(Updates with forint in seventh paragraph, Barclays from 10th.)
Feb. 20 (Bloomberg) -- Hungary’s government is scaling back its projection for economic growth this year, maintaining that the country will probably avoid a recession, said Mihaly Varga, Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s chief of staff.
The government’s estimate for gross domestic product this year ranges between stagnation and 0.5 percent growth, Varga told HirTV late yesterday. The Cabinet earlier forecast 0.5 percent expansion.
“The Hungarian government is today counting with 0 percent to 0.5 percent growth,” Varga said. “Based on the data on hand one can say that the Hungarian economy can stay above zero.”
The International Monetary Fund is reviewing its 0.3 percent GDP growth forecast for 2012 and may reduce the estimate because of the euro area’s deteriorating outlook, Iryna Ivaschenko, the lender’s representative in Budapest, said Feb. 9. A growth outlook of 0.5 percent may be “acceptable” to the IMF, the European Union and economists, Varga said.
Hungary is seeking to revive bailout talks with the IMF and the EU to quell investor concern about its ability to service the highest debt level among the trading bloc’s eastern members. It sought aid in November after the forint fell to a record low and its credit grade was cut to junk at Standard & Poor’s, Moody’s Investors Service and Fitch Ratings.
‘More or Less Ensured’
Public debt financing for this year is “more or less ensured,” Varga said. The stabilization of the forint, the world’s best-performing currency this year after being the worst-performer in the second half of 2011, may cut the debt level to as low as 75 percent of GDP from 80.3 percent at the end of last year, Varga said.
The forint lost 16 percent against the euro in the second half last year and has strengthened 9.3 percent since Jan. 1. The forint traded 0.6 percent higher at 288.27 per euro at 9:00 a.m. in Budapest.
Hungary can’t begin formal talks on an aid package until it meets EU and IMF demands to change a disputed central bank regulation, which led to the suspension of talks in December. The 27-member bloc also requested changes to overhauls of the judiciary and data-protection office.
Hungary, in a reply sent to the European Commission on Feb. 17, accepted the majority of the EU’s demands and made “constructive recommendations” to address issues on which differences remained, including on the reduction of the retirement age for judges, Foreign Minister Janos Martonyi told HirTV in a separate interview late yesterday.
Hungary may take “several weeks” to meet EU and IMF preconditions to start talks, London-based Barclays Capital economists Daniel Hewitt and Piotr Chwiejczak wrote in a report today after visiting Budapest. A loan agreement may be reached in June or later, they said, citing “deep differences” that need to be bridged on fiscal policy.
“We expect negotiations to start in the second half of March and to not be completed until May,” Hewitt and Chwiejczak wrote. “Then the government would have to implement prior actions before the IMF board meeting could take place. Optimistically, this could happen in June, although we think there is more downside risk to this timing than upside risk.”
Barclays Capital maintains its “underweight” position on Hungarian debt because of the impact on credit should Hungary experience “serious external financing problems without IMF disbursements.”
Economic output rose 1.4 percent in the fourth quarter from a year earlier, the statistics office in Budapest said in a preliminary estimate on Feb. 15, as rising agricultural production helped growth. The economy grew 1.7 percent in 2011 from the previous year.
Industrial production, including exports of Audi AG cars and Nokia Oyj mobile phones assembled in the country, helped Hungary recover from its worst recession in 18 years in 2009. Nokia’s announcement on Feb. 8 that it will cut 2,300 jobs in Hungary will have a “negative” impact on first-quarter growth, statistician Peter Szabo told reporters on Feb. 15.
Hungary can this year maintain its agriculture output level, which boosted growth last year, Roland Natran, deputy state secretary at the Economy Ministry, told MR 1 radio on Feb. 17. “Significant” investments currently under way will also help maintain the contribution of manufacturing to economic growth, Natran said.
Daimler AG will start production of its new B-Class model at its plant in Hungary at the end of March, Nepszabadsag reported on Feb. 13, without citing anyone. Test production is already under way in the central city of Kecskemet, the newspaper said.
--Editors: Balazs Penz, Alan Crosby
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