Central Europe’s Strained Strongman Sensibilities

Central Europe stock markets were unsettled through May, amid a raft of popular protests and backlash against insider dealings and economic policies designed to keep compromised leaders and ruling parties in power. The big three Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland MSCI components were flat to negative, with the first again a regional growth laggard at 2.5% as thousands poured into the streets in anti-Babis demands for his prosecution and resignation over business-political conflict including on EU contracts. Exports dipped 6.5% in Q1 on weak German demand, while wage pressure keeps inflation above target for the central bank’s tightening bias. Brussels has not yet condemned Prague for democratic institution manipulation as in Budapest and Warsaw, where regime allies did well in recent European elections on anti-immigrant expansionary spending platforms. Hungary’s 2020 budget is more restrictive, with a proposed 1% of GDP deficit as cohesion funds run out, but the government retains the option to loosen the purse strings while monetary policy is also slack. Domestic pump-priming is vital to preserving Prime Minister Orban’s support and to counter slumping auto sales as US tariffs go into effect. Poland is the growth champion at 6% in the last quarter on a double-digit capex bump with EU projects, on top of the 2% of GDP stimulus unveiled by Law and Justice officials heading into national elections. It took almost half the vote in the May European contest, with consumer confidence buoyed by strong retail buying. Higher inflation near 2.5% is the tradeoff, with rate hikes likely off the table until polls are completed.

In the frontier mix Bulgaria and Romania were at opposite ends with a respective 5% loss and 9% gain. The former’s net exports suffered from Turkey’s crisis, but household demand drove 3.5% growth. It is on track to enter the exchange rate mechanism’s initial stage this summer on the way to full medium-term euro adoption replacing the currency board. The timetable could be complicated by low income and anti-corruption status, as banks undergo a comprehensive asset quality review. Romania’s growth and inflation are both 4%, as the socialists leading the coalition got only half the previous result in European elections on sleaze outcry landing a former president in jail. Voters approved a non-binding referendum on court system overhaul to punish malfeasance, after a prosecutor was attacked for charging senior officials. Another election may be called for early next year, and could further swell the fiscal deficit toward 5% after promised pension hikes with no IMF program in place. The burden may fall on the central bank to tighten with the currency now a rare overweight recommendation in the area. In the Balkans, Croatia and Serbia have drawn positive notice with expected sovereign ratings upgrades, after S&P restored the former’s investment-grade in March. It is no longer in Brussels’ excess deficit procedure, with improved state company earnings balancing the budget. Formal euro accession negotiations should begin in the coming months, before another election cycle. Serbia’s structural reform record and fiscal rule setting were praised under the IMF’s policy support instrument, as President Vucic remains under pressure to purge political allies accused of wrongdoing while he treads a fine diplomatic line on Kosovo relations as a related tripwire.

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