MacroScope

from Global Investing:

Hungary’s Orban and his central banker

"Will no one rid me of this turbulent central banker?"  Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban may not have voiced this sentiment but since he took power last year he is likely to have thought it more than once.  Increasingly, the spat between Orban's government and central bank governor Andras Simor brings to memory the quarrel England's Henry II had with his Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket, over the rights and privileges of the Church almost 900 years ago. Simor stands accused of undermining economic growth by holding interest rates too high and resisting government demands for monetary stimulus.  The government's efforts to sideline Simor are viewed as infringing on the central bank's independence.

So far, attacks on Simor have ranged from alleging he has undisclosed overseas income to stripping him of his power to appoint some central bank board members. But  the government's latest plan could be the last straw -- proposed legislation that would effectively demote Simor or at least seriously dilute his influence. Simor says the government is trying to engineer a total takeover at the central bank.  "The new law brings the final elimination of the central bank's independence dangerously close," he said last week.  
 
The move is ill-timed however, coming exactly at a time when Hungary is trying to persuade the IMF and the European Union to give it billions of euros in aid. The lenders have expressed concern about the law and declined to proceed with the loan talks.  But the government says it will not bow to external pressure and plans to put the law to vote on Friday. That has sparked general indignation - Societe Generale analyst Benoit Anne calls the spat extremely damaging to investor confidence in Hungary. "I just hope the IMF will not let this go," he writes.

Central banks and governments often fail to see eye to eye. But in Hungary, the government's attacks on Simor, a respected figure in central banking and investment circles,  is hastening the downfall of the already fragile economy. For one, if IMF funds fail to come through, Hungary will need to find 4.7 billion euros next year just to repay maturing hard currency debt. That could be tough at a time when lots of borrowers -- developed and emerging -- will be competing for scarce funds.  Central European governments alone will be looking to raise 16 billion euros on bond markets, data from ING shows. So Orban will have to tone down his rhetoric if he is to avoid plunging his country into financial disaster.

But this week the tussle has intensified as the central bank has shrugged off Orban's call for more "growth-friendly policies" and raised interest rates by half a point. The rate rise, the second in as many months, brings interest rates to 7 percent, sparking rage in the ruling party. But the central bank, quite logically,  argues higher rates are necessary to protect Hungary's currency, the forint, from further weakness. And it has signalled it is fully prepared to raise rates again at the next meeting if required.

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.

Hungary’s central bank in policy bind

Pity Hungary’s central bank. If ever there was a country that needed an interest rate cut, here it is.  With the euro zone in the doldrums, the Hungarian economy is taking a big hit, with April-June growth coming in at a measly 1.5 percent on an annual basis, well below expectations. Quarter-on-quarter growth was in fact zero. Data last week showed annual inflation at two-year lows last month. Despite a cut to personal income tax rates this year, household consumption is stagnating. Unemployment is running at 11 percent. 

Yet the central bank’s hands are tied. A rate cut would weaken the forint currency and that would hurt the Hungarian families, municipalities and companies that are struggling with tens of billions of dollars in Swiss franc-denominated loans. The surging franc has already lopped half a percent off  Hungarian growth this year as families cut back on consumption to keep up loan repayments, Nomura analysts calculate. Another reason Hungary cannot really afford a weaker forint at this stage is its dependance on imports — they make up some 75 percent of GDP, far higher than in neighbouring Poland, says Neil Shearing at Capital Economics

Bond markets are betting on a rate cut — swaps are pricing in a half point cut over the next year. But will the central bank bite the bullet any time soon? ING Bank analysts think not. Hungary could need the protection of high interest rates in event of a global market selloff, they note. Hence the bank can afford to cut rates only next year. Shearing of Capital Economics agrees: “The central bank is in a bind. Provided the euro zone doesn’t melt down, there could be room for one or two rate cuts next year but at the moment its hands are tied by the currency issue.”

from Global Investing:

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.