Global Investing

Will Poland have an “ECB moment”?

When Poland stunned markets in May with a quarter-point rate rise, analysts at Capital Economics predicted that the central bank would have an “ECB moment” before the year was over, a reference to the European Central Bank’s decision to cut interest rates last year, just months after it hiked them. A slew of weak economic data, from industrial output to retail sales and employment, indicates the ECB moment could arrive sooner than expected. PMI readings today shows the manufacturing business climate deteriorated for the fourth straight month, remaining in contraction territory.

With central banks all around intent on cutting rates, markets, unsurprisingly, are betting on easing in Poland as well. A 25 bps cut is priced for September and 75 bps for the next 12 months, encouraged by dovish comments from a couple of board members (one of whom had backed May’s decision to raise rates). Bond yields have fallen by 60-80 basis points.

Marcin Mrowiec, chief economist at Bank Pekao says:

The market should continue to expect that the (central bank) will unwind the rate hike delivered in May.

There are two hurdles. One is inflation. Price growth is running at 4.3 percent, well above the 2.5 percent target set by the  inflation-targeting central bank. That was what triggered the May rate rise.

Second, in Poland, as in Hungary, the central bank cannot afford to let the currency weaken much. A third of government and corporate debt is hard currency, while half of all mortgages are in Swiss francs. A fall in the zloty, caused by a rate cut, could raise defaults and problems for the banks. (See here for a story on Poland’s Swiss franc loan problem).

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.

Counting the costs of Hungary’s Swiss franc debt

The debt crises in the euro zone and United States are claiming some innocent bystanders. Investors fleeing for the safety of the Swiss franc have ratcheted up pressure on Hungary, where thousands of households have watched with horror as the  franc surges to successive record highs against their own forint currency. In the boom years before 2008,  mortgages and car loans in Swiss francs seemed like a good idea –after all the forint was strong and Swiss interest rates, unlike those in Hungary, were low.  But the forint then was worth 155-160 per franc. Now it is at a record low 260 — and falling – making it increasingly painful to keep up repayments. Swiss franc debt exposure amounts to almost a fifth of Hungary’s GDP. And that is before counting loans taken out by companies and municipalities.

Hungarian families could get some relief in coming months via a government plan that caps the exchange rate for mortgage repayments at 180 forints until the end of 2014.  But the difference will have to be paid – with interest — from 2015.  Meanwhile, the issue threatens to bring down Hungary’s banks which must pick up the cost in the meantime and will almost certaintly see a rise in bad loans –  no wonder shares in Hungary’s biggest bank OTP are down 25 percent this month.  “(The franc rise) suggests a massive jump on banks’ refinancing requirements going forward, ” says Citi analyst  Luis Costa.

These overburdened banks will end up cutting lending to businesses, meaning a further hit to Hungary’s already anaemic economic growth. ING analysts earlier this month advised clients to steer clear of Hungarian shares, “given the burden from (forint/franc) depreciation not only on loan-takers but also the implications this has for the domestic growth story.”