Tag Archives: Fidesz

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.

Street Art: The Russian Mafia State in Hungary

You know all the things I write about on my blog, sometimes I feel I’m a little lost in my own thoughts. But then I came across one of the prolific billboards in my neighborhood before and after the April 6th elections. As you can see from the photos someone else in the neighborhood feels the need to publicly express themselves. I think it is important to deconstruct what the street artist is saying here.

Here in the first photo, taken before the elections, you see the artist is expressing the often used phrase ‘Mafia State’ used to describe how Hungary’s Prime Minister has built a very ‘corporatist’ state. Or rather, the intermingling of state and business.

The word ‘Maffia’ here may also  imply the use of force or coercion if a citizen does not comply with the ruling oligarchs or party line of thinking. While it is normal for the state to use force to enforce order, here we have also a reference to financial means to maintain order. For example, if one is aware of the huge amount of advertising in the Fidesz campaign in Budapest, one may observe other money was used besides that allocated by the state and political parties for financing their campaigns. Also, all the many companies the state has nationalized or bought out over the wishes of its owners, then these could be interpreted as mafia-like actions.

Later, the “Maffia” was painted over.

20140404_170221

However, in the next photo taken on April 10th, after the election, you see the street artist is expressing an even stronger opinion of Hungary’s tie to Russia. Here it is the ‘Russian Mafia’. No doubt this is reference to the many economic and ideological ties the government holds with Russia. The need is now greater than ever for Orban to promote the Russian line in the EU.  The recent Paks deal with the Russians, means Fidesz must serve the Russians. Period.  This leads the artist here to imply Fidesz is a tool of the Russian Mafia State. Often comparisons are drawn between Orban’s governing style and that of Russia’s Putin.  Just today, the government is attacking the Norwegian Fund, as privately financed social activities, which the Hungarian state wants to control. A line out of Putin’s playbook. In our interpretation of the graffiti here, the artist may also be making this statement that Fidesz and Putin are mafia brothers.

20140410_080552 v2

All in all, it is encouraging to see public art work in Budapest which is not all state sanctioned.

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.

 

The rebirth of Hungary and the fall of Neoliberalism

I thought I would post a few interesting statements by Hungarian political leaders I came across this week, along with a brief personal reflection.

Reuters:

 

“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,” Peter Szijjarto told private broadcaster HirTV in an interview.

“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.

He did not elaborate on the possible further steps or the areas of industry involved.
Source

MTI:

Neoliberalism is over

Prime Minister Viktor Orban told a conference assessing the first year of the centre-right government on Tuesday.

“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.

Orban went on to reject the idea that Hungary should listen to foreign criticism.

“It is worth listening to ourselves and we should not wait for either approval or the contrary,” Orban said.

“In the past we have often abandoned important plans just because someone in America, Paris, Berlin, Brussels or London didn’t like it and let ourselves be discouraged, only to give up on the whole thing in the end,” he said.

“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.

He said Hungary was still likely to come under attack for various reasons, including the new constitution and economic policy.

“We say, however, calmly, politely and unflinchingly: this is none of your business; this is the business of Hungarians,” the prime minister said.

source

The Internet:

They fought for freedom to join the West

Towards the end of the Second World War, Hungary is occupied by the Soviet army and all streets, squares, institutions are renamed. People who continue to use the old names are arrested and beaten up by the communists.

Immediately after the occupation, an old man from a village, visit’s the country’s capital, Budapest.

He gets lost. Not knowing that the streets have been renamed, he ask people for various place names.

Old man: “Excuse me, sir, where is the “Heroes’ square”?

Pedestrian # 1: “No, old man, don’t use that name! It’s “Stalin Square” now!”

Later…

Old man: “Excuse me, sir, where is the “Chain Bridge”?

Pedestrian # 2: “Oh my God! Don’t use the old name of the bridge! It’s “Red Army Bridge” now! If you say that once more, you could get into jail, be careful!”

The old man gets terrified and takes a walk on the bank of river Danube.

He’s spotted by a soviet officer who shouts at him with anger.

Soviet officer: “‘Ay, old komrade! What ‘r’ ya lookin’ at?”

Old man: “Nothing! I’m just admiring the Volga!”

Source

Hungary after the fall of Neoliberalism

Hungary to follow Tajik model: Forced donations for Surgut/MOL shares

The question extending back to last spring’s election that brought Fidesz to power, is how will they find the money to buy Surgutneftegaz’s 22% shareholding in MOL. Well, since my analysis has been spot on, that nothing is going to happen, because the Hungarians have the Russians pinned.  It now seems the Hungarians are becoming increasingly embarrassed by their strong position over their former rulers – as they are increasingly trying to find ways to let the Russians save face – I have a solution.

I need to preface my solution with a warning, that this wouldn’t work in most democratic countries. But recent legislation by Hungary’s government from killing the independent budget council, changing the constitutions to limit the constitutional court, taking all the pension fund money, passing highly questionable media legislation, placing a huge  revenue tax on utilities, telecoms and retail companies (regardless if they make a profit and from previous year’s filings) and of course passing a 98% tax retroactive 5 years on state bonuses. Indicates that my suggestion just may work.

From these actions a basic statement can be formulated: Hungary right now may become the first post-soviet country to pursue alternative democratic measures. That is, in Chinese, there are different democratic models that can be used by the state. Hungary, it can be said, is embarking not just on an ‘unusual economic experiment’, as Prime Minister Orban and others in his cabinet have said, but they are also starting an experiment in representational democracy.

Due to these existing conditions, my suggestion to solving the MOL/Hungary -Surgutneftegaz/Russia situation is all the more applicable.

Recently, I have been involved in separate projects that have allowed me to study the energy sector in Central Asia. It really is fascinating – while at the same time sad when you consider the actions of the political leadership and the impact their decisions have on the economically starved citizens (I won’t yet draw parallels with Hungary here). It is through this research that I found the following solution to funding a hyrdopower project in Tajikistan.

Tajikistan is seeking to complete its unfinished 3,600-megawatt Vakhsh River Rogun hydroelectric dam, begun in 1976. In December [2009] the Tajik government issued Rogun stock and made it compulsory for citizens to purchase nearly $700 worth of shares, a sum exceeding most Tajiks’ annual income, in order to collect $600 million for construction to continue. After IMF Tajikistan mission head Axel Schimmelpfennig stated that the mandatory forced donations would destabilize the Tajik economy and that returns would be “negligible,” Tajik President Emomali Rakhmon suspended the campaign on 12 April as his administration negotiated with the IMF (Central Asia-Caucasus Institute)

Now it remains to be seen where Hungary could get the money to buy out the MOL shares from Surgutneftegaz. Particularly since funding is becoming more expensive for Hungary – with the constant downgrading and negative outlooks by ratings agencies a further indication of funding access in the future. Therefore, how best to finance a purchase of MOL shares valued at more than EUR 1.4 billion (the price paid by Surgut to OMV)? And since it has been stated by Hungary’s leadership that ownership in MOL (and other energy companies) is connected to national security than what better way of financing the purchase then to force Hungarians to pay for it themselves?!

With Hungarians increasing their savings (no doubt related to uncertain times), it only becomes a matter of time before the government taps into this pile of money to finance current operations – or to ‘ensure the security of the country’s energy supply’.  MOL will then have to wonder whether it is better to have the Russians as a shareholder or the unpredictable Hungarian government.

If this scenario does play out then we can only hope it ends up like the Tajik experience, with the IMF/EU stepping in to stabilize the Hungarian economy and putting the kabash on the further ‘reallocation’ of money for energy projects. Or maybe we can look forward to a third ‘special’ tax on the energy sector….

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.

Hungary fell behind Slovakia, now Bulgaria? Country gets ‘Smack Down’

smackdownThe economic rise of Slovakia, surpassing Hungary with better salaries and the adoption of the Euro, was embarrassing for Hungary.  After the fall of Communism the more advanced economic system in Hungary combined with rapid (and successful) privatization of key industries should have meant Hungary would continue to lead economically and politically. With the current path Hungary has chosen, it would seem that Bulgaria will soon surpass Hungary for less corruption, a better investment climate and a more sane political environment. Hungary will then have to try hard to maintain its lead over the non-EU Balkan countries.

This week I was at the Energy Forum, attending by a range of government representatives, energy companies and various energy institutes. I attended a forum with Janos Koka, former Economics Minister and now Parliamentary leader dealing with Nabucco, and I was able to ask him the question of whether these recent events against investors in Hungary were an indication of things to come in the future Fidesz government (Orban didn’t take any questions at this event). His response was very kind and I think represented him wanting to preserve Hungary as a stable country for investment rather than making political points.  He said during the time that Fidesz served from 1998 to 2002 they did not take action against investors, so he wouldn’t expect them to punish investors if they came to power. Rather, the noise (and some action) that is being made is for their voters, rather than an actual policy of investor punishment.

Koka’s words, if true, could continue Hungary’s path of economic development. However, maybe this current anti-investor era is representative of a more systemic problem that must be resolved first. That is maybe it is the very traits that made a ‘free market’ system work within the confines of a Socialist economy that has seen Hungary continue to fall behind regional peers. Evasion of authorities, corruption and the lack of political cooperation in the center have all meant the people of Hungary have been ill served by their leaders. Everyone, including the people, whether due to economic survival or greed, have sought to serve themselves. The result is corruption and economic takings that fail to serve the common good of the country thereby denying the advancement of the common and individual good.

The fact that 2 out of 3 Hungarians believe the transition to democracy is a failure only underscores the failed chances to create substantial reforms and improvements in the country. Now even Hungary’s friends and the companies that did believe in Hungary are worried about maintaining the limited improvements the country has made. Following my lead, the embassies of the US, Belgium, France, Netherlands, Japan, UK, Germany, Norway and Switzerland have issued a joint statement on transparency in Hungary.

It is therefore with great concern that we hear of significant new instances of non-transparent behaviour affecting investors in such areas as public utilities, broadcasting, and elements of the nation’s transport infrastructure. These reports could hinder the investment for which Hungary, like every other country, is competing.

This statement is called a ‘smack down’. That is, ‘Hungary you better wake up and cut out your petty stealing because if you don’t nobody is going to do business with your ass’, or as the diplomats said, “foreign investors will make their own decisions about where they will commit their resources.” And as you can see, over in Bulgaria the new Borisov government is doing pretty well at cleaning the country up. Fidesz can say they will be prosecuting the Socialists when they come into power (like in Bulgaria), but if they are still taking from investors (e.g. Pecs, radio stations, utilities) then even Albania will be looking a better bet.