Tag Archives: E.ON

The Day Hungary Cleaved from Europe: The true cost of Russian gas

The visit of Russian President Vladimir Putin to Budapest on February 17th, 2015 marks the day the Hungarian government voluntarily returned to the Russian sphere.

The outcome is three-fold: First, Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban openly rejected the EU path of energy market transparency and integration. Second, Hungary accepted ‘cheap’ Russian gas in exchange for a Ukraine-like gas arrangements which depend on Orban’s political fortunes at home. Third, Hungary operates its gas network for the benefit Russian geopolitical aims.  This arrangement threatens both Europe’s  and Hungary’s drive for energy independence, system stability, and European energy security underpinned by interconnection between countries.

A great friendship

The Cost of Cheap Gas

The Hungarian movement into Russia’s embrace was done in the name of ‘cheap’ gas. Reportedly, the price dropped from the oil-indexed price of $440 per thousand cubic meters (tcm) to $260 tcm, against a European gas-on-gas average price of $270 tcm. Bingo! Nonetheless, the drop is significant when you consider this post listing previous 2013 prices in the EU (before our recent oil and gas price decline). Importantly, the deal renegotiated Hungary’s previous long-term contract with Gazprom enabling it to utilize its previous unused gas on the take-or-pay scheme. Although, this supply extension (from a trusted source I’m told) was already agreed to back in 2008 when E.ON owned the import rights. Thus in short, Hungary received very little from Russia for all the political and economic favoritism listed below.

But first let’s put these numbers into a regional perspective. The new price is based on non-oil based pricing, thus hub price. Bulgaria, for example in 2012, renegotiated its long-term contract between Bulgargaz and Gazprom increasing the gas hub based pricing to 20% from 10% previously.  While OMV in January of this year, shifted to hub based pricing with Gazprom. Thus Hungary simply follows on this regional shift that began in 2008 and gets a somewhat lower price for being a good customer.

This temporary arrangement, rather than going with a new long-term contract, was done under the reasoning that current volatile gas and oil prices means Hungary may see further price drops in the future (er, or Russia might increase the price?). It is also enough time for Hungary and Russia lay plans for a gas link to Turkey. Importantly, for this article, election years in Hungary may occur in 2018 and 2022. Any change in government after 2018 will need to deal with the Russians at that point. Cooperation on gas and nuclear will need to continue.

Nonetheless, let’s not think in terms of only open market pricing – which Gazprom is not noted for. Particularly, when Putin shows up on your door. Rather let’s consider that Hungary’s European Union membership was openly sold for gas necessary to prop up artificial utility price cuts and for a trip wire gas deal – any shift in the governing party will result in more expensive gas. Cheap gas and political trip wires are key reasons for the past political instability in Ukraine, in other measures Orban is also shifting Hungary to the Ukrainian gas model.

The overall actions of the Hungarian government during Putin’s visit demonstrate Hungarian historical values are neither respected nor honored. Rather, shameful Hungarian historical political tendencies bared themselves by Putin and Orban’s negation of the living memories of Hungarians break from the Soviet sphere in 1956 and 1989.  But Hungarian society, the one that I know, is waking up. The Hungarian people reacted to Orban’s governing style, and no doubt Putin’s visit, by taking away his two-thirds majority in Parliament in a local by-election this week, February 23rd.  There is no social return to Russia’s barracks.

The Hungarian populace is firmly in the EU. In contrast Orban openly embraces Russia in the pursuit of cheap energy sources, in the form of gas shipments and new nuclear power plant agreement. This pursuit belies a more efficient scenario where Hungary’s EU membership serves as a basis for a more secure  and interconnected system that provides sustainable priced electricity and gas. EU presence in negotiations can also boost Hungarian gas deals. Following the EU path both honors Hungary’s European membership and advances national and EU energy independence.

Political reasons are behind Orban’s friendship with Putin. Hungary has cut electricity and gas prices more than 25% since 2012. During the 2014 local elections advertisements existed across the country proclaiming the energy price cuts; in 2013 there was an open government funded PR war against foreign owned utilities – even a petition drive! The price cuts, while good for households in the short term, have significant impacts on the energy system.

These prices are resulting in private gas and electricity companies hemorrhaging cash for residential customers. Eni, the Italian gas and oil company Hungarian gas subsidiary, TIGAZ, is accumulating financial debts nearing its capitalization.  The Hungarian government is racing to set up its own for profit service provider in 2015 (although they say it is non-profit, it is registered as for-profit). This is necessary to take over the universal consumer obligation. The private distribution companies, owned by ENI, RWE, E.ON do not need to file again to be universal service providers to supply electricity and gas at a loss on the regulated market to households. Nonetheless, to be fair to the Hungarian government, these and other companies did have years to foster a competitive market for households and they never did. The question though is how to foster a  fair market price without bankrupting companies.

The losses on the regulated market can be taken over by the Hungarian state, which has conveniently placed the ‘non-profit’ entity in the Hungarian Development Bank. However, the placement of many energy entities – such as a gas trading entity, into the bank raises red flags.  The potential exists for capital injections into the bank, by the government  to result in cross-subsidized losses. The bank incurs losses, through its ownership of the service provider, but the government makes up for these losses by capital infusions into the bank. However, under the gas agreement the current 25% cut likely be maintained without losses, thus Putin delivered Orban a golden egg – with Putin keeping the goose.

(In the past few months I have submitted questions on this topic to the Hungarian government and state owned companies but my requests for interviews were all declined. The Hungarian energy regulator did speak to me about the technical reasons for cutting gas off to Ukraine in September 2014 – a contract from Naftogaz was never returned).

The Hungarian energy system now operates under the same politically driven concerns as the bankrupt Bulgarian energy system. As a starter, under Orban and the Fidesz super majority in Parliament, the operating profits of the Hungarian utility sector as a whole flipped from a profit of HUF 224 billion in 2009 to HUF 119 billion loss in 2012.   Bulgaria is at least attempting to dig itself out of these past practices, which has placed the Bulgarian state owned energy company, NEK in debt of €767 million in the past four years. (well, it now recognizes these losses, so maybe it will act). Hungary is just lowering the ladder to go down this hole.^ Orban is right, he does need Russian gas to have cheap energy for consumers. The significant losses by utilities and the re-organization of the Hungarian energy market demonstrates this.[For more on information on the similarities of Hungarian and Bulgarian energy systems see this (draft) co-authored article].

Putin’s Pipelines

Driving further dependence on Russia is Hungary’s reduction of interconnector capacity between Hungary – Austria (HAG), and Hungary – Slovakia. The HAG has 3 bcm, but Hungarian state owned MVM holds a monopoly on the capacity granted by the Hungarian Parliament in 2011 citing energy supply security as justification. Capacity is extremely limited and widespread media coverage given to a partially Russian owned firm, MET, holding a special arrangement with MVM on importing and reselling gas into Hungary through HAG. The other owners are reported in the Hungarian media as being politically connected in Hungary.

The story of the Hungarian-Slovak interconnector is short. Meant to open in January 2015, ‘technical reasons’ keep this 5 BCM pipe closed. In addition,  operating rules are delayed while they are being modified. The importance of the SK-HU pipeline is viewed by the fact that German Chancellor Merkel in her February visit with Orban, brought up the use of this interconnector by RWE. As is clear, Putin has Orban’s ear, not Merkel. It remains unknown when this pipe will open.

Constraining Hungarian import and export capacity also constrains volume and price liquidity on the Hungarian market. This would erode MVM’s and Gazprom’s lock on the Hungarian gas market and even allow export to Ukraine. Evidence of this can already be seen in the relatively huge profits booked by MET through its deal with MVM shipping gas from Austria. In 2010, MET had HUF 44 billion revenue in 2010, by 2012, the company had  HUF 280 billion in revenue and “paid 60 billion in dividends to its owners, 2.5 times more than the overall dividends paid by the whole group of foreign incumbents in the same year.”* Or as mentioned above, the utility sector as a whole experienced a  HUF 119 billion loss in 2012. Other market players receive no such treatment, instead they are burdened by both special sectoral taxes and regulated utility rates. The losses in Hungary may only be comparable to Bulgaria – not a model energy system, plagued by riots and constant court battles between utilities and governments.

In terms of the SK-HU interconnector, RWE would benefit by both exporting to Ukraine and servicing Hungary’s industrial sector, which are stuck with Russian gas. In addition, Orban promised Putin not to re-export Russian gas to Ukraine, further restricting gas that could flow to Ukraine.

Market liquidity enables Hungarian industry to build managed gas portfolios enabling them to leverage a variety of gas trading mechanisms to hedge and play with market pricing. These should be done on a liquid Hungarian gas exchange which is operated by MVM’s CEEGEX. Instead, western European gas is limited in Hungary.

Under current rules, Hungary operates a ‘free trade zone’ for gas in its state owned gas storage facilities. Gas traded between entities is confidentially reported to the Hungarian energy regulator.  No tax is paid until withdrawal happens. Thus, Gazprom is able to ship gas to Hungary, the gas can be traded multiple times, and only once it is withdrawn from storage does the price become known. Non-transparency is a friend of Gazprom. Just as huge profits are booked from imports from Austria by the selected MET, who buys and trades with MVM, the stored gas remains opaque. Bi-lateral contracts while legal, should be pushed towards the exchange. Hungary already has CEEGEX  where all free-trade zone gas should be openly traded and would serve Hungary and the region well. Orban has a vision to develop Hungary as a gas trading hub. Restricting imports and exports reduces Hungary’s regional potential.

The necessity to increase Russia’s gas storage in Hungary was prevalent last fall when Hungary needed Gazprom to store gas in Hungary  because it did not purchase enough over the summer months. After Hungary purchased the storage company from E.ON in 2013, the new owners in their first year were waiting for market participants to fill up the storage. With the Hungarian energy system already running a huge deficit, and the Hungarian government slapping taxes on everything from coffee beans to maintaining its 27% VAT,  the country is hard pressed to pay for gas.

One of the key outcomes of the recent Putin-Orban deal was Hungary now only pays for stored Russian gas once it is used. This means Hungary does not need to pay for gas sitting unused in its storage facilities. Security of its gas supply is now handled by the Russians. This is important, as was the case this past year, where Hungary had expensive Russian gas sitting in its storage while the hub price next door in Austria was significantly lower. This may be one reason, the HAG interconnector has a stuffy nose.

This agreement for storage between Putin and Orban also validates my previous argument explaining why Hungary stopped gas shipments to Ukraine and was not able to fill-up its storage during summer. By September 2014, it was clear the Hungarian government needed Moscow’s help. Thus the gas storage deal was struck in September and shipments to Ukraine blocked to make way for the deluge of Russian gas into the Hungarian gas system – or so the official explanation goes. (Coincidentally shipments stopped after Orban met with Gazprom CEU Alexei Miller in September 2014, previously I gave Orban the benefit of the doubt, no longer).

The agreement over flexible storage amounts and timing of payments is also reminiscent of Ukrainian dependency on Russian gas. In the past, Ukraine’s inability to pay for gas placed it under the thumb of Moscow. When Ukrainian political leadership changed, it also meant a significant price increase  for the European friendly government. The new flexible agreement with Putin and Orban further opens the way for any post-Orban political era – which the Hungarian people are beginning to contemplate. Future gas negotiations will need to occur in 2019-2020, time enough to check in on Hungary to see how well Paks is progressing (the start of construction), gas price shifts, Hungary’s stance on EU energy integration, and after the 2018 elections.

The impact that Orban’s embrace of Russia is already apparent. Neighboring Slovakia is planning EuStream which seeks to build an interconnector with Romania and routing the gas via Bulgaria to the Southeast market. This avoidance of Hungary goes against Hungary’s historical attempts to unify both the CEE and SEE region into a tightly integrated gas market. In 2007, Hungary’s MOL took the initiative in its New European Transmission System (NETS) to lead the way. I personally sat in one of the first meetings and it was clear while MOL was taking the lead, it was political resistance in the other countries that held back the concept.  Now we see Hungary attempting to maintain its political control and influence over the region, with neighboring states planning to avoid Hungary.

The pipelines leading into Hungary from Austria, Slovakia and Ukraine, under current operations, should be viewed as strongly influenced from the strong friendship that exists between Orban and Putin. It is apparent from many of Orban’s public statements that he views Hungary being under the tutelage of Russia. Despite calls that Hungary’s energy sovereignty must be protected at all costs. The cost is a battle with the EU over Hungary’s low energy prices, not with Russian energy dependency.

Quixotically, the result is reliance on Russian gas and nuclear technology. The definition of ‘sovereignty’ in recent history holds its place in the last great international relations era when the Soviet Union existed. Thus for this argument of energy sovereignty to even make sense, it must be defined as energy dependence with political and economic sovereignty at home. Unfortunately, if we look at Ukraine, not only have they lost territorial sovereignty, political sovereignty was violated when Russia increased their gas price as retribution for being EU leaning.

When Orban speaks of sovereignty he speaks of his own political sovereignty – retribution will come for new political leadership not aligned to Russia. Putin’s pipeline’s are no longer just transit pipelines.  Hungary maintains energy security restrictions on the HAG, flips on and off the tap to Ukraine, and has technical difficulties with getting its interconnector up and running with Slovakia. All these align with Russia’s aim of restricting regional gas flows. In the past I have usually given Hungarian authorities the benefit of the doubt on these technical matters. Sometimes, it is good to question authority.

The Message: Orban left Europe

The stern and cold messages sent by both Chancellor Merkel (before Putin’s visit), who didn’t know what to make of Orban’s admiration of ‘illiberal democracy’, Polish Prime Minister Ewa Kopacz who held, “honest and difficult talks” with Orban (after Putin’s visit), Slovakia routing neighboring pipelines around Hungary, Romania’s intelligence chief considers Hungary untrustworthy, and Ukraine invites the regional heads of state for a commemoration, but not Hungarian, these all send a clear message: Orban cleaved Hungary from Europe.

The European project founded on energy security and dependency is firmly rejected by the current Hungarian government. All European energy systems are nationally focused, but only those systems most open to corruption and voter manipulation, like the case of Bulgaria or Ukraine, firmly reject integration, transparency, and cooperation with neighboring countries. The European energy system pushes market transparency and integration in the pursuit of prices that sustain and develop the energy system.

In contrast, secret middle of the night nuclear deals, opaque financing of energy utilities, state controlled pricing, coincidental limitations on imported gas,  all underpinned by a hotline friendship – with a leader of a country that formerly occupied your own country, and  just invaded your neighbor, but who gave you some ‘cheap’ gas, to help your politically controlled energy system, reads like a Russian novel, with things never ending well for the main characters.

On top of our Russian novel,  none of Orban’s actions can be labelled as energy sovereignty. Rather, as we can see from Ukraine, energy dependency creates political instability, under investment in the energy system, corruption and the maintenance of a political distance from Europe. Stepping out of Russia’s line results in swift reprisals.

February 17th, 2015, Orban was the lone man out in Europe for opening Hungary to Putin.  The pursuit of cheap gas, the rejection of Europe’s new Energy Union and embrace of a former occupier signals Hungary’s political, economic and energy dependence on Russia. This new relation is dependent on Hungary’s nuclear power deal withstanding EU scrutiny, sustained ‘cheap’ Russian gas and Hungary threatening to block EU diversification efforts  through the Energy Union.  Hungary stands with the opaque political governance model of Russia, not the transparent governance model of the EU.

Nonetheless, as Hungary’s long history shows, the Hungarian people do kick the Russians out. The price Orban got for gas is already too much for most Hungarians.

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References:

^LaBelle, Michael, and Atanas Georgiev. “The Socio-Political Capture of Utilities: The Expense of Low Energy Prices in Bulgaria and Hungary.” University of Eastern Finland, Joensuu, Finland, 2015.
 *Felsmann, Balazs. “Winners and Losers on the Liberalized Energy Sector in Hungary: A Co-Evolutionary Approach.” Budapest, 2014.

Nabucco’s bubble bursts

Death is now amongst us. Stalking the Nabucco partners… watching as they each pull away. RWE is prefering to get away from the corpse. Death was not the result of a lack of gas, lack of finance or lack of political will: death came from reality. The broader social-political and economic reality that security of supply is not worth $10 billion.

Nabucco rose on the 2009 gas crisis between Russia and the Ukraine – the only viable long term option to for Southeast and Central Europe to diversity away from Russia. The timing was right for the plans and the consortium, the shutting off of gas and the impact it had on countries largely reliant on Russian gas spurred a great impetus to diversify.

Nabucco’s bubble grew with the momentum built on the concept of security of supply for Europe. For companies and governments who supported the project, their commitment and involvement meant that the momentum needed to be maintained. The competition against the Russian backed South Stream, meant there was a race occurring and neither Nabucco’s supporting companies or governments could be seen as folding to the demands – or in the face of Russia’s demands. The hot air continued to be pumped into the bubble as the company executives and politicians spoke.

But now it is done. The decision is made – now the companies and governments have to think of how to exit. I know the feeling. On this topic, I’ve had writer’s block for three months. I couldn’t figure out what was going on. In a previous post, I tried to make sense of it- tried exploring in my writing what was going on. But I just ended up with a feeble post. My friend at Natural Gas for Europe asked for something. I couldn’t deliver, was my explanation…. maybe if I had known my feelings more, I would have known I was watching my prized project – the one I invested so many hours analyzing, die. Like a football fan watching his winning team go down to an inferior team, the impossibility of it all means the mind can’t process the events. Nabucco is dead.

The popping of Nabucco’s bubble was not done in dramatic fashion. Death did not come from the lack of finance, lack of supply or lack of political support. Each of these factors other analysts have claimed would be the reason for Nabucco not to be built. I always argued otherwise; my reasoning was based on the trued concept of Earth, Wind and Fire. Man’s desire for the Earth’s mineral riches is too great, so geology (Earth), finance (Wind) or politics (Fire) could not stand in the way. My argument rested on the nonsensical argument that gas can be created, money spent with flimsy conditions and politicians can all get along. And this is all still true – Man (and I am being sexists in my use of the term) can make anything stupid happen.

The death of Nabucco was caused by a ‘holy shit moment.’ We all have these. Doubts stir, finally they emerge, not just in strong terms, but through clarity. The shift of US support in November 2011 to commercially viable projects that delivers gas to the CEE/SEE region marked an important point. While the other smaller pipeline projects were getting attention and it was ‘out there’ that these could become viable, it was all noise. (That’s all I could hear for the past few months – noise.) But now with the reduction of support from RWE, and the broader shift in the economic conditions in Europe and the world, air is seeping from Nabucco’s bubble. People and companies are ready to buckle down and see how the next few years go.  The importance of security of supply is now reduced. We are all back to comfort foods.

Death did not come about by alternative gas sourcing either. Shale gas did not kill Nabucco. Just as Nabucco went through a three year bubble of irrational discourse, so too is shale gas.  Pipelines did not kill Nabucco. There are two proposed smaller pipelines that would see the Turkish system beefed up, the Turkish and Azerbaijan TANAP project, and now the strong contender, South East Europe Pipeline project, each delivers less gas for lower cost to Europe – and from available reserves in the region. While these now appear to be commercially viable – it was never realistic that Nabucco could compete – or be built – with small capacity and a short term time horizon for payback. Nabucco was a large long-term project that was on the point of visionary –  smaller does not win in the long-term. And so Europe will not either from Nabucco’s demise. Political rationality helped kill Nabucco. The apparent rapprochement, or entrapment –  between the Ukraine, EU and Russia over the Ukrainian transit system, means that reality has also returned to the most financially viable method of transferring Russian and Central Asian gas to Europe. (Can the Ukraine afford to have South Stream built?) In an age of comfort food and ‘STOP – what’s rational?,’ then the continued use of the Ukraine for transit is also smart.

The public death of Nabucco will continue for sometime now. It won’t be fast. But for me, Nabucco is dead. South Stream, will be analyzed in a later post, but what killed Nabucco can also kill South Stream. They are the same creature. But just as one is at a loss after a death, I’ll have to search for a new way to perceive the EU- Russia gas relationship. Pipelines are so 2010’s; now we all have to understand and reconceptualize what the new energy relationship is between the EU and Russia – now the fun begins again.

 

Five ways to destroy your energy sector and your economy – a note to the Hungarian Government

I was aiming low – ‘Five ways to destroy your energy sector and your economy – a note to the Hungarian Government.’ I IM’d the title to my friend in the Hungarian energy sector – he said, “i am sure they know at least ten.” Well, most certainly they do, but I’m not as creative as the current Hungarian government. How could I even imagine that encouraging consumers to not pay their energy bills would become a government policy – and legalized. Nonetheless, I’ve written about creative tax making in the past.

To herald in the New Year and to recognize that the wise men (and women) from the EU and IMF may be gone for a few more months and as the Orban government continues to force the country into a downward economic spiral, and installing a new authoritarianism, I thought I would provide the current government a Christmas package of proposals that could bring the Hungarian energy sector more quickly to its knees. Because, as I will show, once you have destroyed your energy sector, dissuaded manufacturers from investing due to an unstable electricity sector, the only direction to go is up – and this requires foreign investment, an effective regulatory environment and strong political will that corrects the past mistakes of low/subsidized energy prices (as demonstrated in this study).

One: Encourage consumers not to pay their energy bills

The introduction of a new bill in the Hungarian Parliament would allow public institutions like schools to avoid pay their utility bills. This proposal has caused the National Development Ministry State Secretary for Climate and Energy Affairs Janos Bencsik to submit his resignation.

A proposal submitted to Parliament by Fidesz parliamentary caucus leader János Lázár last week seeks to prevent utility companies from shutting off power to certain customers who fail to pay their bills…. Industry insiders said that the proposal would allow public institutions, many of them notorious late-payers, to ignore their utility bills with no consequences, leaving power companies no recourse but lengthy and costly legal suits.

Macedonia, provides a good example as to what can happen when no penalities are imposed on late or non-payment of electricity bills. Essentially, the Hungarian proposal reverts back to the Socialist era, when non-payment was rampant in some countries.

Hungary's new energy slogan

 

In a study on the privatization process of the Macedonian electricity company (with the distribution entity being sold to EVN) I wrote, “Unpaid consumer bills, mainly from the period before privatization, are a significant issue. EVN is pursuing lawsuits against 400,000 customers for non-payment, 80% to 90% of these cases stem from the pre-privatization period. This is down from a high of 450,000.”  The draft report was read by reviewers and they came back to say that this 400,000 number must be an error. ‘Didn’t I mean 4,000?’ No – 400,000 court cases for non-payment.

The huge number of non-payment from consumers were causing significant losses to the company at the time of privatization, around 30% of the electricity transmitted in 2006 was unpaid. Of course, these losses affected the selling price at the time of privatization, as well as an indirect impact on investments and the price of electricity – and certainly a very acrimonious relationship between the government, regulatory and EVN. At the end of the day, it is the rate payer and tax payer (usually the same) who has to pay for this.

Lesson 1: to devalue a company, lower investment and create system instability encourage consumers to NOT pay their energy bills. If the company is already foreign owned, this method will be sure to create losses for the company and may encourage their withdrawal.

Two: Regulate the price of energy below the cost of providers

The case of Bulgaria’s privatization of its power plant in Varna, to the Czech power company CEZ,  demonstrates that it doesn’t have to be just the distribution companies that can be forced to eat the losses. In the same study, the decision by the Bulgarian regulator to decide on the price of electricity that would be allowed for power production from the privately owned power plant demonstrate that  it is also the generators that sell to the distribution companies in the regulated market, that must contend with the low prices.

“In the case of CEZ’s Varna Power plant the complaint centers on two issues – regulated segment market quota and the price on the regulated segment, which, according to CEZ, is set lower than production costs. CEZ Varna states that it needs over Lev 77/MWh, to be at cost, while the approved rate from SEWRC is under Lev 72/MWh.”

The development of energy regulators is something special, however, the Hungarian government views the current regulator as not knowing better than Parliament. Since June 2010, the Hungarian Energy Office lost the power to effectively and professionally regulate the price of electricity and gas.  The justification: “it is intolerable that a significant part of families’ budgets consist of utility bills.” Therefore, the regulator is the wrong unit to ensure that families can pay their bills.

The recent ‘forced’ sale of E.ON’s gas unit to the Hungarian government, and the dumping of E.ON Bulgaria by the mother company, both demonstrate what squeezing by governments does. It is still not clear how consumers benefit from government political decision making or ownership. In the case of Bulgaria, one of the main reasons, that I was able to extract from a key participant in the privatization of the distribution companies, was the fact that the government could not be trusted to ensure investments were done due to the desire to keep prices low. The same case certainly applies to Hungary – in the medium and long term, the energy sector will begin to fail if investment levels are not maintained or even increased. It takes reflective pricing of the actual costs of the energy system to ensure proper levels of investments are done to maintain and improve security of supply.

Lesson 2: to ensure that the energy system does not improve, or begins to deteriorate, make sure that companies do not have sufficient funds to cover operating and capital expenses (CAPEX and OPEX). Either removing the regulator from the decision making process or placing political pressure on the regulator can result in lower energy prices. The result can be the company is sold back to the government at a low cost. Great strategy if forced nationalization is the objective.

Three: Create a regional hegemonic energy company!

There is nothing like nationalism to fuel erratic policy making. Ideology both pro or anti-market can dent and over simplify the complex relationship between the state and private investors in the energy sector. The fact that the energy sector is a fundamental component to economic growth and a direct link to voters (through their utility bills), makes the energy sector a highly politicized (read why politicians find energy as attractive as prostitutes). It would require a book to write about all the different and constantly changing national energy strategies in Central Eastern Europe and the South East of Europe to review how almost EVERY country considers their state owned energy companies strong enough to become a regional player like CEZ. The present result is that these ambitions have only resulted in continued justification for government ownership and a lack of modernization of assets for domestic users. Hungary, Bulgaria and Romania each has these strategies, yet none of them competes regionally.

For Hungary, the government sees that MVM (the state owned former electricity behemoth that is now being used to control everything from gas to telecoms) can fulfill this regional ‘cash cow’ role. Or as Janos Lazar, head of the parliamentary group of the Fidesz party, said in an interview. “I see great potential in MVM, in building it up, on the national and regional level. There’s a lot of money to be made here, a lot of money,” said in a Bloomberg interview. (see previous post on this.)

Hungary's future 'regional' cash cow - maybe a little too fat to make it out of the country

Lesson 3: To help justify why the government is so important in a country’s energy sector, just keep saying that they will be expanding regionally – and there is a lot of money to be made. This expansion still has not occurred, and if it were to occur it must be subsidized by current rate/tax payers. Nonetheless, there is still room for a first mover advantage by one of the large state owned energy companies – like MVM (see photo above to see how fast they can move).

Four: Create an erratic policy and regulatory environment

Maybe this goes without saying. Having an erratic policy and regulatory environment is usually built into the business plans of privately owned energy companies. For rate payers, this means paying more for their energy, because the risks are much greater and therefore energy companies entering and operating in a company are going to seek to have a higher rate of return. The rate of return that the electricity distribution companies received at the time of privatization in Bulgaria was 16% and 12% in Romania. While this may be great for the investors – at least on paper – as the case studies show, the risk that these companies took is partly justified based on the continued price squeeze that the companies are under. They are expected to fulfill their investment commitments, thus incurring losses, thus lowering the rate of return (in a very simple explanation). Whereas, a more predictable and stable regulatory environment can, over a few regulatory cycles can lower the rate of return, the country’s risk level and thus energy prices.

Lesson 4: erratic energy policies and regulations, can keep risk levels high and thus require companies to have a higher rate of return. This will result in higher energy prices, so instead of creating a stable predictable investment environment, keep companies guessing – this will justify the continued political intervention in the energy sector.

Five: Get free energy for government use – expropriate electricity and gas

Hungarian Prime Minister, Viktor Orban speaking in December 2020, at a primary school about the success of the free energy scheme for state institutions

 

Political control over energy prices, means that privately owned companies must accept what the government tells them to charge. The point of having an energy sector regulator is to ensure that there is sufficient incentive for privately owned companies to get a fair rate of return on their investments, while protecting consumers from monopolistic abuses. A professional regulatory staff  assesses the full costs that are incurred by privately owned companies, and ensure the costs are justified and consumers pay for an efficiently run energy system. Removing incentives or not covering the cost of operations and future investments, removes the incentives to invest and threatens security of supply.

The Hungarian government now controls the price of gas and electricity. They are also about to decide that certain consumers (state owned entities) do not have to pay their energy bills. If they allow this, the government in reviewing the costs that should be allowed in the price caps, can decided that the non-payment by these consumers cannot be viewed as losses for the company to write off – or for other consumers to cover. They will force the private electricity and gas providers to pay for the energy costs of the government.

In short, as in the Socialist era, the Hungarian government will decide that government institutions do not need to pay their energy bills, they will either make the Hungarian rate/tax payer pick up the tab through their utility bills – thus higher prices, or they will force the companies to incur losses caused by non-payment from the government.

Lesson 5: If you want to ensure that the government (through whatever entity local or national) does not pay for energy usage, simply make sure the price is set by the government and stipulate in law that there are no penalties for non-payment by government entities. This will dissuade energy efficiency improvements and drive the price of energy up for everyone else – if these losses are included in the price of electricity or gas.

 

Conclusion

The five points reviewed here represent the ways that can lead to decreased investment, less private ownership(which should be more efficient), and higher energy prices for all. The one area that I have not touched on is how creating a stable investment environment, with a well functioning and independent regulator also can create lower energy prices. Erratic policy making, expropriation of energy by the government and increased state ownership all lead to higher energy prices for consumers. In the long term, the trend will only lead to an under invested energy system that has blackouts, lacks system stability and cannot support the requirements of industry. A robust energy system is a requirement for a growing economy. Failure in the energy system represents failing every citizen. The Hungarian government is only too happy to ensure that the private ownership is diminished or eliminated while state owned energy companies with no transparency -(and a history of not justifying their costs, like private utilities), become fatter and fatter. I don’t know if fat cows produce more milk, but they certainly cost more to feed. If the cost of energy is the bottom line, then let’s have some lean beef that is healthier for the consumer.

E.ON gets fed up and disposes of E.ON Bulgaria

In one sense the headline that E.ON chose for its own press release says it all:

E.ON disposes of E.ON Bulgaria

The reason given in the press release is due to the corporate strategy of divesting “15 billion euros in assets by the end of 2013. So far more than 9 billion euros have already been realized.” Couching the disposal of a corporate unit as wrapped up in the shifting corporate strategy is as polite as a corporations gets to admitting that maybe after seven years of this relationship (the seven year itch?) things didn’t work out well. How much things didn’t work out can be seen in the original purchase price and the proposed sale price of the unit to the Czech based Energy Pro. E.ON paid EUR 140 million in 2004 and is now selling it for EUR 133 million!! A EUR 7 million loss after 7 years of continued investment in the company.

View from trash can in Bulgaria

The first notable reason for the difference in buying and selling price can be seen that E.ON overpaid in 2004. During this expansionist period of German, French and Italian utilities there was firm bidding on the different companies throughout the South East of Europe. The expected long-term time horizons, perceived favorable regulatory environments and the economic growth of the countries all led investors to see self sustaining units that could provide profitable revenue streams. However, soon after privatization and the sale of the unit to E.ON by the Bulgarian state, the regulatory and political environment were not as rosy as they first appeared.

My analysis here is based on a 2009 study Vidmantas Jankauskas (former regulatory of Lithuania) and I wrote about in a report funded by USAID and NARUC. This examines the privatization process and the post-privatization issues arising from the sale of the distribution companies in Bulgaria, Macedonia and Romania. The research is based on a series of interviews, mainly in-person, that we conducted in the summer of 2008 with company representatives, regulators and other professionals connected to the privatization process.

The dedication to the privatization process of the essentially bankrupt country of Bulgaria in the post-communist era can be seen in the significant rate increases. In 2002 rates were increased 20%, then 15% in 2003 and finally 10% in 2004. A regulatory agency was established and the tariff methodology was established so all potential investors could see this before bidding. However, after privatization the sand quickly shifted under E.ON’s feet (and other investors, EVN and CEZ).

At the time of writing the report in 2008, the Bulgarian energy regulator and the privately owned distribution companies, seemed to have enough of each other. Loses were now seen being forced on the companies due to the decision by the regulator not to increase electricity rates.

Utility executives view recent action by SEWRC [the regulator] as impacting their ability to conduct and recoup investments. An example of this complaint is the announcement made by SEWRC on July 1, 2008 that electricity rates would increase by an average of 14%. The distribution of the rate increase would go to the largely state owned firm NEK. Because of this the three private firms in Bulgaria are now filing suit in Bulgarian courts and at the European Union level. For E.ON Bulgaria the price increase would yield a 1% increase for the company out of a total price increase of 17% in their distribution region. According to a company official this would mean that “E.ON would not be able to cover its investment commitments toward maintenance and improving the quality of services it offers, while operational costs would decrease by 80 million leva.” Figure 2 (below), presented by E.ON Bulgaria shows the difference between the company’s applied Opex and Capex and those granted by SEWRC on June 26, 2008.

Applied and Granted OPEX andCAPEXCosts for E.ON Bulgaria

Source:  E.ON, “Tariff Decision 2008, 2nd regulatory period.” in, “Power distribution firms to sue utilities regulator over electricity price hikes – Business news.” July 9, 2008.

In the world of boring electric distribution companies, the above case demonstrates the state is ready to force losses, onto the distribution companies, while also cutting the overall service quality that these companies can provide for consumers. This article, describing the terrible service of E.ON Bulgaria and bidding it farewell, may be more representative of the unwillingness of the state owned transmission system operator to invest and the inability of all companies to invest sufficient amounts into the overall Bulgarian electric system. Low prices for consumers may also translate into poor service.

In a telling interview, with a key individual involved in the privatization of the Bulgarian distribution companies, he stated that these fights between the companies and government don’t tell the whole story. Rather the companies were viewed as having made out rather well, and were profitable along with buying the companies at a low value. This perspective has always informed my analysis of the situation in the country. There may be fights, but maybe these investors are better off than they let on. I think the final sale price demonstrates that this is not the case. The actions of the Bulgarian government and even the independent regulator have not served the people of Bulgaria or the investors since privatization. The rate increases before privatization demonstrate the willingness to open up and allow market forces, but the actions of the state since then demonstrate the great distrust of private capital and somehow energy prices should be kept low at all costs – even if this means damaging the service quality, investor expectations and overall economic growth of the country.

The actions in Bulgaria should serve as a warning sign to other investors and governments. It is true that E.ON sold the unit to another private company, thus demonstrating that investors remain interested in the country. However, the long term growth and the operations under such a tight and awkward regulatory environment demonstrates that even after 7 years of investments the value of the company has dropped, service quality has not improved, and South East Europe is no longer the place for large investors. Other countries, like Hungary, Macedonia and even Romania should take note. Investors will not hang on forever to wait for economic and political policies to see profits or at least a stable operating environment to materialize. Private investors seek to modernize the national energy infrastructure, failure here results in wider economic, environmental and societal failures – caused by government actions.

Why Hungary’s revisionist energy strategy will fail

The involvement of the state in the energy sector is based on generating the economic conditions necessary for broad economic growth thereby benefiting society. This includes regulating the activities of the monopolistic portions of the energy sector and providing effective policies and regulations that further ensure sustained technological evolution. The Government of Hungary is now in danger of impaling the Hungarian populace and its industry onto a costly misguided energy strategy that favors ill-conceived expansionist plans based on nationalistic interests rather than national interest.

[Image taken down by the author after a request was made to remove it, November 22, 2011. It displayed the logo of MVM on the background of an Arpad flag. The author has replaced the image with a previously displayed one depicting Hungarians selling bread in Tajikistan, because either way, it is the Hungarian rate/tax payer that has to pay for bad government energy policy.]

Hungarians in Tajikistan selling bread to pay for their MOL shares (click on picture to find out my past analysis wasn't too far off the mark)

To reach my point about the ill-conceived effort by the Hungarian state to not only take a large interests in the Hungarian oil and gas group, MOL, and now to buy gas assets of E.ON in Hungary – which includes the gas import and trading arms as well as the more lucrative gas trading division, I’ll have to cover some brief history of state involvement in the energy sector and the rhyme and reason for privatizing energy companies. After this, I’ll be able to properly explain the disadvantageous that Hungarian rate and tax payers will now endure for a very long time. The pain of state ownership will only grow over time.

Examples from elsewhere

First, all states support and seek to give their own industries, and even energy companies an extra advantage. As I have established in my research (described next), this happens in the EU and in the United States – and no doubt occurs in other regions of the world. My first example is from the US. The ‘deregulation’ of the electricity distribution companies, the companies that delivery the electricity to the consumer, can be seen to be partly a myth. The largest push for deregulation occured in the US Midwest, in the economically faltering rustbelt.

In my PhD thesis I examined the deregulation process and why it occurred in Michigan and Wisconsin. Without going into a long painful explanation it was down to making each state more competitive against other states. Michigan for example, didn’t even create a competitive marketplace, while Wisconsin which went the furthest to promote competition, politically stated they did not want deregulation.

Now, turning to Europe, the role of the state emerges as essential in both the efficiency of energy companies, and even the operation of the market itself. For privatizations this includes the how and the whom energy companies are sold to and under what conditions the new owners are allowed to participate in the market.

There are two key studies I’m drawing from here to make my point.  One examined the privatization processes in Bulgaria, Macedonia and Romania. The other examined the expansion of mainly German and French utility companies (including E.ON) into the CEE/SEE region. There are a number of lessons that these studies highlight, but there are three overarching key lessons most relevant here. They are:

  1. An effective expansion strategy does not only depend on the willing buyer, but the selling country – and their economic and energy strategy.
  2. State run energy companies are HIGHLY inefficient – at least in Eastern Europe (this also applies to Michigan and Wisconsin case studies of protected monopolistic private companies).
  3. The success or level of participation of privatized energy companies is significantly influenced by governmental decision making – regardless of the conditions offered before privatization.

Squeezing the gas from the foreigners

These three points bode ill for the Hungarian government’s domestic and regional expansion strategy. The purchase from Russian Surgetneftegaz and the (stealing from HU private pension fund money) MOL shares taken from private pension fund, now gives Hungary’s government – a 25% stake in MOL. The purchase of E.ON’s gas assets in Hungary, if it does come to fruition will mark another very expensive buy for Hungary’s nationalistic energy strategy.

"Any advice on dealing with foreign energy investors?"

The price is high. In two transactions, 3 billion Euros will have been spent by the Hungarian government to involve the state into gas assets that do little to reduce the country’s dependency on foreign (Russian) gas supplies, or offer much overall security of supply improvement. The E.ON transaction still must be realized, but it is fair to say that this will occur and that the government owned ‘electricity’ company, MVM, will take ownership.  This means another 1 billion Euro, on top of the 2 billion purchase price of MOL, will be spent consolidating the Hungarian government’s ownership in the country’s gas sector – for which they still haven’t made a strong argument explaining how all this money actually improves security of supply. Does Hungary really have to worry about the German’s threatening to cut off gas supplies or unilaterally raising gas prices (which they could not do anyway)? With further analysis, this nationalistic plan becomes even more absurd.

All this buying activity led the Fidesz parliamentary leader to state,

“We want to establish a competitive state player in the energy sector,” Janos Lazar, head of the parliamentary group of the Fidesz party, said in an interview. “I see great potential in MVM, in building it up, on the national and regional level. There’s a lot of money to be made here, a lot of money,” said in a Bloomberg interview.

First, let’s have a good laugh. “a competitive state player.” While this is an oxymoron, the state can’t be a ‘competitive’ player in a game when it is also the referee. Do we really expect that the market that was once dominated by E.ON, (to the point that the EU Commission forced them to have yearly gas auctions), will be just as competitive with new government ownership?  With government ownership in the only other viable competitor – MOL, there will be no competition. The crushing dominance of the MVM and the Hungarian state, will mean only small and limited competition that exists now will continue. Squashing it out would look too bad and bring unnecessary investigations from Brussels, better to have a few ants dancing about.

The losses that the Orban Government has forced onto gas companies, by stipulating the consumer rate, which is lower than the import/market price, is a key reason that E.ON is willing to sell. The screws will only be tightened if they do not sell. In my Energy Policy article, it is clear E.ON was here for the long term. What is ironic is while MOL is justifying its participation in the privatization in Croatia’s oil and gas group, as an effective and stable investor, at home the Hungarian government is running out foreign energy investors.

Now with the Hungarian government in control of gas imports and the wholesale price, it can continue to squeeze other foreign gas firms, like GDF Suez. By forcing losses on these companies, they will – just like E.ON – pressure these companies to sell their business for a cut rate. For the parent company that must make up the losses, Orban’s offer will begin to sound better as the losses and pressure mounts up. Selling to the Hungarian government becomes the only way out – no other foreign investor will want to buy their assets.

It is important to note, that foreign energy companies will feel the bite, not only in their gas distribution businesses (which the government is concentrating on now), but in their electricity generation businesses too, that rely heavily on imported gas to power the turbines. It is important to keep in mind what I wrote in December 2010:

The government will spin the bankruptcy of Emfesz as an indication that private investors threaten the countries security of supply, and if they are not being paid high profits for their services then they are not interested. When the current private energy companies try to leave Hungary citing ill financial health, the government will engineer their exit on favorable terms for the state (there are some international treaties that protect private investment and these have to be softly walked over).

With some (not all will be able to leave) significant government ownership, the Orban government will realize its objective of imposing state ownership over the countries energy assets – and somehow keep prices low. (I actually feel crazy writing this as a government objective – but it is logically based on actions and statements of this government). As owners, the government can figure out how to pay for gas at higher market rates and the lower rates that homeowners and (SME) businesses pay. But by then, the pension money will be spent and Hungary’s credit rating will be in the garbage.

Well, I may have felt crazy writing that, but I was right. The Hungarian government has no respect for foreign investors and will do whatever it can to drive them from the country. A strong statement, but one that is backed up by the facts. But here is where the Hungarian Government strategy will fail.

Regional expansion

To break out of the Hungarian market, and begin to make the ‘huge amounts of money’ that it foresees, it will need to finance this expansion. The ability to finance this through bank loans or bonds is limited due to the current financial difficulties in the country – and around the world. Therefore, it will rely on the trusted method of having the home market – i.e. Hungarian ratepayers finance this expansion strategy. Past expansion strategies are based on the ratepayers in secure markets paying for the risky expansions of energy companies. This happened in the US in the 1990s when those companies went to South America, and in Western Europe, when French, German and Austrian companies expanded into Eastern Europe. Only after the expansion into Eastern Europe and these companies had built up a considerable base, did the home markets begin to open up as well. Also, as a result of pressure from the EU Commission.

Foreign ownership in privatized electricity distribution companies

If Hungary will be out seeking to buy up assets or finance expansions in other countries through MVM or MOL, which may be loss making for a long-time, they will need high capital to finance. The continue tussles in Macedonia, Bulgaria and Romania between the private owners of distribution and power plants with the regulatory commissions and governments demonstrates the protracted fights and losses that can occur. Deep pockets are needed to weather these storms.

The inefficiency of state owned energy companies in Eastern Europe is legendary. And not just for the number of employees that state owned companies employ, compared to their private counterparts (direct comparisons can be made in the Romanian market where private distribution companies operate along with state owned private distribution companies). The losses that the state is willing to incur, through private deals to certain companies, or sectors, or portions of society are also high. The biggest hurdle to moving to a privatized market in Bulgaria, Romania and Macedonia was raising the below market rates for industry and households.

The rates for consumers did not just have to be raised, but had to be maintained at a ‘market’ rate. This is where the investors begin to lose because the rates after privatizations are then forced below the market rate – as just has happened in Hungary. It is important to note, that it is not just the rate that is important but collecting past dues (money owed) from companies, particularly state owned industries. They may be charging a market rate, but if the consumer is not paying or paying fully, then the state, may over the long term, subsidize the consumer.

Would Marx support the nationalization of energy companies for nationalistic ends?

 

And finally, points 1 and 3 are combined here. Just as the Hungarian government has been vicious to foreign energy companies in Hungary, so can other governments make life hell for MVM-MOL. Breaking into a foreign market – whether it is your neighbor or not – is highly dependent on how much the government is willing to accept the presence of particularly energy companies. The continued dominance of Bulgarian state owned energy companies and the fight the Macedonia government continues to engage with EVN (distribution company), demonstrates how the energy market can have favorites and threaten investments of those that the government does not approve of. The nationalistic expansion strategy of Hungary, I believe, will not be received well in other countries.

While Orban and his ministers, may think they are creating the next CEZ (the Czech power company with broad regional holdings), they are wrong. The expansion of CEZ was done with acute market and business insight (along with support by the Czech ratepayers/taxpayers). The problems the Hungarians have is their energy policy is wrapped up in rabid revisionists doctrine that seeks to control and extend the Hungarian state’s influence throughout the region. I don’t think if MVM-MOL invest in Georgia there will be much regard given by the Georgian government. However, if MVM-MOL move into Slovakia, Romania or other countries  (who are now becoming weary of the revisionist discourse emanating from Hungary), they will be sure to maintain tight control over market conditions to ensure domestic firms or less politicized energy companies are favored over a nationalistic Hungarian gas-electricity group.

Conclusion

Forcing out foreign energy companies from Hungary to build a ‘competitive state player’ will only increase electricity and gas rates for Hungarian consumers. The resurrection of state owned energy companies will only bring along with it inefficiencies and favoritism to specific companies. Corruption may even increase, placing legitimate business at an economic disadvantage.

The expansion of a MVM-MOL group/partnership with nationalistic and power overtures will only continue the logic of governments to maintain tight lopsided controls in their energy sectors. Competition will be limited and new entrants -whether Hungarian or not – will continue to face difficulties competing against already favored firms for access to gas or electricity contracts. Cross-border energy trading in the region will continue to be muted. But just as the Hungarian government is abusing foreign investors in Hungary, so too can other governments abuse a Hungarian supported energy firm – with even more justification.

 

Energy will liberate Hungary from Neoliberal and Western Shackles

The energy sector in Eastern Europe benefited from the central planning efforts of the communist era. The oil, gas and electricity networks built during this time were robust and based on a high level of security of supply. While the oil and gas transit networks may have resulted in dependence on Russian sources, they were nonetheless robust and served to drive national economic activity. In 2004 when many countries in the region joined the EU their interconnected electricity network were more robust than most systems in Western Europe.

The days of central planning, when state owned energy companies were strong

The privatization efforts that begin in the mid-1990s and carried through the mid-2000s (see my Energy Policy article) were marked by selling electricity and gas distribution companies. This corresponded to the establishment of energy regulatory authorities to oversee the activities of these private companies, ensure the public good is fulfilled and keep prices in check while increasing reliability. This regulatory system, when allowed to function, can serve the interests of consumers and ensure private companies make investments while receiving a fair rate of return for their efforts.

Some would mark this last period as neoliberalism with the introduction of private capital and withdrawal of the state from the direct provisioning of public services in energy. A more accurate term would be the rise of ‘sectoral governance’ (Bulmer et al 2005), that is occurring globally. (But that is for another post and the basis of my next journal article). ‘Some’ (bad term to use, but I’ll do it here), consider private ownership in the energy sector, which is the driver of economic activity and has a direct impact on household budget and inflation as an essential state function. State ownership, it could be argued, is important to provide stability, long-term planning and investment to serve the national economy.

In Hungary, ‘the state’ is now in a process of reclaiming ownership rights lost during the ‘neoliberal era’. The need to reclaim ownership in the energy sector is about building up a strong industrial base for the country nation, as pointed out by Peter Szijjarto, the Hungarian Prime Minister’s Spokesman.

“We do not have a serious national industry so in order to reanimate the national industry we need to take such tough steps as for example reclaiming MOL…. In order to make Hungary strong again, we need to eliminate energy dependence, and we need to restore the national character of our strategic companies in parallel with their international operation,” Szijjarto said (Reuters, and my take on it).

Hungary enters a new era with reclaiming ownership in energy companies. The sweeping election of Fidesz, according to Prime Minister Orban allows them to finally end the communist era in the country, thus the need for a new constitution and to reshape the country according to their ‘post-communist vision. The introduction of high taxes on sectors of the economy that are privately held, like banking, energy and retail that were done to save Hungary from economic ruin, as it was explained at the time, now begin to appear as part of a broader reworking of the economic order in Hungary. Orban is leading the Fidesz-KDNP coalition in the process of not just transforming the country from a communist-socialist-private capital haven, which is represented in its own local form, but slaying the broader global order of neoliberalism. Hungary is now, according to Orban, leading the world into a post-neoliberal order.

“While we have put an end to the basic principles of a neoliberal era, we have yet to build up the non-liberal economic policy of the 21st century, in terms of planning, coordination and practices,” he said, adding that because there had been no planning in the real economy, financial planning was askew.

“The old world order is on the verge of collapsing; we have no reason to wait for the advice and opinions of opinion-shapers stuck under the rubble,” Orban said.“We say, however, calmly, politely and unflinchingly: this is none of your business; this is the business of Hungarians,” the prime minister said (MTI, my take on it).

The end of Neoliberalism and American post-war capitalism

It is this new “non-liberal economic policy”  that Hungary will be leading the region and the world in. While Romania and Poland pursue privatization of part of their energy sector, under the old way of thinking that private capital can modernize the sectors and lift some of the economic burden from the state, Hungary views the energy sector not as a burden, but as the fundamental building block of a state owned industrial complex (haven’t we seen this before?).

But what is the post-neoliberal era that Orban describes he is putting in place? Well, this is a huge question that only quoting Gramsci, Polanyi and the like can answer fully – or only partly. But essentially, don’t expect the worker or the tax payer to be better off. The 2 billion euro price tag of MOL demonstrates that it is the taxpayer/worker/citizen that will be paying for this new order, through higher taxes and services (i.e. feed through of ‘crisis’ taxes in inflation) while also having their working rights eliminated, as demonstrated by the total elimination of worker rights in Hungary over the past year. In fact, the post-neoliberal era looks like it is described in this excellent article by Elmar Altavar as presented at a conference in Venezuala in 2008.

The crisis of neo-liberal ideology does not necessarily result in a post-neoliberal order which aims at social forms beyond capitalism. In the contrary, post-neoliberalism in finance can result in new forms of capitalist hegemony which again include a stronger role of the state. Contrary to ‘old Keynesian’ state interventionism, the new interventionism – including austerity with regard to the social wage – will not be designed in favour of workers’ interest and the environment, but in an undisguised political support of financial interests.

Understanding Capitalism takes Marxism

National solutions become the way out of the current neoliberal crisis of capitalism. According to Altavar the state comes back into the economy to provide support to the faltering capitalist system. But while Altavar describes a heavy burden being placed on the taxpayer to finance capitalism to save it from drowning, Orban uses the public monies, not to save the banks and the capitalists which traditionally drive growth, but uses the cash, along with the capitalist’s money, to finance state acquisition of companies for the purpose of reintroducing the state into the market based economy. This occurs in strategic sectors to benefit the Hungarian nation – and state. In this case, the energy sector.

Under Hungary’s new post-neoliberal energy order, energy companies will be used to extend the Hungarian nation-state into domestic and foreign economies. Under this nationalist guise, this may include active participation in former Hungarian lands (Romania and Croatia). The Hungarian territorial state is only a core vessel for the economic activities of the Hungarian nation. If growth and economic prosperity, under this line of thinking, is to occur then the whole Hungarian nation throughout the Carpathian Basin needs to benefit.

The re-industrialization  of the Hungarian nation will be led and financed by the Hungarian people and companies. The logic continues, that MOL, with the help of state owned electricity provider MVM, will lead this economic revival. Along the way, Hungary will boost its energy security through diversification of energy sources (although this remains dubious if  100% of oil is from Russia). The Hungarian nation will become strong by energy, industrial and financial diversification. Those leaders and financiers in America and Europe that Orban scorns, will hold little sway over how Hungary carries out its economic and social post-neoliberal revolution.

 

MOL and Hungarians Lose – Surgetneftegaz and Orban win! (and I predicted this)

My wife came back from the children’s hospital the other night after the doctor unclogged the poo that was a major discomfort for our young son. “You would think that they could spend some money on soap in the hospital,” she said. Any hospital that we have been in Budapest does not have soap in the public areas, including the bathrooms. When my wife gave birth – no soap, when I go to the doctor – no soap. But I’m not a medical doctor, just a doctor of the books, so maybe it is alright to be in a hospital and not wash your hands.What could happen?

Exposing your backside

Oh – energy security. So the Hungarian government spent 1.9 billion Euros of the IMF money that was meant to save Hungary from economic ruin. They did this to take control of their energy security so the Russians couldn’t threaten to take over one of the few companies that is economically successful and is an integral part of the Hungarian economy. The reasoning, as stated by Prime Minister Orban, and reported by Portfolio.hu:

The PM said the government “fought a tough battle in the past year”, but Hungary has managed to “bring to safety” its national company that has a key importance for the country. One of the keys to success in the region is the reduction of its energy dependence and the revival of national industries, he said, adding that the Hungarian government must always stand up to defend its interests. “No country can be strong if its energy supply is exposed,” Orbán added.

It was a good thing that Orban didn’t turn around while stating this because Hungary is still hugely exposed to the ‘whims’ of Russia. Most – if not all – of Hungary’s oil and gas comes from Russia.

There are a lot of aspects to this story to explore, and as with the aftermath of any big game, it will take awhile to analyze it all (I’ll have another post later on this). But it is fair to state, that I predicted that this would happen, as it was previously proposed in Tajikistan. Forcing the Hungarians to pay out money for a questionable increase in energy security (you think Orban reads my blog?). It is the citizens of the country that are being forced to pay for this stock buy, over more effective investments in either the economy or social programs.

Hungarians in Tajikistan selling bread to pay for their MOL shares

I questioned following this Tajik model, because it does not improve Hungary’s economy, society or energy security position. Rather, it becomes more state owned, as in the good days of Communism. The energy security argument that the government is spinning for MOL, is there should not be Russian ownership, or even a foreign government’s ownership in a nationally important energy company. This is one of the arguments that successive Hungarian governments have used for protecting MOL. However, it is now the case that the Hungarian government also owns, through MOL, almost a majority of the Croatian oil and gas company, INA. This should really strike some pride into Hungary’s right wing – including Fidesz. But it is questionable as to how much Hungary’s energy security is undermined if is already supply dependent on the Russians.

It is also stated that relations with the Russians will now improve, since ownership in MOL was a major sticking point in any negotiations between the two countries.  Development Minister Tamás Fellegi stated that this was a major hindrance in Russian-Hungarian relations, but the buy-back was connected with no other developments. There is no doubt Surgutneftegaz’s ownership in MOL did cause friction between the Hungarians and Russians, but it is also a fact that Hungary’s relations even with EU neighbors is at historic lows due to their inept handling of foreign and domestic policies.

The fact that the Hungary could not connect the buy-back with any other projects with Russia indicates the lack of effective negotiating position that the Hungarians deployed. This is a major win for the Russians (as they made a 500 million Euro profit), and if part of this was to improve relations between the two countries, then at least there should be a symbolic cooperative development that both countries could show demonstrating that things are back on track. Essentially, if you hand over 2 billion Euros there should be some room for smaller cooperative projects to be at least publicly announced – demonstrating a new period in Hungarian-Russian relations. The fact that this did not occur, does indicate the continuing tension between the countries.*

Finally, MOL should be worried. As the Development Minster indicated, the government has plans to increase its shares in strategically important sectors. With this hefty bit of MOL, combined with the shares from the pension funds that were nationalized at the start of 2011, the government has a nice chunk of MOL. If MOL management was worried about Austrian or Russian influence in company operations, it should be equally, if not more concerned about the Hungarian government becoming involved in its operations. The success of MOL is down to it withdrawing from the gas retail sector and focusing on transportation and storage. E.ON and others, are now losing money because of the price pressures placed on them by the government. MOL, has made clear in Croatia – through INA, that losses in this distribution sector will need to be covered by the government or they will sell it –  like in Hungary.

It is too early to tell, how the government will begin to impact the operations of MOL. But the infusion of politics into company operations could be expected. If Orban’s and Fidesz’s proclamation to the nation that is now posted in every public office makes its way into MOL offices and refineries, then we will know the new owners have something planned. Essentially, if the government pays out 2 billion Euros out of the rainy day fund, and walks MOL home, they are expecting more than a kiss at the door.

The explanation that the Hungarians wanted to sooth relations with Russia for the price of 2 billion Euros, doesn’t really stand up. We took our son to the underfunded hospital because his poo was causing a big discomfort to him. Did the Hungarians really pay out 2 billion Euros to ease their discomfort? Or did they really pay that amount to begin their path at gaining ownership in strategically important industries? This last point is only half true. As I wrote previously,

With some … significant government ownership [in private energy companies], the Orban government will realize its objective of imposing state ownership over the countries energy assets – and somehow keep prices low.

As I said before, and even in my Tajik commentary, I feel absolutely crazy for writing these statements. But this is what has now transpired, and as the government continues to consolidate its ownership – in a Hugo Chavez style, the Hungarian taxpayers citizens (there are only 2 million taxpayers in Hungary), will fail to realize the benefits of either a market economy or democracy. This is how high the stakes are now becoming. So Hungarians (and foreigners) should not expect any soap in the hospitals in the foreseeable future, while they pay off their IMF loan that financed the purchase of a minor amount in Central Europe’s most successful energy company.


*note: yesterday was the first day that the metro arriving at Moskva ter that it was announced it had reached “Szell Kelmen ter.” The reaction of people in the carriage was not positive, maybe the Hungarian government could keep Moskva ter to foster better relations with the Russians. But then, they also got rid of Roosevelt ter – the Orban government really is not concerned with improving relations with any country.

Bankruptcy of Emfesz will ‘Justify’ Hungarian State Intervention

If there is ever an excuse that could be used for greater government intervention it is the bankruptcy of a company. I don’t think I need to go into great detail, but only to refer to the current players in the economic crisis. The pending bankruptcy of Emfesz gives the Hungarian government the excuse for further involvement in the energy sector.

"Any advice on dealing with foreign energy investors"

The insolvency of Emfesz, as reported, was widely assumed to be coming, since the inability of Emfesz’s previous owner Dmytro Firtash to access his cheap gas stored in the Ukraine in January 2009. Before then, he was undercutting retail market prices by around 10%. However, in April 2009, he then lost his company to RosGas through a Swiss engineered corporate takeover for $1.00.  It is speculated that Gazprom was behind this takeover. This last statement maybe should be rephrased to consider that maybe it was just a faction in Gazprom/Russian oligarchy circles that pulled it off. Because it is clear now, the move was unsustainable (I think parallels could be drawn with the Russian takeover/near bankruptcy of MALEV).

After the Rosgas takeover, it was unclear where Emfesz would buy gas. But then, as media reports show, a new deal was struck between Emfesz and E.On in which the gas would be purchased from E.ON’s Hungarian gas storage company, E.ON Földgáz Trade Zrt. However, the delivery of gas from the upstream supplier Gazprom would be carried out by the previously established Panrusgaz. This company is a joint venture of Gazprom Export (including its subsidiary Centrex Hungaria Zrt.) and E.ON Ruhrgas. Therefore, it seemed that everyone could be a winner. However, it then became clear that the price Emfesz was paying for the gas was essentially the same price as other market participants – even E.ON itself. But Emfesz was still offering lower prices. Not even Russian or Hungarian accounting tricks could make this company viable with this strategy.

So we end up with Emfesz owing several billions of Forints. There are two things to consider, first, the Hungarian authorities were probably letting this drag out to see how negotiations with the Russians went this past November. Since nothing happened (as I predicted in October 2010),  the Hungarians are now taking the logical step that a government and regulator must take. Revoke the license.  This of course, can also be used to send a signal to the Russians, as the Hungarians are probably mad that nothing did come out of the November meeting between the Prime Ministers Putin and Orban. In a way it is a pithy response, if it is one at all, just as shooting a lame horse is sometimes the only response.

The closing down of Emfesz and using it to send a message to the Russians is probably not the best way to capitalize on the bankruptcy of an already weak company. Rather, the Hungarian government (and here is another prediction) will be using this event to highlight the dangers of allowing private companies to operate in the energy sector. Of course there are some inconsistencies in this, since they have imposed the tax on energy company revenues and labeled it a ‘temporary crisis tax-which-soon-will-be-a-permanent-tax,’ due to the profitability of energy companies. But this is unimportant.

Energy companies in Hungary are already on ‘no investment mode’ after the imposition of  the ‘crisis tax’ and because of the inability to raise rates to match commodity and wholesale energy price increases. Therefore, the government is undermining necessary infrastructure investments and the basic financial health of energy companies. Why should a German firm (or any company) incur losses because they cannot even pass along wholesale market price increases? Particularly, when the increase is partially the result of a weaker Forint and the rise of government risk ratings.

The government will spin the bankruptcy of Emfesz as an indication that private investors threaten the countries security of supply, and if they are not being paid high profits for their services then they are not interested. When the current private energy companies try to leave Hungary citing ill financial health, the government will engineer their exit on favorable terms for the state (there are some international treaties that protect private investment and these have to be softly walked over).

With some (not all will be able to leave) significant government ownership, the Orban government will realize its objective of imposing state ownership over the countries energy assets – and somehow keep prices low. (I actually feel crazy writing this as a government objective – but it is logically based on actions and statements of this government). As owners, the government can figure out how to pay for gas at higher market rates and the lower rates that homeowners and (SME) businesses pay. But by then, the pension money will be spent and Hungary’s credit rating will be in the garbage.

With the removal of foreign owners, control over the media cemented, Hungary will (somehow) be a strong country. However, just as the Russians in Emfesz couldn’t figure out how to break a fundamental economic rule of profits and losses,  the Hungarian government won’t be able to break this rule either. It is just too bad that the Hungarian people will have to deal with the aftermath.

MVM:vertical integration better for milking consumers

Pursuing an earlier agreement E.ON confirmed that it is in talks with the government of Hungary and MVM. The state owned electricity company is seeking to gain a minority shareholding in the distribution assets of E.ON. Talks include discussions over asset swaps, with MVM seeking to finalize the deal by the end of 2010.

MVM, just like Romanian and Bulgarian owned counterparts, once had a strategy to become a regional player like CEZ. I’m just wondering if instead of attempting to expand outside of Hungary they have decided to concentrate on consolidating their position within the country. MVM is already in a dominate position in the generation sector.  The Hungarian system gives MVM a near monopoly on generation with it buying and selling a large majority of the power in the country. Even companies like E.ON or RWE that have generation assets have to sell their electricity to MVM then buy it back to sell to their generation company. Needless to say, profits were high once again last year.

The distortion that MVM causes on the Hungarian power market is really nothing short of scandalous. It is a middleman that does not need to exist. In fact (if I can deviate)  it reminds me of the system set up at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences library. If you want to use the library you have to do the following: Go to the coat check, get your coat check number, go to the library, say hello to the ‘library nani’ who, after looking at your library card and taking your coat check tag, gives you a seat number on a green card, then you go to the librarian to give the same number and your card, after which the librarian gives you a red card with the same number on it.  I won’t even get to the point that it all should be electronic and you can sit anywhere…but the existence of the library nani is equivalent to MVM.

While I prefer my tax money going to the library nani who plays solitaire all day, MVM, by acting as the middleman sucks money from my pocket to enrich itself and the state. The profits it makes both in its market dominant position and role as a middleman causes all consumers in Hungary to pay more for a service that does not even exist in surrounding countries. This is one reason why Hungary has the highest electricity rates in the region. In addition, MVM has played an important role in the perpetual underinvestment in generation in the country – leading again to higher electricity rates. Plus with its total control of the transmission system operator MAVIR, thus limiting exports and imports, it strangles the Hungarian market through a state approved monopolist – despite EU efforts foster a competitive electricity market.

Now, that MVM is interested in buying into the distribution assets, whether a swap or not, it will essentially recreate a vertical monopolist on the Hungarian market. Through some of my research in the past I have examined why a government would maintain a vertically integrated monopoly (Michigan has essentially done this). The reason for it is to ensure long term power investments that will result in lower prices. I fail to see how the track record of MVM or its strategy milking consumers for unnecessary services contributes to a competitive Hungarian energy sector.

The alternative to a government owned power milking machine is effective regulation with stipulated rates of return and regulated prices (for providers of last resort). Really, life can be that simple.

But just like consumers don’t think of where their milk or meat comes from, they don’t understand the complex financial transactions involved in the energy sector. This enables governments to use the sector as a taxpayer milking machine – essentially adding another tax layer to utility bills. Maybe it is time for Hungary to become power vegetarians.