Page last updated at 21:38 GMT, Friday, 27 February 2009

Hungarians feel force of economic storm

By Jonny Dymond
Europe correspondent, BBC News, Budapest

A snow-sweeper rests on his cart on the snow covered historical Chain Bridge of the River Danube in downtown Budapest
Hungarians are suffering as the economic crisis takes its toll

Standing in the small space between a double sofa bed and another sofa in his two room apartment in Budapest's 7th district, Istvan Rakitovski exudes not anger but bafflement.

Istvan lost his job as a construction worker last year. His employer failed to pay him for the last eight months' work.

In lieu of repayments, the loan company he got his mortgage from has sold the flat he lives in to somebody else.

His family cannot take him in and the government will offer him no help. Over and over again he says that he and his wife Beata do not know what they will do or where they will go.

A photo on the sideboard of his eight-year-old daughter is adorned with shiny stickers in the shape of hearts.

Come Sunday, he says, they'll all be on the streets.

"I knew the risks of getting a loan," he says.

"But I worked hard, I did everything. I did my best."

Troubled firms

Istvan and Beata are at the very roughest end of Hungary's economic crisis.

It's a crisis that looks not so much a cyclical downturn, but almost a failure of the capitalism that has only come relatively recently to once-communist Hungary.

Zoltan Kaskan
Customers are hit by the recession
Zoltan Kaska, supply chain director

"People still think here, in the former communist countries, that the state is responsible for everything," says analyst Krisztian Szabados, director of the consultancy Political Capital.

"Political parties always campaigned here with spending promises. This is why the Hungarian budget was in ruins when the crisis [hit]."

But now, as recession has swept Europe, companies are crying out for help.

Out in the suburbs of Budapest, where snow makes the fields and roadsides almost painfully bright, the Hungarian headquarters of the tailors Berwin and Berwin have a troubled feel to them.

Back in 2000, when Hungarian labour was cheap and textile tariffs protected the market, Berwin set up four factories in Hungary.

Over the years three went to China. Now the last one, says supply chain director Zoltan Kaska, is threatened by the retail pain being felt in Britain and France.

Orders for suits, he says, have fallen by two-thirds. Glumly, Zoltan states the case: "Customers are hit by the recession. Less and less people buy products. Cheaper locations are needed.

"If we have help to stabilise the situation, then we have a future. If not, then I don't see how the company can stay in Hungary."

Calls for help

Everyone in Hungary seems to be crying out for help.

Where is the money to come from now that the easy credit that fuelled Hungary's good times has disappeared?

German and Austrian banks are nervously eyeing their indebted Hungarian subsidiaries.

And so far, says the former governor of the central bank, Professor Peter Akos Bod, the actions of neighbouring European governments have deepened Hungary's pain.

"If you provide funds as the German government to German banks or as the Austrian government to Austrian banks on the condition that [the banks] restart doing business in [their] own country, you in some way punish central and eastern European countries, which have become dependent on interbank borrowing," he says.

Debt burden

So for once, as EU leaders meet on Sunday, the rhetoric of crisis matches reality.

And all the grand talk of solidarity, so cheap in the good times, is about to be tested as times turn very bad.

Janos Keller
I think I wasn't warned and informed well enough by the bank
Janos Keller

When easy capital swirled around the world, the governments and citizens of central and eastern Europe were a fine sales opportunity.

Now, things are very different. Hungary has been left with a towering debt to GDP ratio.

Borrowing its way out of this situation is impossible.

And its debt burden has made international exchanges worry about - and heavily sell - the national currency, the forint.

Which wouldn't be the end of the world - a cheap currency can boost exports - but for the fact that Hungary has an awful lot of of foreign currency loans to pay back.

Everyone - including the former central bank governor - seems to have a mortgage in Swiss francs.

And as the value of the forint has fallen, day after day, so the cost of a Swiss franc-backed mortgage has risen.

'High and dry'

All this has left Janos Keller, 51, high and dry.

His day job as a restaurant maintenance worker was never going to make him rich.

Nor does his hobby of building and repairing stereo equipment; the small desk in his very small apartment in a block off one of Budapest's bigger highways is littered with spare parts and soldering equipment.

His monthly mortgage bills - a 100% mortgage in Swiss francs - have more than tripled since he started repayment at the height of the forint's strength back in the summer of 2008.

The bill is greater than his entire post-tax monthly salary.

Didn't he know? Wasn't he warned? His reply is a sad, self deprecating monotone: "I'm not an expert on these things. I think I wasn't warned and informed well enough by the bank.

"For example when I signed the contract the bank showed me another document about the risk, and when I asked what it is, and they said 'well it's nothing, it's just about the rate of exchange. It may change a bit up or down, but don't worry about it.' And then they made me sign it."

Seven floors below Janos's apartment a bright shiny McDonalds beams out over the highway at night.

Once safely inside you feel that no-one will allow Hungarian banks to fail or the Hungarian government to default. The risks are simply too great.

But Janos, alone in his flat, tinkering with his soldering iron, is the financial collateral damage, broken by a debt he will never repay.

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