Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán on March 25 said that he personally urged government ministries to withdraw their money from Quaestor investment house because he suspected that the scandal a few days earlier at Buda-Cash brokers would set off a domino effect, bringing down independent Hungarian brokerages, Hungarian online daily index.hu reported. The prime minister was responding to a journalist’s query, at a press conference in Sopron, about why the Hungarian foreign ministry withdrew its money from Quaestor just before the investment firm became insolvent. Orbán said that, watching how individuals and municipalities saw their monies being frozen at Buda-Cash, he told government institutions to withdraw money from all brokerages. MNKH, a state-owned company supervised by the ministry, reportedly signed an agreement with the brokerage arm of the Quaestor group in March 2013 and had assets amounting to HUF 3.9 billion at the troubled brokerage house. According to the ministry, MNKH decided to withdraw its capital from Quaestor on March 5. Quaestor declared insolvency on March 9 and filed for bankruptcy on March 19. According to index.hu, even though MNKH reportedly made the decision to withdraw its assets from Quaestor on March 5, the actual transaction did not take place until March 9, the same day Quaestor reported insolvency. The ministry has denied having insider information on Quaestor.
The Hungarian government requested twice as much information on Facebook users in the second half of 2014 than in the first half (167 users in H2, up from 78 in H1), Hungarian online daily hvg.hu reported. According to the daily, one-third of the queries have been fulfilled so far. In H1 2013 the government requested information on 24 users and in H2 2013 requests by the government involved 51 users, the daily added. HVG noted that government requests in Western countries, namely the United States, the UK, France, Germany and Italy, saw the number of requests decrease in H2 last year. HVG says information can include IP addresses, exact location and sent and received messages.
Following an investigation of charges made by a whistleblower in 2013, an unnamed high-ranking official of the Hungarian Tax and Customs Authority (NAV) is suspected of misuse of official information, Hungarian online daily hvg.hu reported on March 19. According to Hungary’s chief prosecutor, an investigation is underway, and the unnamed NAV official has already been heard by the Supreme Court of Hungary, hvg.hu reports. Former tax official and whistleblower András Horváth, quit NAV in 2013 after alleging rampant fraud and complaining that he could not get an investigation of his charges. At the time, Horváth said he had a “green folder” containing all the questionable cases he encountered at NAV. State prosecutor Péter Polt reportedly said that the allegations in the folder are being investigated, and a verdict on the cases in question will soon be made.
RTL Group never negotiated with the Hungarian government on the details of the advertisement tax, but only informed the government that the measure is discriminative and hurts competition, according to Andreas Rudas, the RTL Group executive who is said to be acting as RTL Klub CEO on a temporary basis, until Dirk Gerkens’ replacement is found. In an interview published by Hungarian online daily hvg.hu on March 17, Rudas (pictured) insisted that neither Gerkens’ position nor the content of RTL Klub’s news show were the subject of negotiations between the Hungarian government and RTL Group. “It makes me laugh when the press keeps saying how we made a pact and how we negotiated,” Rudas said in the interview. Rudas also rejected speculation that he met and negotiated with Cabinet Chief János Lázár. Rudas claimed that any negotiations that took place between the channel and the Hungarian government focused only on economic topics, and political topics were never brought up by the two parties. According to earlier press reports, Rudas and Lázár met to discuss a reduction in the advertising tax, which saw RTL on its own in the highest tax bracket. According to many reports on those meetings, RTL Group discussed a reduction of critical coverage on RTL Klub in exchange for a lower tax.
The popularity of Hungary’s ruling party Fidesz is stagnating, while that of Hungarian right-wing Jobbik is on the rise, Ipsos Media, Advertisement, Market and Opinion Research Institute said on March 17 in a survey, citing figures recorded this month. Fidesz is in first place with 1.7 million supporters, while Jobbik lags behind only slightly with 1.5 million. Once governing, now opposition left-wing socialists (MSZP) are ranked third in popularity, with 1 million supporters, followed by former MSZP prime minister Ferenc Gyurcsány’s Democratic Coalition party, which has 300,000 supporters. Hungary’s sole green party LMP has approximately 250,000 supporters, while leftist Együtt (Together) and PM have 100,000 supporters each.
Prime Minister Viktor Orbán had a formal “social connection” to the Interior Ministry’s state security department during his compulsory service with the communist-era Hungarian Army, from October 20, 1981 until his discharge in 1982, according to documents published on March 19 by Hungarian weekly HVG. This connection implies he could have been used as an informant. The document published by HVG says that Orbán’s duty was to explore crimes aimed against the Hungarian state or crimes that could hurt the Hungarian state. The document also says that Orbán was required to maintain his “social connection” until his discharge from military service. ATV, citing the state security guidebook from the communist era, earlier said that the term “social connection” referred to an individual who is “loyal to socialism and, on query or voluntarily, informs to state security authorities”, though such a person was not deemed qualified to be a counter-intelligence officer. According to HVG, the document that it published was classified with an “A” level of security, but a hand-written signature on that document could mean that there were documents with Orbán that were classified at a higher level. The claim that Orbán was an informant for the communist authorities was first made by Lajos Simicska, the media oligarch who had a very public falling out with the prime minister earlier this year.
The average take-home pay in Hungary was HUF 154,500 per month in January, an increase of 4.1% over January of the previous year, the Hungarian Statistics Office (KSH) reported on March 20. The average gross pay (before taxes) was HUF 235,900, which also represented a 4.1% year on year increase, KSH said. Given that the consumer price index actually fell slightly in January, it can be construed that the increase was in real wages – so the average Hungarian worker was at least about 4% better off in January than they were a year ago. “Average gross earnings were the highest in information and communication activities (HUF 461,900) and the lowest in human health and social work activities (HUF 145,300),” KSH said.
Standard & Poor’s Ratings Services announced on March 20 that it was increasing Hungary’s credit rating, from BB to BB+, which is an improvement but still not good enough for S&P to recommend investing in Hungarian sovereign debt. S&P also saw reason to improve its forecast for growth in Hungary. “We now expect the Hungarian economy to expand by an estimated 2.5% on average in real terms between 2015 and 2017, up from our previously published expectations of just over 2%,” the ratings company was cited as saying. Reasons that S&P gave for the improvements in the country’s outlook reportedly include Hungary’s relatively safe position with regard to external debt, the country’s consistent account surpluses over five years, a strong finish for GDP growth in 2014, cheaper fuel prices and better-than-anticipated demand from European trading partners. Hungary’s new S&P rating of BB+ means the rating company still considers Hungarian debt to be in the so-called “junk bond” category, but according to S&P, this level is “considered highest speculative grade by market participants”. If Hungary is upgraded one grade higher, to BBB, the country’s debt would be “considered lowest investment grade by market participants”, according to S&P’s description of their ratings.
Despite improved outlook for businesses, GKI-Erste’s combined gauge of consumer and business confidence edged down to -3.6 points in March from -3.2 points in February due to worsening consumer expectations, the two companies announced on March 24. The gauge revealed that the business index rose to 4.2 points from 3.5 points, while the consumer index fell to -25.8 points from -22.4 points. The gauge noted that improved assessments of domestic order stock and inventories in the industrial sector lifted confidence among businesses. Sentiment in the construction sector was little changed from a month earlier, while commercial companies said sales positions and the outlook for orders worsened, according to the GKI-Erste report. The report added that Sentiment in the service sector deteriorated slightly.
Approximately 180,000-200,000 borrowers, who still have foreign currency denominated car leases, have been affected by the borrowers’ relief legislation approved last year and can expect to receive compensation, Hungarian Leasing Association head Gábor Lévai told Hungarian new agency MTI. The borrowers relief legislation requires lenders to compensate retail borrowers for making unilateral changes to contracts and for using exchange rate margins when calculating repayments on FX loans, MTI noted.
Taking into account the country’s storage capacity, Hungary could become a regional gas distribution center with its gas supplied mainly by Russia, business daily Napi Gazdaság said, citing Russian ambassador to Budapest Vladimir Nikolaevich Sergeev. In an interview with the paper, Sergeev said it would serve Hungary’s interests to establish a regional gas distribution center as this would improve security of supply. Hungary has the fifth largest capacity in the EU, with an ability to store approximately 6 billion cubic meters of gas. Sergeev suggested that a local distribution center could be filled for the most part with Russian gas in the foreseeable future. The ambassador noted that sanctions imposed by the EU and Russian counter-measures are the main obstacle to Hungary’s exports to Russia, and he expressed hope that normal trade relations can be restored as soon as possible.
Approximately 70% of Hungarians stated their intention to put at least 5% of their income toward retirement, giving Hungarians the lowest propensity to save for retirement of the 34 countries polled, according to a survey published by staffing company Randstad. Of those Hungarians surveyed, 22% claimed they were willing to save 10% of their income for retirement and just 7% said they would set aside 20%. Only 34% of the Hungarians queried agreed that saving for a pension is their own responsibility and not that of their employer’s, the lowest ratio of all countries surveyed. Approximately 47% of respondents believe that employability is their own responsibility, not that of their employer’s – also the lowest percentage among countries polled – while approximately 77% of Hungarians expect to work beyond retirement age.
Hungary could lose a large portion of its protected parkland according to an amendment to be brought before Parliament, with the intent of transferring the management rights of Hungary’s national parkland to the National Land Management Agency (NFA), which could then rent or sell the land, according to daily Népszabadság. A recent amendment, under which landowners with land assets in excess of 1,200 hectares no longer have access to European Union subsidies for the portion of land exceeding the 1,200 hectares, means that national parks have lost 60% of their funding, the daily reported. The daily cited opposition MP Benedek R. Sallai (LMP) as saying that the latest development is at odds with European Union norms in which the ratio of protected national parkland is increasing in the EU while in Hungary it is decreasing. Sallai referred to Hortobágy National Park in his argument saying that, of the park’s 60,000 hectares, only 1,000 hectares will remain under the park’s management, areas in which EU-funded nature conservation developments are currently in progress.
The youth association of Hungary’s ruling party Fidesz, Fidelitas, has launched a new team called “Provocateur Observer” in order to compile lists of all those “leftist provocateurs” who try to “ruin others’ events”, Hungarian online daily origo.hu reported. The team said it was inspired by the “happenings of March 15” when a dozen pro- and anti-Fidesz individuals got into a fight prior to a speech by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. The team had established a Facebook page, where they listed people they claim to be associates of opposition parties disguising themselves as “civilians”, but apparently it was taken down. The youth association of opposition party Együtt, called Y-gen, filed an official report against an unknown individual for abusing personal data, the party reported. Since then, the Fidelitas’ Facebook page, which had more than 300 followers, became unavailable. Fidelitas did not respond to the BBJ’s query on the disappearance of its Facebook page.