Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Disorderly devaluation?

The saga of the conversion of fx-loans in Hungary goes on. According to a report at the Hungarian website the government's main aim is to regain freedom of exchange rate determination and practically carry out a devaluation of the forint, without hurting households with fx-loans. As I'm no friend of this government I'm sceptical a bit, no government politician or supporter used this argumentation until today. However, if it is true it is just an even stronger proof of the incompetence of the government.

I know that I was arguing – not that it would matter the slightest – on behalf of external devaluation, therefore to declare a seemingly identical argumentation could seem paradox. Nonetheless, it is hard to treat the government's proposal as fulfilling the three necessary preconditions of a successful devaluation through the conversion of fx-loans. Any attempt should be comprehensive in its extent, prompt in its execution and orderly regarding the covering of losses and managing the inevitable risks. In this case none of the above preconditions exists.

The volume of fx-loans is around 1 million households. The ration of non-performing loans is around 10%. The proposal of the government intends to cover only 300 000 at best, so, the remaining 700 000 would still make a very significant electoral base not to let the forint devalue. And this is the maximal number the government claims will have an opportunity to make the conversion. The Minister of National Economy allegedly argued that only 50 or 100 billion HUF loss will be incurred to the banks, a sum that gives only about 75 000 existing loans converted. Hardly a reduction enabling the government to devalue.

Neither is the proposal prompt enough to make a sufficient reduction for a quick devaluation. Although the prime minister told yesterday that only a limited time frame would be allowed to the debtors to make the conversion (a solution with many – albeit very different – risks), this evening the reports states that the possibility will be open indefinitely. So, even with the compulsory lending of forint based loans prescribed for the banks the process would be slow (given the practical and procedural necessities, finding the suitable new loan, preparing the documentation etc.) and without it it will only be a cherry picking of the better debtors. Meanwhile everyone will avoid the not so promising clients, effectively reducing the number of conversions and therefore postponing the restoration of freedom of exchange rate manipulation. With the process underway for months or probably even for years the economy can not have the boost hoped from the devaluation.

It is again hardly an orderly solution. Although the distribution of the losses is clearly settled at least for the time being* nothing else seems to be in place to impede the dangerous process induced by the conversion. First of all there could be a long period of risen demand for forint that will inevitably lead to higher interest rates, while the exchange rate will be depressed (but probably not depressed enough to lift the exports significantly) to compel the National Bank to raise its policy rate and simultaneously inflating the country's foreign currency denominated sovereign debt. Even at the present rate of 286-287 forint for one euro the debt grew with 800 billion forint, 26+ of the amount the government reduced it back in summer. It would effectively mean the end of the debt reduction course, up to this moment the main objective of government policy.**

Beyond the practical issues the new strategy (external devaluation) is the third one in 16 months. Initially there was an attempt for a stimulus through tax cuts that almost immediately failed due to policy constraints. The EU forbade any deviation form the agreed deficit target of 3,8% of GDP. During the autumn the government made an experiment with classic austerity and tax cuts, but the budget collapsed already in January, leading to the very typical austerity program (internal devaluation), the Széll Kálmán plan and the primary objective of forced and fast debt reduction. And now the government turned around again, this time opting for external devaluation. Albeit not in a very sensitive way. (It is worth to take a look at what happened in Iceland, where – with the assistance of the IMF – a consolidation program based on external devaluation was carried out successfully. It needed far more and far stronger cooperation and effort than the Hungarian government envisages.) And not only the sudden and unexpected turns and twists speak fro themselves, there are a lot of contradiction between these strategies. Austerity is the opposite of the stimulus, while external and internal devaluations are hardly reconcilable and the former will initially raise the debt to GDP ratio. A sensitive mixture of these approaches would still be possible (especially of the first and the third), but it would need a more complex and sensible approach, one that calculates with every possible effect and takes into account every potential risk. Unfortunately the only economic quality the government seems to possesses is a very high marginal propensity for gambling.

* However, the prime minister admitted yesterday that the EU Court would most probably declare the move illegal, order compensation and fine Hungary, but he was eager to assure the people that they do not need to fear, the state will take this burden.

** There are a numerous other risks. For example the conversion means the liquidation of Hungarian assets and payment of huge sums to foreign creditors. Reducing national wealth and handing it over to foreigners, a reduction of the capital and with it the possible base of investment, and obviously will have a negative impact on the current account.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Self comment on the previous post

Maybe soemone who has read this blog carefully will obstruct my previous post that earlier I was no friend of banks and suddenly taking an issue on behalf of them can only be the expression of political bias. In order to clarify this (but not denying some political bias, anyway, why should a blogger be unbiased, it is supposedly a very personal genre) let me present my opinion. Firstly, banks are not persons, therefore they could not have virtues and vices and banks as such can hardly commit sins and deserve punishment. Any reference in texts claiming that banks has acted one way or the other is a simplification and a pars pro toto. Banks are instiutions managed by humans, and these humans obviously can be judged even for the morality of their handling of business. However, at the moment, In Hungary these humans should not fear any punishment, it is pardoxically reserved for non-person without the free will that is the basis of any moral judgement. Furthermore, these humans are defended, their income taxes (note I'm speaking of those who run these banks and not those who work at the local bank subsidiary in the cashier's desk) were cut and - implicitely, but logically - they are always included in that virtuous group of hard-working people who were obstructed in their work by the previous, progressive tax system - at least in the fantasy world of these politicians. So, if there is at all someone who deserves punishment it is not the instiution, but the humans.

Secondly, and it is in a way a logical consequence of the above outlined problem, banks as institution can hardly be substituted for anything else than banks, whatever name they will carry. If they were driven to excesses - as they surely were -, if their payment schemes encouraged reckless behavior and ever growing taking of risk through the innovation of new finacial means to distribute these risk around the world then they need regulation, better control. But this is not the same as recklessly punish them with enforcing on them huge losses. Someone malicious could even say that anyone, even the dumbest, can punish the banks but only a few clever can regulate them properly in order to avoid the recurrence of such excesses. Because the banks, be them the good, old family banks or the new investment empires are essential for the economy. The immediate effects of the credit crunch in 2008 (when the flow of capital was frozen in a moment and the economy stalled) and the visible effects of the present reluctance of banks to lend (slow growth, even in Hungary, 0% q-o-q, 1,5% y-o-y in the second quarter of this year after two quarters with y-o-y growth above 2%) prove this very basic truth. It was obvious from the start of the crisis that there will be losses and the main issue will be the distribution of these losses. Not only according to abstract ideas of justice and fairness but according to the very practical necessities of the economy. I was always in favor - not that my opinion would carry any weight in this issue - of strict regulation, limiting the bonus schemes of banks and brokerage houses, dividing banks into retail and investment ones etc. But - however painful it is for my moral and political convictions - I tried to be always aware of the fact that the banking system has to be put in order with the help of the public. Unfortunately not too much was done in this regard and even these meagre achievements were - at least in Hungary - undone by the new government.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Frustration, failure, voluntarism

Hungary is still only a secondary front-line of the renascent crisis, not among the headlines and for a superficial observer (i. e. for most of them) it could seem justified. Although the slippage in this years budget (and the obvious: the flat tax was not capable to stimulate growth) could warrant some worry, the government is imitating action at every negative sign, this time announcing 100 billion HUF correction measures. Hardly credible (enhancing tax collection makes 40% of this amount, and a freeze on government purcheses another 40%) and hardly structural, but it didn't really disturb analysts. Not even the news that the execution of the Széll Kálmán-plan (the bouquet of austerity and supposed reform measures planned to bring 550 billion HUF savings next year and about 900 billion until 2013) suffers from serious slippages, and exactly at those fields from where the government expects the highest savings could shake the belief in these guys. They can at last claim that the government is devoted to the deficit figure and ready to apply new measures if necessary. (I would really like to know how long would they bosses at their banks tolerate if they would announce that they had managed to failed to achieve the planned profit in the first eight months of the year, but they are very committed to the planned number and are ready to make corrective measures.) Anyway, it was hardly the sensation of the week, especially in the light of the government's even harder commitment to the flat tax.

But the end of the week brought back the memories of last year, when hardly a week passed without events and announcement testing everyone's heart and patience. It turned out that something was cooking (besides the books) in the witch's kitchen run by the government, a new plan to save the fx-loan holders.

Well, the malicious will certainly point out that as a complete program with this aim was already implemented and started two weeks ago it was even more short-lived than this year's budget, another object of pride of the government. But as one of the reasons the government came up with this new idea was the not qiite spectacular success of the original program (there was no opportunity to show long queues, praising the government in the TV) it is worth to be mentioned. The other reason behind the new plan – at least in my opinion – is the complete failure of the flat tax and the resulting frustration with the economic policy. I'm sure they attribute the lack of internal demand not to the fact that the new tax system was a tax hike for most of the population and it favored the segment with the least marginal propensity to consume, but to the spiking mortgage rates due to the CHF based loans. I fear it is telling regarding the mind-set of the government that facing the obvious collapse of the whole of their economic governance they decided to stimulate their original stimulus, instead of changing the pattern of redistribution. (Furthermore, they will cement in this tax system with a two-thirds majority law.)

What is the problem with the proposal? Firstly, it is its aim: to „release” the income of households in order to make them spend more on consumption. Secondly, the set-up of the plan and the parameters applied. Not only is there a few evidence that the weakness of the forint was the main reason of the weakness of domestic demand* but it fails to address the major problem caused by the fx-loans: the effective fixed excahnge rate of the HUF. As long as hundreds of thousands has fx-loans the country can not devalue because it will immediately harm, cause pain to millions. But external devaluation would improve export competitiveness faster and with less pain (mainly thorugh import generated inflation) than the internal devaluation (austerity) executed by Fidesz. However, the government only hopes to bring redemption to a quarter of the 1,2 million households with fx-loans with their plan to enforce a conversion of the loans at an exchange rate of 180 Huf (50 forints weaker than last Friday's close), signaling that they do not really want to get rid of the effective peg in order to curve out more room for manoeuvre for the economic policy, but to fend of the popular pressure.

As for the second problem the plan lays the whole of the burden and the losses on the banks. However, the balance sheet of these banks is already full of hidden losses due to the non performing loans and the loss of value of the real estates serving as collateral fro these fx-loans. As long as they can keep their debtors afloat they not necessarily can declare these losses and they can manage „only” with setting up appropriate reserves. So, they can hope – and in this sense their interest is common with their debtors' interests – that at the end these loans will be payed back according to schedule and they can release the reserves set up to cover projected but at the end avoided losses. However, as soon as they are forced to accept the conversion of these loans (or the repayment in one sum) at 180 HUF exchange rate they will realize huge losses on these loans that has to be covered. According to preliminary estimates it can be as high as 1100 billion HUF. It will effectively force them to recapitalize. Even if their owners (Western Banks mainly) will provide them with the necessary capital – that is far from being certain – they will certainly try to find as much foreign capital as they can for this purpose. One option is to freeze lending and use the capital to cover losses. And on the long run they will certainly pay close to zero rates on deposits, as they won't need to accumulate capital this was because they won't lend. (There is of course the secondary effect of losing confidence in Hungary. As this move would be most probably illegal, violation of existing contract by a third party without interest in these contract, violation of property right and that way unconstitutional and against EU law if the government implement it it will be equal with the declaration that no investment and no property – remember the private pension funds! - is safe here.) Anyway, it could bring the banks to the decision to withdraw – gradually or even abruptly – from Hungary. It will certainly cause further reduction in lending and tighten already very tight financial conditions. And such events are rarely beneficial to economic growth, something the government desperately wants to deliver.

As the plan is clearly not part of a coherent one on how to free the Hungarian economy from constraints from which it can be disentangled it is hard to see how it could lead to positive result. It is not aiming to the solution of the most important problem, just for short term political gains. (And it is the expression of frustration as the information on the discussion in Fidesz's caucus suggest. The most important supportive argument against the objections of the more restrained members was that the banks caused this whole mess they should bear the whole of the burden.) Not that there wouldn't be place for an orderly and well balanced solution to the problem. There were even plans proposed by bankers. And even if those were rejected with the cooperation and advice of the IMF and the EU (and with their loan) a kind of bad bank or special financial vehicle could be set up in order to clear the bank's balance sheets, convert the loans and that way achieve simultaneously the re-ignition of bank lending to the economy (that was already constrained by the huge implied losses and the subsequent frenzy to collect enough capital to cover these probable losses) and the lifting of the burden of households. But it would obviously end the economic war of liberation so proudly waged by the government.

*According to the data of the Office of Statistics retail sales grew in this year m-o-m and y-o-y as follows:
               m-o-m        y-o-y
January     0,9% and   0,9%
February -0,3% and   0,1%
March     -0,5% and -0,9%
April       -0,3% and -1,2%
May         0,5% and   0,7%
June        -0,5% and -0,5%

Meanwhile the CHF-HUF exchange rate fluctuated between 220 and 205 HUF in January, between 203 and 214 HUF in February, between 201 and 214 HUF in March, between 200 and 210 HUF in April, between 204 and 221 HUF in May and between 214 and 228 in June. Funnily, retail sales declined in the month when the CHF was weakest.