Bloomberg News

Hungary Needs IMF Aid, Disputes Conditions, Orban Says

September 07, 2012

Hungary needs and will obtain a credit line from the International Monetary Fund even as the government opposes the conditions currently demanded for the aid, Prime Minister Viktor Orban said.

“Safety is worth very much to us, that’s why we need an IMF deal,” Orban said in an interview with state-run Kossuth radio today. “I think it’s necessary, it will happen, we will strike a deal -- but not on this basis.”

Orban yesterday rejected what he said were the Washington- based lender’s criteria -- including pension cuts and the elimination of a bank tax -- a day after he predicted an accord may come in the autumn. The forint fell the most this year yesterday before paring losses and then rising today.

Hungarian media reports about the purported conditions of the IMF contain “significant inaccuracies,” the MTI state news service reported, citing Iryna Ivaschenko, the Washington-based lender’s representative in Budapest.

Hungary has reversed its approach to the IMF several times since Orban came to power in 2010 on a pledge to end austerity. As his self-described “unorthodox” economic policies helped push the economy into a recession and the country’s credit grade to junk status, Orban reached out to the lender and formally requested aid in November 2011.

Tough Job

“I can’t imagine a tougher job at the IMF right now than trying to negotiate a financial program with the Hungarian authorities -- except perhaps trying to figure out what to do with Greece,” Benoit Anne, a former IMF economist who is now head of emerging-markets strategy at Societe Generale SA in London, said in an e-mail.

The forint dropped as much as 1.7 percent against the euro yesterday, when European Central Bank President Mario Draghi’s announcement of plans to buy the government bonds of crisis- stricken euro-area members lifted other currencies in the region, including the Polish zloty, which rose 1.3 percent against the euro. The forint rose 0.7 percent to 284.94 per euro at 4:13 p.m. in Budapest, snapping a two-day drop.

‘Increasingly Difficult’

“This is looking increasingly more difficult to materialize,” Luis Costa, a London-based strategist at Citigroup Inc. (C:US), said by e-mail. “Orban once again managed to unleash a cycle of underperformance in Hungarian assets.”

The government’s efforts to protect a 300 billion-forint ($1.3 billion) payroll tax-cut plan for 2013, aimed at jump- starting the economy in the face of IMF and European Union criticism, is at the heart of the dispute over the loan conditions, Orban said today. The Cabinet also opposes demands to cut pensions and take away family benefits, he said.

The government maintains it has enough resources in the budget to fund the jobs plan, while the international lenders say the measures threaten efforts to reduce the budget deficit, Orban said.

“At this cost we don’t want a deal,” Orban said.

The ECB’s euro-area bond-purchase plan may also show that new tools are available for authorities outside the common currency area, Orban said, without elaborating.

‘Do Everything’

Hungary’s government “needs to do everything” to reach an aid agreement, Antal Rogan, the parliamentary leader of Orban’s Fidesz party, said today after a three-day party meeting in Sarvar, western Hungary.

The Cabinet should take into account IMF and EU policy proposals and should be open to modify the 2013 budget, which legislators will continue to discuss next week in Parliament, Rogan said in comments broadcast on HirTV.

The ruling party backs “targeted” spending cuts, such as for the reduction of state bureaucracy, while rejecting the trimming of pensions or scrapping plans for payroll tax cuts, Rogan said.

The forint rose 9.7 percent against the euro this year, the third-most in the world after the Chilean and Colombian pesos as investors speculated that an IMF agreement was within reach. The rally may have emboldened Orban to turn away from the lender, while forint losses last November, in January and in June prompted the government to work toward a compromise.

‘Freedom Fight’

Negotiations with the IMF during a review of a previous loan and a possible extension broke down months after Orban came to power in 2010. Orban then said Hungary was better off without the lender as it needed policy space to conduct an “economic freedom fight.”

The country can get by without additional foreign-currency funding until about March or April next year, said Gyula Toth, who helps manage 220 million euros ($278 million) at Ithuba Capital in Vienna.

The forint plunged 15 percent, the most in the world, in the second half of last year as policies including the nationalization of private pension funds and the decision to force banks to swallow losses on foreign-currency loans damaged investor confidence, cut investments and helped push the economy into a recession.

Hungary’s industrial output plunged in July as car production slowed, confirming a trend that drove the economy into a deeper recession than previously estimated.

Industry, GDP

Industrial output dropped a workday-adjusted 2.2 percent in July from a year earlier and fell 1.2 percent from June, the statistics office in Budapest said today. The median estimate of 10 economists in a Bloomberg survey was for an increase of 0.7 percent. Gross domestic product declined 1.3 percent in the second quarter from a year earlier, compared with a 1.2 percent preliminary estimate, the stats office said in a separate release today.

Production declined in the second quarter from the same period last year in every industry except information and communications. Construction output plunged 10.7 percent while agricultural production dropped 10.4 percent. Final consumption dropped 1.8 percent in the second quarter.

Orban asked for aid in November as the country’s credit grade was cut to junk at Standard & Poor’s, Fitch Ratings and Moody’s Investors Service, and debt auctions failed, helping push the forint to a record low against the euro. The government earlier said it may reach a loan agreement by the end of October.

Hungary’s request for a loan of about 15 billion euros was delayed multiple times because of Orban’s resistance to adhere to legal and economic conditions set by the lender and the EU.

‘Slow Further’

A month after seeking assistance, Orban said Hungary can do without IMF aid, recommitting to negotiations two weeks later with the forint at a record low. Negotiations formally started in July following an eight-month delay after the government compromised on a central-bank law that the European Central Bank said undermined monetary-policy independence.

“The turn suggests that negotiations may slow further, albeit we do not expect a break-up in the talks, given that keeping alive market hopes about a future deal is in the interest of the government to ensure” local-currency funding, Eszter Gargyan, a Budapest-based economist at Citigroup Inc., said in an e-mailed note yesterday. “The political turn may be negative to Hungarian assets, which we expect to underperform in the coming weeks.”

Facebook Message

The Washington-based lender asked Hungary to scrap a bank tax in exchange for the loan, which wouldn’t serve the nation’s interests, Orban said in a video message from a retreat of his ruling party in Sarvar, near the Austrian border, posted on his page at the social media website Facebook Inc. (FB:US) Iryna Ivaschenko the IMF’s representative in Hungary, wasn’t available for comment yesterday.

“The meeting of the parliamentary group decided, and I myself share their opinion, that at this cost we don’t need it,” Orban said. He said he would “seek an alternative negotiating proposal,” without elaborating.

Orban won an unprecedented two-thirds parliamentary majority in the 2010 elections. Even as his support has slipped, his ruling party, Fidesz, has maintained a lead over the opposition more than halfway through the premier’s four-year term.

Fidesz had 17 percent support among eligible voters, compared with 14 percent for the Socialist Party, its nearest rival, state news service MTI reported Aug. 23, citing the polling company Ipsos. The survey of 1,500 adults was carried out between Aug. 12 and Aug. 19 and has a margin of error of 2.5 percentage points, MTI said.

Hungary should move away from “ad hoc” taxes to plug budget holes and should create a more “business friendly” environment to boost growth and make budget financing sustainable, the IMF said in a July 26 statement after holding what it called a week of “constructive” talks in Budapest.

To contact the reporters on this story: Zoltan Simon in Budapest at zsimon@bloomberg.net; Andras Gergely in Budapest at agergely@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Balazs Penz at bpenz@bloomberg.net


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