Friday, March 11, 2011

Hungary, even more path-dependent?

Hungary is again pushing forward on its path towards its demise with the so-called Széll Kálmán-plan and the Draft Constitution. It would be (or probably will be) entertaining to analyze the constitution in depth in the light of Fidesz's organic/integral nationalism, how it correpsonds to this idea.JUst as it would be important to give a more detailed coverage of the economic plicies of the government, sometimes seemingly sane, but considered in its entirety lunatic at all, again very much an expression of the above mentioned ideology. However, in this post I will only formulate some preliminary thoughts and conclusions on one of the most worrisome aspects of the new constitution.

1. The new constitution will implement a debt ceiling at 50% of the GDP (although the GDP they measure to will not necessarily be identical with the Eurostat/National Office of Statistics data, a separate law will define it). Legislation on taxes and social contribution, as well as on the pension system will be subject of laws passed by a qualified - 2/3 - majority. It seems an exteremely rigid framework for any meaningful economic policy, practically requiering consent of the government and the opposition even to minor changes.
2. The government promised to bring down the debt-to-GDP ratio to 50% until 2018. The nationalization of rpivate pension funds can kickstart it and the government predicts a ratio between 65-70% in 2014 but 15% is still a long way to go. (Between 1998 and 2001, during their tenure they are still very proud of, Fidesz reduced the debt level from 62% to 53%, or 9% of GDP, with tight budgets between 1998 and 2000 and GDP growth around 4%.) 15% (more realistically around 20%) in four years seems a daring promise.

I tend to conclude the political intention and the legal framework will create a peculiar situation. Firstly, it will certainly put Hungary in the straitjacket of almost another decade of strong austerity, after 5 years from this experience. Moody's had some calculation on the possible scenarios of debt reduction and they concluded the 50% level is attainable only with an extraordinarily benevolent international environment and not quite realistically high growth rates. I would characterize it as voluntarism, and an extremely dangerous form of it.
Furthermore, there is a risk that the package - or more precisely the declaration of intention - announced last week - is simply not calculated properly. For example the Ministry of National Economy wants to spend the revenue from the electronic toll system entirely on debt reduction, while the Ministry of National Development counts on it as a source for the maintenance of public roads. Or, the government is propelling forward with a legislative package on public instruction, with an estimated annual extra cost between 300-500 billion HUF while the entire ammount of budget savings is estimated around 900 billion per year. And there is the danger, that they simply misinterpreted Hungary's economic woes. It seems they believe in the magic mixture of flat-tax (actually a significant tax-hike on labour in case of about 85% of the employed workeforce) and super-flexible labor market (i.e. very low level of social aid and unemployment benefits) just like Bajnai or earlier the Reform Alliance.
Meanwhile important elements of command economy appeared, especially the central regulation of prices for public services and utilities. But after it turned out that the new flat-tax is in fact a tax-hike they put pressure on employers to raise wages, now they threaten with legislation on this issue. And they couldn't find a solution for the problem of the fx-denominated loans, for the indebtedness of local authorities - the majority of which was controlled by Fidesz since 2006 and deliberately taking the path of making debts - and the PPP projects. The flat tax, due to the above mentioned reasons probably will not bring a significant rise in internal demand and households are still struggling with their debt and with rising public utility costs. I'm not really optimistic, although I can imagine the markets temporarily buying the package and waking up to an even worse situation after austerity bites but fails to bring meaningful growth.

P.S. It is again worth to look at Romania with its totally incompetent government, After narrowly escaping colapse and pushing thorugh a hard austerity package, still far from reducing budget deficit significantly enough, they are in a hurry to implement tax cuts. Although tehre is still no convincing proof that it could bring growth alone and Romanian is sliding down to large scale poverty with last years measures. Moreover, it will create a whole in the budget eytremely hard to patch, just look at Hungary, what is happening there. The government had to accept austerity after it carried out tax cuts around 500 billion HUF. Now, they have to cut public expenses, unemployment benefits, social aid etc. in order to save the money they handed out nicely, as a gift for the very rich and a narrow upper-upper middle class. 

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