Central Europe’s Bypassed Boorish Behavior

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Central Europe stock markets, with Poland’s 32 percent gain the core universe leader, were strong through the first half as planned IPOs neutralized backlash against political heavy-handedness unsettling investors and drawing EU condemnation. GDP growth numbers at 4-5 percent were also solid, with low interest rates and inflation as the Czech central bank removed the currency peg and appreciation continued. Hungary’s climb was half Warsaw’s, although it outperforms on a one-year scorecard, as EUR 6 billion in annual public investment aid from Brussels may be in jeopardy on Prime Minister Orban’s hard-line stance against democracy activists and refugees, culminating in a recent campaign to shutter the Central European University founded by  Hungarian-American civil society and immigration benefactor Soros. Czech consumption was up a modest 2 percent in Q1, as inflation also hit that target to lift the koruna cap in place long after the Swiss central bank ended its intervention. Elections are due again in October, but may come earlier after the prime minister resigned and then retracted the move over his rivalry with business magnate and Finance Minister Babis, whom he accuses of tax violations. The President has refused to take sides in the fight, but Babis stepped down to prepare to lead his party, which has a double-digit margin in opinion surveys, in the upcoming polls.

Hungary’s monetary stance remains ultra-loose, with the central bank offering direct on-lending to sustain manufacturing as the PMI peaked at over 60 in May. Big freight firm Waberer’s is set for a record listing as a private equity exit with expected EUR 500 million capitalization. Its network straddles Western Europe and Germany in particular, and the deal would be a breakthrough in small and midsize firm support promised under official bourse takeover from the Vienna Exchange in 2015. Since then five companies were delisted, and private pension fund absence after seizure has deterred foreign participation. EU human rights spats have raised flags and the latest alleged breach of open education practice, along with corruption investigations into misused subway and other project funds, may heighten the stakes as the ruling party’s membership in the European parliament may be stripped as punishment. In Poland the “illiberal” camp is likewise in full swing with court and army appointments carefully controlled by the Law and Justice Party in power. Judicial independence would be at risk with new legislation which was criticized by security watchdogs for “undermining rule of law.” The military reshuffle in turn may endanger NATO equipment upgrade and spending commitments at a time the US administration has focused on these European ally shortfalls. Domestic demand is the main economic driver, but workers returning from London upon Brexit will dampen the outlook and add to high unemployment. Foreign buyers continue to own one-third of local debt, but the base has diversified to Asia and the Middle East and a “green bond” yield curve will be built as another innovation. However dedicated clean energy funds shunned Poland’s debut issue in view if its core coal industry, and pricing has otherwise been rich with the run-ups in JP Morgan’s benchmark domestic and external bond gauges through mid-year dirtying allocation.