Iceland, why on earth Iceland? Well, the issue I have in mind concerns the independence and viability of central bank monetary policy (especially in a small open economy like Hungary’s) and the role interest rates, and investor sentiment, and yield differentials, and oh yes, I almost forgot, that notorious vehicle so beloved by investors the “carry trade” in producing a situation where financial dynamics get really out of hand.
In a visionary paper given at the International Conference of Commercial Bank Economists (held in Madrid, July 2007) – entitled The Global Financial Accelerator and the role of International Credit Agencies – the Danish economist Carsten Valgreen argued the following:
The choice major countries have made in the classical trilemma: ie, Free movements of capital and floating exchange rates â€“ has left room for independent monetary policy. But will it continue to be so? This is not as obvious as it may seem. Legally central banks have monopolies on the issuance of money in a territory. However, as international capital flows are freed, as assets are becoming easier to use as collateral for creating new money and as money is inherently intangible, monetary transactions with important implications for the real economy in a territory can increasingly take place beyond the control of the central bank. This implies that central banks are losing control over monetary conditions in a broad sense. The new thing â€“ this paper will argue â€“ is that we are increasingly starting to see the loss of monetary control in economies with stable non-inflationary monetary policies. This is especially the case in small open advanced â€“ or semi-advanced â€“ economies. And it is happening in fixed exchange rate regimes and floating regimes alike.
Interestingly enough, Valgreen chose as his paradigmatic examples of central bank loss of control over monetary policy the cases of Iceland and Latvia. Equally today we could add the name of Hungary to our list. As Valgreen argued (and this remember, before the sub prime blow-out):
It is no accident that the two examples are small open economies with liberalised financial markets. Being small makes the global financial markets matter more. A country such as Iceland will be the first to notice that the agenda for monetary policy has changed, as the current and capital accounts are naturally very large and important for the economy. However, this is more of a reason to study its experiences carefully, as they might show something of what is in store for larger economies over the next decade.
So the issue really is, does the Hungarian National Bank continue to control monetary policy in any meaningful sense, or is it reduced to responding to events elsewhere? And does the Hungarian government have any effective tool left with which to fight this crisis? But getting ahead of ourselves and going too far into all this, let’s step back a bit, and take a longer look at the Hungarian economy, just to set the scene.
The IMF and the EU Agree To A Larger Deficit
The International Monetary Fund and the European Union has now approved Hungary’s request for a larger budget deficit this year, thus giving the government marginally more room for manoeuvre in the face of the very severe contraction in GDP. The government is now going to be authorised to aim for a 3.9 percent of gross domestic product shortfall, as compared with the earlier 2.9 percent objective, according to Finance Minister Peter Oszko. The government have also revised their forecasts, and expects the Hungarian economy to shrink by 6.7 percent this year, the most since 1991, a revision from the earlier 6 percent forecast. Hungary was the first EU member to arrange a 20 billion IMF-led bailout last year, lining up 20 billion euros in a bid to avert a default after investment and credit to eastern Europe dried up. The country then pledged to keep its budget deficit under control to qualify for the loan.
The question is, is this good news or bad news? Evidently the decision not to strangle the government budget is welcome (we are in danger of a contraction that feed on itself here, since with external demand at very low levels, applying 9.5% interest rates and fiscal tightening means the economy can simply fall into a downward spiral). But in the braoder context the news is not good. The IMF and the EU have cut Hungary some more slack simply because the ferocity of the slump in output is worse then any previously imagined, and things are now going to get worse, not better. Which made it rather strange to read in Bloomberg this morning that Finance Minister Peter Oszko has announced the government is to consider selling foreign-currency denominated bonds this year in order to take advantage of rising investor confidence. We are on very dangerous gound indeed here gentlemen! I mean, whatever happened to once bitten twice shy. According to Bloomberg:
Foreign-currency borrowing, along with slower growth, a wider budget deficit and higher government debt than elsewhere in eastern Europeraised concern about Hungaryâ€™s ability to repay its debt lastyear……IMF and EU officials this week approved Hungaryâ€™s plan torun a wider budget deficit this year and next than earlier targeted….
So what exactly has changed? According to the latest data growth is now even slower than before (or rather the contraction is sharper), the budget deficit and gross government debt are both pointing up again, and the only (vaguely) “good” news is that living standards are falling so fast that the trade balance is improving, and with it the current account deficit. But the government debt dynamics are not the same as the external trade one, and things are getting worse, not better, which makes you wonder what all the optimisim is about? In their recent stress testing exercise the Hungarian Government Debt Management Agency suggested the debt path was sustainable (see much more below on this), but in order to offer this assurance they assumed an average growth rate of GDP of 3% 2013 – 2020 even in their worst case scenario! . My estimate is a much more sobre one, and that is, with declining and ageing population to think about – the Hungarian ecenomy will be lucky to average 1% growth over the above time horizon (more justification on this below). So as far as I can see Hungary’s public debt dynamics are still set on a clearly unsustainable path.
Then you need to take into account how you have a 9.5% central bank benchmark interest rate going into a 6% percent plus GDPcontraction (with inflation around 3%), so what are people thinking about? This policy mix doesn’t work, and it won’t. If you lower the interest rates to support the economy, the forint crashes, and with it the balance sheet of all those households still holding CHF denominated mortgages in their portfolio. Hungary is clearly caught between the proverbial rock and the hard place.
And what’s more, this policy mix is leading to all sorts of distortions. Hence the reference in the title of this post to Iceland, since Iceland’s problems precisely got out of hand, due to the “juiciness” of the trade their domestic interest rate yield differential offered. Viz a recent Deustche Bank report which specifically recommended buying HUF denominated assets, due to the yield differential.
Currency deals that profit from the difference in interest rates globally are returning to favor on speculation the worst of the creditcrisis may be over, spurring investors to buy eastern European assets,Deutsche Bank AG said.The Russian ruble, Hungarian forint and Turkish lira offer investorsthe best returns in the next two to three months thanks to the highestrates in the region, said Angus Halkett, a strategist at Deutsche Bankin London.The so-called carry trade, in which investors borrow in currencieswith low interest rates to buy higher-yielding assets, helped theforint and lira surge to record highs last year before the collapse of Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc. prompted investors to sell riskier assets.
Perhaps people should reflect a little more on the significance of those final few words: “before the collapse of Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc. prompted investors to sell riskier assets”.
This is what is known as the “carry” trade, and it works like this. Stimulus plans and near-zero interest rates in developed economies boost investor confidence in emerging markets and commodity-rich nations with interest rates which are often in double figures.Using dollars, euros and yen these investors then buy instruments denominated in currencies from countries like Brazil, Hungary,Indonesia, South Africa, New Zealand and Australia which collectively rosee around 8% from March 20 to April 10, the biggest three-week gain since atleast 1999 for such carry trades, according to data compiled by Bloomberg . A straightforward carry-trade transaction would be to borrow U.S. dollars at the three-month London interbank offered rate of 1.13% and use the proceeds to buy Brazilian real and earn Brazilâ€™s three-month deposit rate of 10.51%. That would net anannualized 9.38% – as long as both currencies remain stable, but the real, of course, is appreciating. Now all of this can present a big problem for a number of CEE economies, because:
Turkeyâ€™s key interest rate is 9.25 percent, Hungaryâ€™s is 9.5 percent and Russiaâ€™s 12 percent. The cost of borrowing in euros overnightbetween banks reached 0.56 percent yesterday from 3.05 percent sixmonths ago as the European Central Bank began cutting interest rates and pledges of international aid allayed concern the global slowdownwould worsen. The London interbank offered rate, or Libor, forovernight loans in dollars fell to 0.22 percent from 0.4 percent inNovember as the U.S. government and the Federal Reserve spent, lentorcommitted $12.8 trillion to stem the longest recession since the1930s.
So basically, “Big Ben’s” US bailout is fuelling specualtion on Hungarian debt!
And don’t miss this point from the Bloomberg article:
Deutsche Bank recommends investors sell the euro against the forint on bets the rate difference will help the Hungarian currency gain 10 percent to 260 per euro in two to three months from 286.55 today. Investors should also sell the dollar against the lira and buy the ruble against the dollar-euro basket, the bank said.
And it isn’t only Deutsche Bank, Goldman Sachs recommended on April 3 that investors use euros, dollars and yen to buy Mexican pesos, real, rupiah, rand and Russia rubles.
We can see some of this impact in the German ZEW investor sentiment index. As can be seen, something interesting is happening somewhere, even if it is not immediately evident where. As Solow would have said, “I can see evidence for improved investor sentiment everywhere, except in the real economies”.
So, come on everyone, off you go to Monte Carlo, and place your bets. But meanwhile, remember, in Hungary at least, the most notable phenomena are the growing unemployment and the way the bad loans pile up, even as the Hungarian economy tanks! Basically, the all the evidence now points to the fact that IMF and the EU urgently need a rethink about how they are going about things, but this is beyond the scope of the present post.
“Hungarian lenders face an increase in non-performing loans, which will contribute to â€œsubstantially deterioratingâ€ profits for the countryâ€™s financial system, central bank Vice President Julia Kiraly said. The whole banking system, which is stable with adequate liquidity, may end up with â€œnegative profitâ€ this year and some lenders need to strengthen their capacity to resist shocks, Kiraly said at a conference in Budapest today.”
The Fundamentals, All The Fundamentals, And Only The Fundamentals
Horrid GDP Data
The decision to widen the deficit allowance slightly is not that surprising when you take into account that Hungary’s gross domestic product dropped by 5.8% year on year in the first quarter of 2009. The figure was announced by the statistics office last Friday and followed a decline of 2.6% in the last three months of 2008.
Quarter on quarter there was a 2.3% GDP decline, (down from 1.5% contraction in the fourth quarter) which means the economy was shrinking at a 9.2 percent annualised rate, quite sharp, but far from being one of the worst cases in the EU. What makes the Hungarian recession rather different is the way it has been lingering in the air since the initial “correction” in 2006, and is now becoming protracted since this was the fourth consecutive quarter when quarter on quarter growth was negative, and it is hardly likely to be the last.
Household consumption is in continuos decline (see retail sales data below), real wages are falling, and the lack of internal and external demand growth means that investment remains weak. Further, this dynamic is not likely to change rapidly. Exports have plunged – even though since imports have slumped even further we have the ironic detail that net trade is still mildly positive for GDP. However, with interest rates at such a high level and fiscal policy being continually tightened there is little chance of a ‘V’ shaped recovery in Hungary, and the recession has all the hallmarks of becoming an ‘L’ shaped” one.
Even the agricultural sector due to the high base effect of last years bumper harvest. So basically, it’s back and back in time we go at the moment.
Retail Sales In Continuous Decline
Hungarian retail sales fell for the 25th consecutive month in February as rising unemployment falling wages and a generally deepening recession sapped consumer spending. Retail sales were down an annual 3.2 percent following a 2.8 percent decline in January, according to national statistics office data. Prime Minister Gordon Bajnai, who replaced Ferenc Gyurcsany last month as differences over how to handle the recession boiled over, has indicated he plans to raise the value-added tax as the recession cuts into budget revenue. This will surely push sales down even lower, and household consumption is now expected to decline by as much as 8 percent this year, according to the most recent government estimates.
Consumers started finding themselves with less to spend following the introduction of the government austerity programme in 2006 which raised taxes and utility prices.
Unemployment On the Up and Up
Hungary’s jobless rate rose to 9.7% in March, up sharply from the 8% level recorded in December. Hungary’s unemployment rate has been howevering continuously in the 7%-8% range for more or les 4 years now, so the current spike (with the prospect of more to come) suggests something important has changed. Between Q4 2008 and Q1 2009, unemployment claims rose by 66,000.
Of the countryâ€™s 402,800 registered unemployed, 42.5 percent have been out of work for at least a year, now. The number of Hungarians employed averaged 3.76 million in the first quarter, compared with 3.88 million in the previous three months. It is hard to see a resurgence in the number of Hungarian’s employed, even after this recession is past and forgotten, since the working age population is falling steadily, and has been for some time now.
Alongside the increase in unemployment the activity rate has declined even more rapidly. Of the 117,000 laid off during the last quarter some 40,000 chose to remain inactive rather than looking for employment elsewhere. Hungary’s already languishing job market received a major blow from the global economic crisis in the form of layoffs and bankruptcies, meanwhile, companies may have been more cautious in hiring new staffers. These job market trends were only to be expected, however downsizing is on a higher scale compared with forecasts. Hungary’s economy is in a state of deep recession, with predictable consequences for employment, real wages, and demand.
One consequence of the sharpnesss of the recession has been that Hungarian aggregate wages are falling much more rapidly than anticipated, and this, in turn, has put a major dent in the new government’s fiscal adjustment plans. The Finance Ministry had originally anticipated an additional HUF 50 billion in tax revenue. However, the new unemployment figures suggest that the decrease in wage costs may surpass the government’s most recent 2% forecast. In a worst-case scenario, the drop in aggregate earnings may be as high as 4%, with a HUF 100 billion-HUF 150 billion negative impact on the budget.
Exports Continue To Fall
Hungary posted a foreign trade surplus of EUR 492.8 million in March, the largest in the past decade, according to the Central Statistics Office (KSH). Still exports were down by nearly 20% year on year, and the improved balance was the result of imports falling even more – by over 23%.
In fact Hungary’s exports came in at EUR 5,173 million in March – an 18.2% year on year decline, a considerably slower rate of decline than that registered a month ago (-29.7%). Imports came in at EUR 4,680 million , a staggering 23.4% drop, following a plunge of 32.3% in February.
The gap between export and import growth (5.2 percentage points) has not been as wide as this this wide September 2007 (5.9 percentage points). The March balance shows a record high, a surplus of EUR 492.8 million, which compares with a surplus of EUR 213.9 million in March last year. Exports in the first quarter as a whole amounted to EUR 13,843 million, a decline of 26.3% in annual terms. Imports in Q1 amounted to EUR 13,233 million, down 28.5% year on year. Hungary’s Q1 foreign trade balance showed a surplus of EUR 609.3 million, another record, which compares with a surplus of EUR 282.1 million for the same period of 2008.
And Industrial Output Slumps
With exports slumping in this way it is not surprising to find that Hungary’s industrial production dropped by 19.6% in March, according to working day adjusted data. Over the first quarter Hungarian industrial output declined by 22.3% year on year, but – although it rose 4.3% month on month, according to data adjusted for calender and working day changes.
And activity in Hungary’s manufacturing sector continued to contract in April according to the PMI reading, although the pace of contraction is now down slightly from January’s all-time low.
The headline manufacturing PMI stood at a seasonally adjusted 40.4 in April, up slightly from the 39.5 registered in March, according to the release from the Hungarian association of logistics. This was the seventh consecutive month of contraction, following the all-time low of 38.5 hit in January. The Hungarian government currently forecasts that GDP will contract by as much as 6% this year as the German economy, Hungary’s chief export market, also faces a similar decline in GDP. Hungarian manufacturing output contracted even more in April than in March, to 37.1 from 37.6. The export index showed a further decline to 35.6 from 36.5 in March. The only positive development came from the new orders index which showed a marginal increase to 37.5 from a reading of 35.0 in March.
Only Inflation Rebounds
Hungaryâ€™s inflation rate unexpectedly rose in April for the first time in 11 months, after a weaker forint made imports more expensive, with prices of fuel, medicine, clothing and new cars leading the rise. The annual rate was 3.4 percent, rising from 2.9 percent in March to what is its highest level so far this year. Core inflation, which filters out food and energy prices, was 3.2 percent on the year and 0.5 percent on the month. The annual rate had returned to the central bankâ€™s 3 percent target in February for the first time in more than two years.
The prices of consumer durables, including cars, rose 1.4 percent in a month, while fuel costs climbed 2.9 percent and medicines by 1.9 percent. The price of clothing increased 3.7 percent, the statistics office said. With Hungaryâ€™s recession damping demand, consumer prices are set to increase â€œonly moderately,â€ according to the central bank. Policy makers now expect the inflation rate to average 3.7 percent this year and 2.8 percent next year. The bank raised its estimate from an earlier forecast of between 3.1 percent and 3.4 percent for 2009 and 1.5 to 1.9 percent for 2010.
One factor which will influence future inflation is the new government’s decision to raise the main value-added tax rate to 25 percent from 20 percent, as of July 1 in an attempt to offset declines in state revenue and narrow the budget gap. Raising the rate of consumption tax is deeply problematic in the sort of double-bind situation which Hungary faces. Germany raised VAT by 3 percentage points on 1st January 2007, and look what happened to consumption (see chart below) in December 2006, and then subsequently. This is doubly relevant to the Hungarian case since the Hungarian economy is more than likely set on the German path of becoming an export dependent economy. Weakening domestic consumption further could well prove to be a “lethal dose”.
Magyar Nemzeti Bank policy makers expect the annual inflation rate to be â€œnearâ€ their 3 percent goal â€œon the monetary policy horizonâ€ of five to eight months, they said on May 8.
â€œThe NBH would clearly like to cut interest rates, which at 9.5% look far to high for an economy that will contract by 5-6% this year, but this is more dependent on global financial stability and declining risk aversion than the latest CPI release.” Nigel Rendell, Royal Bank of Canada
And So The NBH Keeps Rates On Hold
Hungarian monetary policy makers left the benchmark interest rate unchanged at their April meeting for a third month as concern over the forintâ€™s decline outweighed the outlook for slowing inflation and growth. The Magyar Nemzeti Bank kept the two-week deposit rate at 9.5 percent.
Policy makers didnâ€™t consider cutting the interest rate in March based on stability concerns (according to the minutes) and even rejected a proposal, backed by Governor Andreas Simor and his two deputies, to raise the key rate to 10.5 percent. In April the rate-setting Monetary Council considered the recession, the outlook for inflation and economic stability when setting the key rate. The annual inflation rate may be near the bankâ€™s 3 percent target on the 18-month monetary policy horizon, according to the statement.
Much Ado About Debt
Zsuzsa MosolygÃ³ and Lajos Deli, of the Hungarian Government Debt Management Agency recently published what they call ” a first a simple model to analyze the impact of the international credit line on debt ratio trends as well as to demonstrate the importance of calibrating reasonable values for decisive macroeconomic parameters”.
Read stress tests.
Below you will find the chart showing their basic assumptions, and giving the outcomes for the various scenarios. The whole idea of the process was to show that Hungarian debt to GDP will not necessarily rise in the future as some analysts had been predicting. I don’t want to go into all of this in too much, but if you click on the chart and take a look at the assmptions for GDP growth (which is actually the key parameter), you will find that on both the basic and the pessimistic scenarios average growth of 3% is assumed (this is impossible to attain on my view), while the “optimistic” scenario even assumes 4% (incredible). Remember these are average growth rates and over seven years (2013 – 2020). This is like selling Spanish property pre 2007 with a splendid photo of the sun and the beach.
And this comes from two apparently serious analysts, analysts who are supposed to be committed to taking a serious stab at putting the country’s longer term finances on a stable footing. All they actually acheive is offering a confirmation of the worst fears of those of us who feel that the debt dynamics in Hungary are totally unstable in the mid term, and illustrate just how out of balance most of Eastern Europe now is as we move forward.
They justify their decision in the following way:
Market analysts tend to assume in their debt models a 2% economic growth for the
Hungarian economy. The National Bank of Hungary estimates currently a 2%
potential GDP growth rate, however, it does not mean necessarily the long-term
economic growth. A few years ago the estimates were higher and it seems to be
possible that adequate reforms to encourage employment would result in a 3-4% or
even higher potential GDP growth rate.
(Please Click On Image For Better Viewing)
In fact the objective of the study was not to seriously stress test Hungarian debt dynamics, but to try to argue that those analysts arguing for unsustainable dynamics have it wrong. The end product isn’t very convincing. Not surprsingly the debt to GDP ratio diminishes gradually after 2009 both in the â€œoptimistic” and â€œbasic” version. The authors even underline that debt development does not appear to be unsustainable under very pessimistic macroeconomic conditions, either. In the â€œpessimistic” scenario debt ratio peaks at about 80% in 2020 and descends slowly afterwards (which is due to the assumed 6% interest rates). Of course, “pessimistic” here means Hungarian GDP rising by 3% a year every year from 2013 to 2020. To put this in perspective, using current Hungarian government forecasts average GDP in the ten years up to 2010 is something like 1.8% per annum. And this has been a pretty good decade by Hungarian standards (see chart for long term growth).
In fact, with a declining and ageing workforce, together with decline domestic consumption (see retail sales chart above), even a 1% per annum growth rate may be optimistic. In any event we won’t see 3%, and nothing produced by the Hungarian government to date substantiates the claim that longer term debt is NOT on an unsustainable path. “To sleep, perchance to dream-ay, there’s the rub.”