Friday, November 27, 2009

The New Europe

The list of (probable) European commissaries was reveaeled today and it gave opportunity for some reflections here in ECE, as usual. Some surprise is justified, after even the Romanian press reporteda month ago that the country won't get the agricultural portfolio they dreamed of and at the end Dacian Ciolos landed there. But the perception of the position of commissar and the respectove positions accorded to the candidates are quite typical in a sense.
The common elemet is the scizophrenic acceptance of the assumption that the EU commissary is not a representative of his or her country but the Union and its people. However, it is hard to miss that the reactions almways convey - at least implicitly - that this will be "our" portfolio with our representative there. But it is probably quite common everywhere. It is more interesting to see the differences, for example between Hungary and Romany. The Hungarian press approaches the position - sociall affairs and labour - primarily as a question of money and influence. The sum allocated to the portfolio, the importance of the field in terms of euro billions and share from the EU budget are the main concerns. In Romania - although the agriculture is clearly an important field in terms of finances - the focus lies on national pride. Romania came out of irrelevance, achieved a diplomatic victory and will have an important position. (Although not, as it is also mentioned in these articles and discourses.) It is a recognition of the country and the success of Romanian knowledge and expertise. So, Hungarians see a great bag of money where Romanians see an examination committee - in Europe.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Prudent politician vs. Hungarian madness

One of the most typical accusation to the adress of the Hungarian politicains from the business elite that the political elite simply bargains long term advantages fro short term political ones. (The most recent one comes from the prime minister, Gordon Bajnai, who is not really a politician, but one of the experts - with current finance mininster, Péter Oszkó, who arrived with great plans into politics and administration and clearly had to realize that in the public administration best practices from business can be even outright failure...) This statment is usually supported by an argumentation, pointing out that other ECE political elites could have managed their countries better and were more focused on the long term. Well, after a deputy whip of the largest Polish government party told in an interview to Bloomber that his party is not ready to commit political suicide and make budget cuts until the elections in 2011 I think this refine construct could be forgotten. Ukraine is a complet mess, because politicians are not willing to committ the same suicie, Romania similarly, in Serbia - another recent candidate for overtaking Hungary in the self-flagellant and nationalist discourse - the number of pensioners is estimated to be higher at the end of the year as those working (a fact advertised by the largest and most professional Hungarian economic website, as the only case in the region, even though it was already the case in Romania two or three years ago, although to admit it would have meant an abandonment of the idea of the Romanian miracle due to flat tax), and this series could be much longer. It is again a small but clear sign how self-focusing and how detached from realities can this supposedly expert thinking be...

(Oh, and it is not excluded that at the end Germany will experience something similar to Hungary's fate in the 2000s. The liberals in the new coalition are very insistent on their promised tax cuts - the justification is the same: lower taxes mean more employees and more income - while their partner(s) in this "natural" alliance are fighting against their ideas - not only against their proposed tax cuts and the realization of it, but privatization in the health insurance system etc. The conflict is clear and at least superficially not dissimilar to the internal conflict of the Gyurcsány-government in Hungary. Moreover, the tax cuts are a textbook example of redistribution from down to the middle and upper income categories. In the lower segment of income it will be offset by growing costs of public services - litter transportation, contribution to the costs of health care etc. That makes it an illusion or at least a dubious attempt - especially in ECE with relatively low income levels - that tax cuts will bring more purchase power, more demand for local services, consumption goods etc. As long as it had to be offset by spending cuts it will automatically lead to higher cost of public services and in case of low income levels this raise of expenditures will suck up the additional income. While those with a really high income won't really spend more on hair cuts as their hair won't grow faster due to more money....)

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Relief and self-congratulation

Hungary is certainly not a peaceful country nowadays, but the growing tensions – albeit connected to the crisis and social poverty – are never directly associated with the financial and economic crisis. Regarding this issue a cautious stance prevails, emphasizing more and more positive effects of the governments measures. The parties behind it seem to accept their fate with resignation, and some of their politicians are ready to think that the cure prescribed by the „experts”, the business elite and the IMF – this at last showed some muscle recently in Romania and in the Ukraine (although only after prolonged period of a total lack of compliance in the former and a skillful tactics of „promise-and-non-fulfillment” in the other) is bringing its first fruits. (Even if it would be the case why are the same fruits sweet for supposedly leftist politicians as for not just supposedly rightist businessmen?) Anyway, the prime minister and the finance minister gave a series of interviews recently confirming that the budget deficit will remain as agreed with the IMF-EU couple and the fiscal restriction has its first effects: Hungary will emerge from this Maelstroem as the most competitive country in ECE.
Faithful readers can be already familiar with my views on this very simplistic and deadly perception of the world – I rarely felt myself better as an underpaid academic knowing that meanwhile I'm living in a very competitive county. The whole idea of competition instead of cooperation in ECE is one of the reasons of the mess we are experiencing. The clear demands and preferences of the society – usually expressed by vote – were always neglected in the name of competivity, as disadvantageous for business etc. and of course as remnants of some dangerous post-socialist, post-communist mindset, incompatible with democracy and capitalism. This stance even reached such heights as to accept lying to the electorate if it serves the aims of the business elite (and middle-class) but despising it if it turned out that the lies veiled a somewhat different, socially more balanced politics.
(One must admit that nowadays a different approach is gaining strength, the one arguing that the failure of transformation – that is in a sense an exaggeration – was caused by social pschychological factors and the mentality. This would be the real hindrance before the implementation of reforms. However, the proposed solution is not to develop ideas fitting to the social realities, rather somehow transform the mentality in order to implement the reforms, that are perceived as having no alternatives.)
Returning to the topic of this post, the government certainly can cite analysts predicting that Hungary will be the most competitive, most fabulous country. (On the one hand it is really comforting, at least no country will be at the end spared of the pains. :) ) But I fear analysts once again won't register success with their predictions, as they didn't before the crisis and since then. (A series of important data appeared in the last two weeks, for example GDP growth rates, and analyst's consensus was usually far from the real data. In case of Hungary they were disappointed but once again nobody asked whether their profession has any relevance, whether they deserve the attention paid to them. If analysts has something wrong, it is always the government's, the politics' the kádárist's fault and not theirs.) The real problem is that these forecasts are based on the usual simplistic model, somehow calculating a potential GDP growth (that is a very slippery issue, the oracle from Delphoi could be almost as successful as analysts, as the future is not known for anybody...). In this case they rely on the assumption – at least as I understand – that lower taxes are an incentive to hire workers, because cheaper labour makes producer prices more competitive and it will lead automatically to a higher employment rate. (What they will produce and first of all who will buy it, it is not a question. As in case of some economists, who – arguing that the lasting problems of labour market participation in Hungary needs a systemic approach instead of the present fragmented one, based on different education programs and state subsidies – came up with the all-encompassing and very systemic solution: in crisis regions a lower minimal wage have to be agreed upon.)
Nevertheless, this issue – what to produce and for whom – would be crucial as export based industry in Hungary was quite competitive even in the recent years (although the effects of the crisis are not clear at the moment), but for example a 5 point cut of the social contributions from July didn't had significant effects on employment, business was not capable to hire workers just for the sake of paying lower labour cost, the unemployment rate was kept at bay only by state-financed public work programs. Maybe next years similar cuts will have a different effect, maybe growing export markets will contribute to the easing of the situation. However, it has its clear limits as well.
Unfortunately the core of the problem lies in the SME-s, oriented towards domestic consumers in services, retail sales, construction. Although lower taxes would seemingly be good for them as well, not only due to lower labor costs (although paying less for some employees not necessarily enough to hire a new one, especially if there is no demand for the products), but through higher net income of the population. But the competivity issue in the export oriented sectors is a hindrance of wage raises as well, making the effects of tax cuts limited. Another possible solution would be redistribution to those whose “marginal propensity to consume” is higher – i.e. who are poor and can not afford even the basic needs on a daily basis – but it is also despised, as not business friendly. For a while credit substituted for real growth of income, but the result is too painfully clear. Without significantly higher wages there won't be really higher demand for services and construction. Moreover, lower taxes usually mean fewer public services or more expensive ones. Effects of tax cuts on personal incomes – especially in a country with lower wages – can be almost entirely offset by higher costs of public services. But not much SME-s will be content, when people will spend their excess money on train tickets instead of a hair cut. It would again flow to the state and not to the companies.
But the simplistic “lower taxes bring higher employment” assumption's validity is doubtful because of other reasons. The immobility, low education, low skills of the workforce reserve (the employment rate was 58% at its best now it is around 55%, the reserve is guessed sometimes at about 1 million people) would make investment necessary. Investment in mobility – affordable housing, not rents as high as a monthly wage, reasonably priced or state supported traffic costs etc., (the company's contribution to public traffic costs of their employees will become a taxable income from 1 January) – and in education would be much needed, but for this aim also redistribution would be much needed. At least as long as offering chances for everyone is perceived as necessary social solidarity and means of cohesion. If not ..., yes, it is another country.
(Moreover, there is a fair chance that at the end, with a rapidly ageing population and dependency ratio, without a European social system, Hungary will end up as having only one chance, to export more and more, making this whole speculation on possible ways out pointless. But even in this case the state would have to invest in children.)
Therefore the self-congratulating manner, the dreams of being once again a forerunner country seem not too well-founded. The result could easily be disappointment of the middle-class seeing that the price of tax cuts is higher payment for public services and freezed gross wages for a long period, therefore lower taxes bring not more money to spend on consumption, the disappointment of the SME-s because of the continuing lack of purchasing power, and even stronger disappointment of the poor, for whom it easily could mean more poverty and less chances to get out from their situation. The already very serious tensions can easily explode at that moment...

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

The typical ECE blindness - Hungary, an "oasis of stability", according to a Romanian business newspaper.

It is really hard not to laugh loudly or weep equally strongly. Ziarul Financiar published an article on Hungary,praising the efforts of the government and even stating that now the country is the most stable in the region. The article is a kind of exemplary of almost everything I have complained at these pages: wishful thinking, promotion of particular interests camouflaged as general ones, posing as well-informed even if it is clear that there was no real inquiry about the facts and the use of non-existent examples from the not-so-beloved neighbours in internal fights.
At the moment Romania is in a political chaos (for foreigners with a modest and secure income it is just a tolerable place), and the business elite proposes solutions putting the whole burden of the crisis on the population, especially on the lower social groups, not accepting any kind of personal loss, moreover even striving for personal gains in the form of further tax cuts. As something similar happened in Hungary in the last few months it is an obvious choice for giving examples and that way the exaggeration - the most stable country etc. - is comprehensible. But there is almost nothing to support this claim, besides statements from the Hungarian government, what is a dubious proof anyway. (Which government facing financial hardships would eagerly admit that their efforts brought moderate results and the seemingly better situation compared to the one a year ago is more a result of the growing risk appetite of the "very efficient" markets than that of thier own efforts.) Moreover, even the mesures listed in the article as the causes of this sudden but well deserved change in Hungary's situation has not too much foundation. The Bajnai government is far from being a technocrat one (the Ziarul Financira obviously portrays it that way because the president, Basescu proposed a prime minister from the Romanian National Bank and this designated premier suggested that his government would have been a technocratic one...), the corporate taxes were not lowered, but slightly hiked. On the other hand a series of measures, however welcome by the Romanian business elite they would be, were not hepling the fiscal stabilization and even the claims attached to them and mentioned in the article - for example lower social contributions will help employers to keep their workforce - did not visibly brought the suggested result (look at the growing unemploymetn in Hungary that is only counterbalanced by government financed public work programs, and not the supposed positive effects of lower labor costs). Unfortunately, what Ziarul Financiar presents as an example to follow, a very desirable set of measures, even in the presented form, is nothing else then a receipe for making social divisions deeper, differences larger, redistributing welth from the botom to the top of the society.
And even the typical ECE negligence is not lacking from the text. Although Bucharest is not far from Budapest and ZF would be certainly capable to send somenone there and who could make a thorough eamination of the situation, hear different opinions etc., they rely on a short note of Bank of America Merril Lynch describing Hungary as the inevitable forerunner of the region! That's the part that makes me weep and laough simultaneously... That kind of pompous and carless behavior! What some guys far away say about a country after putting some basic data in their models is worth more attention, is a more thorough knowledge of the situation than the one someone from there, with some work could have synthetized. (Just beacuse these guys are sitting somewhere in the West in an office building? or because this case, exactly because of the lack of information an be portrayed as a desirable soultion - at least for a certain social group - for the problems at home?) Welcome to ECE...

(Well, shall I explicitly note that the respective article was already taken over by some Hungarian websites?)

Monday, November 9, 2009

Revival - shallow thoughts and campaign unleashed

I mean maybe this blog will revive. I'm not proud of neglecting it - although not deliberately - but sometimes there is no time, or if there is still some, than energy lacks. Anyway I made promises that remained unfulfilled, however, I didn't really find suitable topics to deal with as I was not convinced that apart banalities I could be able to express anything half-original. And only repeating what others already explained - I would spare myself from this kind of self-promotion.
Nevertheless, at the moment I'm in the middle of a savage electoral capmaign, the prize is the seat of the president of Romania, among the contenders we can find Mr. Basescu, whose economic talent was many times highligted at these pages, the president of a the so-called social democratic party, Mircea Geoana, a liberal candidate, Crin Antonescu, the eternal challanger, Vadim Tudor, the extreme nationalist, a literate Hungarian, a poet, Hunor Kelemen. The first three are the serious candidates, the others can influence the result but has no real chance to become head of state. Not that it would be a welcome job, I suspect. Romania, even half a year ago portrayed in Hungary as a rapidly emerging country that will overtake its western neigbor in three or four years, is now on the verge of collapse. Not only had the budget deficit soared - it is predicted to reach 8% of the GDP - and the economy declined, but at the moment the favorite theme of politicians is the lack of the necessary revenues to pay public officials, teachers, justices, nurses, medical doctors etc. The IMF delayed the next part of its credit until a new and stable government will be established.
One reason beind is the campaign itself. I'm even not convinced that the situation is really so dire as it is portrayed, because politicians are clearly seeking the way to put the responsibility for the failure on their rivals. Therefor everyone maneouvers, tries to snooker its opponent(s) and somehow convey the image that if the salaries for next month really won't be paid out it will be their opponent's fault somehow. And as the president - whose party was left alone a month ago by the social democrats as sole government party - can not easily distance himself from the problems, he clearly tried to frame the situation as if only the IMF money would be available for the state. And the objection of the social emocrats to install a knew - minority - government of the presidents party is the only objection in the wy ofn this part of the credit.(It is evidently cheaper, but the Romanian government borrowed continously in this year from local banks huge sums and with a growing risk apettite at the markets even the doubious CCC credit rating wont easily deter "investors" from buying Romanian government bonds.)
But this is only a minor aspect of the crisis and I fear none of the candidates - and no one from the economic elite - is ready to drew the very sober conclusions from the crisis: the model of the recent years at last failed to delver a sustainable growth and it is not easy to imagine that it will in the future. However, every proposal is somehow a repetition of this earlier economic policy. (The social democrats try to mix it with some populist measures, higher salaries, lower prices fro public services etc.) Romania, a realtively poor country with a huge population depending on social assistance due to the lack of employment lived primarily on the remittances of a large guest worker population (at its peak they sent almost 10 billion euros to home in a year) and made it easier for its population to take credit with the help of lower tax rates. (Nevertheless, Romania's tax system was neither simple, nor really low, but the rational and efficient and etc. markets and their even more rational and efficient actors was simply not capable to grasp it, because they only had some very superficial informations...) Although the country attracted some investment, a large part of it went to the real estate sector and real estate prices skyroceted. Just as consumption with them. (Bucharest is quite similar to Latvia in the outlok of its cars and it is striking how many prestigious companies have a shop somewhere in the city. For example Cristophle closed its shop in Budapest after a year, while the Bucharest branch still exists...)
Anyway, it stopped with the crisis, and now people began to feel the harder times. The proposals for reviving the economy do not seem to be far reaching enough: austerity, cutting of social spending (it is usually called better targeting but please, don't tell me, that someone with 200 euros in a month as regular income not deserves some social assistance...) and cutting jobs in the public sector. The latter can be reasonable but the country was never really capable to create jobs, the record low unemployment was simply a result of the emigration. Now the migrants are returning and public officials will be laid out... The problem, unfortunately is the poverty that do not allow domestic consumption to be the driving force of growth. Even not with tax cuts - a liberal proposal - when they would deliver people 20-30-40 euros per month. (This is one of the weakest points of every tax cut ideas in ECE: with a realtively low wage level local SMEs orieted towards the domestic consumers can not raise their prices for services too much. People simply do not have enough money to pay 15 euros for a hair cut after spending the lions share of their income on houshold costs and food.) But the perspectives are not bright, with a rapidly shrinking and ageing population and with the necessity to export more... Romania faces either a very long and protracted struggle alone, offering low wages in order to attract investment in export oriented sector or ... don't really know. With the strain of the crisis slowly withdrawn the chances of a profound change - a turn from a state level regulatory and social system combined with supranational free market towards a supranational level regulatory and social system combined with supranational free markets - seems less and les probable. The aging and poor ECE countries will remain entrapped.
Otherwise the non-political proposals are sometimes even worse. "Economists" analyzing the region from a macro perspective - I'm still stounded seeing how easily they preceive that they are omniscient after putting some basic data in their models - can not really tell what would be the way out. The language and discourse of these actors is shallow and contentless, full of empty signifiers and not a single world with real content. They simply repeat phrases, like structural reforms, tax reforms but at the moment they even not dare to give details. Just phrases. And it is always hard to get rid of the feeling that it is completely immoral: to make such unelaborate proposals (while only onething is certain: in essence they mean the worsening of the situation of the social groups at the bottom of the society) from well-paid positions... Even if it is demagoguery, I can't help to think of it.