Hungary can seek IMF aid now. But can it cut rates?

April 25, 2012

The European Union has given Budapest the green light to seek aid from the IMF. (see here)  In fact, the breakthrough after five months of dispute does not let Hungary completely off the hook  — to get its hands on the money, Viktor Orban’s government will have to backtack on some controversial recent legislation, starting with its efforts to curb the central bank’s independence.  It remains to be seen if Orban will actually cave in.

But markets are reacting as if the IMF money is in Hungary’s pocket already. There have been sharp rallies in Hungarian dollar bonds,  CDS and currency markets (see graphic below from Capital Economics). The Budapest stock market has posted its best one-day gain since last November while the yield on local 10-year bonds have collapsed almost 100 bps. Hungarian officials are (a bit prematurely)  talking of issuing bonds on world markets.

What investors are hoping for now is a cut to the 7 percent interest rate. Hungary’s central bank jacked up rates by 100 bps in recent months to defend the forint as cash fled the country. Now there is a chance those rate rises can be reeled back in. After all, the moribund economy could really use a dash of monetary easing. Thanasis Petronikolos, head of emerging debt at Baring Asset Management has been overweight Hungary and  recalls that after 2008 crisis, the central bank was able to quickly take back its 300 bps of currency-defensive rate hikes.

In the aftermath of this, the central bank may be prompted to cut short term interest rates. If the risk premium comes down a lot, the central bank may feel that 7 percent interest rates are not justified. I’m expecting them to at least take this 100 bps back assuming they can reach an agreement with the IMF.

Hungary’s FRAs (forward rate agreement), are still pricing slightly higher short-term interest rates and have not yet reacted to the shifting picture. Many urge caution however on the rate cut expectations, noting that Orban and the IMF may struggle to reach common ground and the central bank will want to see money on the table before it actually acts.

Petronikolos is right in that the economy is moribund, credit growth has slumped and there is a big output gap. But headline inflation is running at 5.5 percent, well above the central bank’s 3 percent target, due to an increase in sales tax.  Sandor Jobbagy, at CIB Bank in Budapest is one analyst who says inflation risks have forced him to push back the date of likely interest rate cuts. 

“Previously we had expected rate cuts to follow an agreement quite quickly but now….there are risks the rate cuts may come later than we had assumed,” Jobbagy says.

It may also be valid to question whether then EU has been too lenient on Hungary. Petronikolos disagrees, noting the government must still comply with EU and IMF conditions before getting the cash. JPMorgan analysts warn moreover of the risk that “Hungary becomes complacent as market pressure declines.”

They advise staying neutral Hungarian assets, finding valuations unattractive after this week’s rally.

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