(Bloomberg) — Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s government is pushing back against growing criticism over fiscal management that investors say may push the recession-hit economy into a negative spiral.
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Finance Minister Mihaly Varga insisted the country’s plans are on track after the European Commission pointed this week to “weaknesses in budget planning and execution” and “ad hoc” spending it said was making a bad situation worse.
But missed deficit targets, reduced tax income and overspending have created a fiscal hole in the ballpark of $3 billion, said Viktor Zsiday, a portfolio manager at Hold Asset Management in Budapest.
“Hungary is in a vulnerable position in terms of financing,” he said.
Hungary “disputes” the European Union assessment, Varga said Thursday, rejecting a recommendation to cut lavish energy subsidies.
“We’re on track to hopefully reduce the budget deficit to below 3%” of gross domestic product next year, he said. “I wouldn’t call this a structural problem.”
The budget racked up a record shortfall for the first four months this year, and faith in the government’s ability to deliver on its pledges is waning. Even the Fiscal Council, a state body responsible for advising on public finances, expressed doubt about next year’s budget.
The budget is “so stretched that any negative developments would require its overhaul,” Fiscal Council Chairman Arpad Kovacs told state radio on Friday.
Hungary has suffered more than any other EU member from Europe’s cost-of-living crisis, as rising food and fuel costs helped drive inflation to a bloc-high of more than 25% earlier this year. That has made Hungarian assets one of the most vulnerable and volatile globally.
The forint fell more than 7% against the euro last year and the yield on the 10-year government bond breached 10%. This year, with help form the central bank’s EU-topping key interest rate, the forint largely erased last year’s loss and the yield has eased, trading at 8.1% on Friday.
Orban responded to the inflation surge by capping food and fuel prices and subsidizing utility bills to shield Hungarians from soaring energy costs.
While fuel price caps have since been phased out, discretionary spending has undermined fiscal consolidation, including the purchase of Vodafone Plc’s Hungarian business for $1.9 billion, a stake now majority-controlled by a company close to Orban.
Until recently, investors’ attention has been on the central bank’s key rate which, at 17% after a one percentage-point cut this week, drew in hot money to anchor the forint.
But the sky-high borrowing costs helped deepen a recession that the government only expects to exit in third quarter. Tax revenue has plunged following a drop in consumption, while surging debt maintenance costs have caused a spike in expenditure.
On top of that, the EU has frozen more than €30 billion ($32 billion) in grants and loans over corruption and rule-of-law concerns, adding to the fiscal strain. Earlier this month, the government raised its deficit target for 2024 and 2025, just months after abandoning its goal for this year and missing last year’s.
“The extent of fiscal deterioration varies greatly among emerging markets, and Hungary is one of the worst culprits,” said Eimear Daly, a strategist at NatWest Markets. “I do think there is a risk that in the medium term market focus shifts from monetary policy to fiscal policy.”
Now the government may have to resort to further steps to raise revenue, including breaking a pledge to scrap taxes on banking, energy, pharmaceutical, retail and airline firms enacted last year.
“Investors are lured in by high rates, but most of them are close to the exit and could leave at any moment if bad news would hit, for example about the state of the budget,” Hold Asset Management’s Zsiday said.
(Updates with markets in ninth and 10th paragraphs.)
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