Global Investing

Hungary and the euro zone blame game

More tough talk from Hungarian officials on the ‘unjustified’ weakness of the country’s currency, which has dropped 11 percent against the euro this year to all-time lows.

This time, it’s central banker Ferenc Gerhardt arguing that the weakness of the forint is out of sync with economic fundamentals and blaming it on the debt turmoil in the euro zone.

Perhaps he should look a little closer to home.

Hungary’s drift from orthodox economic policy since the centre-right government took over the reins last year has made it the most exposed of eastern European economies.

The ruling party Fidesz swept into power  promising to create a new social contract that would subject the economic system to the “popular democratic will”. Ironically, the policies of Prime Minister Viktor Orban have made Hungarian markets more sensitive to the global sentiment than ever.

Domestic investor participation in local bonds and stock markets has fallen since the government controversially seized private pension fund assets to boost state coffers this year.

Interest rates rise in Kenya, Uganda. Hungary next

Recent weeks have witnessed an interesting  split between countries that are raising interest rates to fend off runs on their currencies, and those cutting rates to spur on growth — check out my colleague Carolyn Cohn’s recent piece on this topic (http://tinyurl.com/4x58ny6) .The frontier economies of Africa fall into the first category — Kenya this week jacked up rates by an unprecedented 550 basis points to ward off a currency collapse, while Uganda’s benchmark rate was increased by 300 bps.  

Big stable economies such as Australia, Brazil and Indonesia have cut interest rates. On Wednesday, Romania became the latest  country to do so.  But an exception is investment grade Hungary, which may soon join the ranks of  frontier markets in currency-defensive rate hikes.

It may also soon lose its investment grade status –at least one of the three big rating agencies is expected to soon announce a cut to the sovereign credit rating.  That fear has triggered flight from the forint and short-dated bonds, pushing the currency to 2-1/2 year lows and causing significant flattening in the yield curve. The situation hasn’t been helped by signs the government is cooking up another sceme to subsidise indebted small businesses. More is to come, many predict –a ratings downgrade could see investors pull at least $1.2 billion euros from local bond markets. ING Bank estimates. That would be 10 percent of foreigners’ Hungarian bond holdings and would send the currency into a fresh tailspin.

from MacroScope:

New twist in Hungary’s Swiss debt saga. Banks beware.

A fresh twist in Hungary's Swiss franc debt saga. The ruling party, Fidesz, is proposing to offer mortgage holders the opportunity to repay their franc-denominated loans in one fell swoop at an exchange rate to be  fixed well below the market rate.  This is a deviation from the existing plan, agreed in June, which allows households to repay mortgage installments at a fixed rate of 180 forints per Swiss franc (well below the current 230 rate). Households would repay the difference, with interest, after 2015.

If this step is implemented and many loan holders take up the offer, it would be terrible news for Hungary's banks. The biggest local lender OTP could face a loss of $2 billion forints, analysts at Budapest-based brokerage Equilor calculate.  Not surprisingly, OTP shares plunged 10 percent on Friday after the news, forcing regulators to suspend trade in the stock. Shares in another bank FHB are down 8 percent.

But Fidesz' message is unequivocal.  "The financial consequences should be borne by the banks,"  Janos Lazar, the Fidesz official behind the plan says. The government is to debate the proposal on Sunday.

EBRD to puzzle over E.Europe crisis

Ministers and bankers meeting at the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development‘s annual gathering in London tomorrow and Saturday have a sorry mess to scrutinise.

By the bank’s own (revised) forecasts, its region of central and eastern Europe will contract by over 5 percent this year. Many countries in eastern Europe took too much advantage of western banks’ lending spree, and businesses and households are struggling to pay back foreign currency loans.

Falling commodity prices have hit countries like Russia and Kazakhstan, and a burst consumer credit bubble is risking double-digit contraction in the Baltic states and Ukraine.

Zeitgeist check

Some more bits and bobs to capture the current mood among investors.

–  So far, 2009 is worse than 2008 for stock investors. MSCI‘s main world index is down around 17 percent in January and February.  A year ago, it had lost around 8 percent.

– Eastern and central Europe are the new worries because of bank exposure to troubled economies.  ”The travails in the east, like the vampires of folklore, are sucking the lifeblood from European markets and investor sentiment,” State Street suggests.

– Cross-border flows into the euro zone hit record lows in February,  the same firm says.