slow by the end of next year to something just below the central bank's current medium-term target which is itself very complacent.

"We expect inflation to slow from [an annual average of] 4.5% this year to 4.1% in 2010. As for 2010, the December inflation figure may start with a digit 2," Finance Ministry State Secretary Tamas Katona told journalists last week.

In its latest report on inflation, published in August, the National Bank of Hungary projected that inflation will likely dip below the 3% mark from the third quarter of 2010 onward. The central bank's annual inflation forecast is 2.5% on average for the second half of next year.

But if Hungary wants to avoid a substantial devaluation then the internal devaluation needs to operate, and to a significant degree, which makes these current forecasts simply laughable. You wouldn't have thought, given all the complacency that the economy was contracting at around an annual 7% rate.

ii) the key problem for the central bank is the value of the forint - given the level of household exposure to Forex loans. My opinion is that the recent recovery in the currency value has been almost entirely driven by yield differentials, and by self-fulfilling expectations (traders expect the currency to rise), rather than by any change in the underlying economic fundamentals, which as we have seen, has not taken place.

But with consumption sinking, government spending falling and exports insufficiently competitive to drive the necessary surplus, the whole thing is now becoming rather a mess, with no clear economic policy objective in the short term (except, of course, cutting the bfiscal deficit and maintaining a strong exchange rate), while in the long term the emphasis is rightly on increasing exports. But no one has any idea of how exactly to correct prices sufficiently with the CHF mortgages stuck in the middle, and it remains to be seen how the markets will ultimately respond to these rate reductions as and when the wind of risk sentiment changes, as it will.

Basically the problem is the value of the forint. My opinion is that the recent recovery in the currency value (see chart below) has been almost entirely driven by yield differentials, and by self-fulfilling expectations (traders expect the currency to rise), rather than by any change in the underlying economic fundamentals, which as we have seen, has not taken place.

The problem the central bank and the Finance Ministry have to address is the ongoing issue of the mountain of Swiss Franc denominated mortgages.

These have stopped increasing in recent times, but still constitute a serious obstacle to any devaluation of the HUF, due to the non performing loans issue this would create for the banking sector. Not only has money been borrowed against homes for to fund house purchases, it has also been loaned for consumption, so indeed the fact that even these loans are stagnating hardly bodes well in any way for domestic demand.

The result of all this botched policy is that Hungary’s EU harmonised unemployment rate rose to the its highest level in at least a decade in May and has been stick there ever since - and with the rise of unemployment, of course the percentage of impaired loans in the banking sector will also continue to grow. The rate rose to a seasonally adjusted 10.3 percent, the highest since at least 1996 and was still there in July (the latest month for which we have Eurostat data).

And the situation is more likely to deteriorate than improve, with the central bank forecasting lay-offs of around 180,000 across 2009-2010, nearly 5% of the total number of employed, and now even the number of employees in the public sector is starting to fall back.