Basic statistics of Hungary, 2010
Hungary’s economy faces severe headwinds. The global economic slowdown and heightened financial market stress have pushed an already fragile and highly indebted economy towards recession. But, controversial domestic policies have also contributed to uncertainty thereby hurting consumer, business and market confidence. Stabilising the economy is the first most pressing priority. Strengthening the credibility and predictability of domestic policies is essential to develop an environment which is conducive to growth and rising incomes. An agreement with multilateral organisations would help restore confidence and support needed fiscal consolidation. In doing so, it would lower the debt burden in foreign currency by stabilising the exchange rate. The second challenge is to put growth on a sound footing to allow a durable recovery. This requires reductions in households’ debt without damaging banks to avoid a credit crunch. Finally, raising potential growth is of utmost importance: boosting labour force participation and health outcomes are two promising avenues.
Assessment and recommendations
Hungary is confronted with heightened tensions in financial markets. Long-term interest and credit default swap rates on public debt have risen significantly since spring 2011 (Figure 1, Panels A and B). The sovereign rating was downgraded to noninvestment grade and several debt auctions failed or partially failed in late 2011, which creates high uncertainty ahead of significant public debt rollover needs in 2012 and 2013 (Figure 1, Panel D). In addition, the currency has depreciated sharply, increasing the debt burden in foreign currency (Figure 1, Panels F and C). To help stabilise the markets, the government requested financial precautionary assistance from the European Union (EU) and International Monetary Fund (IMF), and the central bank raised its policy rate by 50 basis points twice in November and December 2011 to 7%.
Ensuring debt sustainability amid strong economic uncertainty
Despite a deep recession in 2009 and weak growth in subsequent years, Hungary’s fiscal position compares favourably with many other OECD countries. Nonetheless, the underlying fiscal balance started deteriorating in 2010 and 2011. Recognising this, Hungary’s government launched an ambitious set of fiscal consolidation measures in spring 2011, the Széll Kálmán plan, which is rightly focused on curbing public expenditure. This plan, together with subsequent significant revenueincreasing measures, should help restore fiscal adjustment in 2012 and 2013. However, ensuring the sustainability of Hungarian public debt remains challenging in the context of the persistence of the sovereign debt crisis in many European economies since shifts in market sentiment could lead to unsustainable debt servicing costs. In this context, increasing the credibility of fiscal consolidation requires using several policy levers. First, the cost/risk assessment of the debt management strategy should be reassessed by taking into account lessons from the current crisis: the share of government borrowing in foreign currency will likely need to be drastically reduced. Second, additional consolidation efforts should focus more strongly on the spending side and avoid raising distortive taxes. Third, the fiscal framework should be improved by making fiscal rules less pro-cyclical and by raising the profile and political acceptance of the fiscal council through better analytical support and an enlarged mandate, while removing its power to veto the budget.
Ensuring financial stability and efficiency
Loan creation has not recovered after the crisis owing to a combination of demand and supply factors. Although the banking sector is sufficiently capitalised in the short term, banks are deleveraging by cutting down their dependence on cross-border financing. The ability of the financial sector to supply credit has been further stifled by a high financial levy, a de facto ban on foreign currency lending for mortgages, future uncertainties about parent banks’ funding and undermined creditors’ rights. Up to recently, new measures to restructure household loans did not help borrowers with real repayment difficulties while weakening banks’ solvency. The mid-December 2011 agreement between the government and the banking sector was a welcome step towards fair burden sharing. Bank recapitalisation, if necessary, should be done by raising the level of capital so as not to downsize loan portfolios. In the long term, the demand for credit is hampered by large price-cost margins, which call for stiffer competition. The development of the financial markets has also been adversely affected by the de facto nationalisation of mandatory pension funds, which played a crucial role in the accumulation of long-term savings. The regulation of mandatory and voluntary pension funds requires harmonisation and transparency to increase their cost-efficiency. An effective co-operation between micro and macro-prudential regulation should be ensured in practice and the financial independence of the financial supervisor strengthened. Co-operation between host and home regulatory authorities should be enhanced in a manner that accounts for systemic risks in Hungary. Finally, an effective independence of the central bank has to be guaranteed.
Towards a more inclusive labour market
A rapid decrease in unemployment is a short-term priority to limit social problems and reduce the risk of rising structural unemployment. To this end, strengthening labour market policies to sustain labour demand is key. The public works programme should remain temporary and become more focused on training. The authorities should also refrain from further raising the minimum wage. Fundamental structural reforms are needed in the medium term to raise one of the lowest participation rates in the OECD. This challenge is acute in the context of a rapidly ageing population. The authorities have started restructuring the tax/ benefit system to make work pay and increase labour supply, yet additional efforts are needed to foster the inclusiveness of the labour market. Groups which are significantly under-represented in the labour market include the low-skilled, youth, the elderly, women of childbearing age, the disabled and the Roma. Structural measures are needed to develop part-time and other flexible forms of employment, reform family policies, ease the integration of people with disability into the labour market, better attune the education system to labour market needs, enhance the level of qualifications and skills at different ages, diminish disincentives to work at older ages and break the segregation of the Roma.
Improving health outcomes and system
Based on the latest available data up to 2009, the health status of the Hungarian population is among the poorest in the OECD, including countries with a similar level of income per capita. While this outcome has been driven by the socioeconomic status of the population and lifestyle risks, it also reflects the relatively limited effectiveness of the health care system, for which relatively low levels of resources have been available: total health spending amounted to 7.4% of GDP in 2009, lower than in other OECD countries with similar levels of income per capita. Although the health care system is generating significant health care outputs, such as doctor’s consultations and hospital discharges, problems with the quality of health services and the need to reallocate resources where they would contribute most to health outcomes suggest a need for reforms. Reforms are needed to address immediate challenges to stem the outflow of health care workers, reorganise care capacities, align incentives faced by providers and patients, and improve access to health care services. The medium-term challenge for the health care system is to increase available resources to significantly enhance health outcomes. As there are relatively weak mechanisms to regulate quality and prevent unnecessary care, further improving efficiency is also of key importance.
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