No. 22, László Csaba (1994): Hungary and the IMF: the experience of a cordial discord

In establishing the task and scope of this paper I set out from the following presumptions. The circumstances and facts about how Hungary has become one of the most indebted countries in the world on a per capita basis are discussed in detail in widely available and up-to-date source material. Second, some of the most relevant professional and policy aspects of current Hungarian interactions with the “Washington twins” are discussed in separate papers in this panel. Third, there is a body of quite relevant theoretical reflection on the general issues pertaining to the vices and virtues of applying stabilisation policies to formerly planned economies while they are in transition to the market. In what follows, I try to minimize the overlap with any of these. I also try to contribute to what may be the summary of the discussions conducted here, i.e. to the evaluation of how the Washington twins have fared in the troubled waters of systemic change in Central and Eastern Europe. In order to attain this, I shall focus exclusively on the Hungarian experience. The bottom line of the argument is a search for an answer to the following question. Why is it that, despite the fact that, all Hungarian governments since our accession to the IMF and IBRD in 1982 have been explicitly cooperative with regard to the wishes of these institutions, that their leverage on systemic change has remained as limited as with any other country on Earth? In other words, why could not the IMF and the Bank bring about greater market-oriented changes in a country where nobody close to the commanding heights has ever challenged the “conventional wisdom” of these institutions, and where even in academic circles the “Fund-busters” constitute a miniscule and marginal minority? What makes the question even more intriguing is the fact that Hungary has not had to face the problems typical of, say, Bolivia, Russia or Poland, i.e. the conflict between stabilisation and market liberalisation concerns have not come into the open. In many ways, at least in systemic terms, Hungary seems to have been predestined for the role of an exemplary pupil – still, she has surely underperformed against the expectations. Fiscal reform, social security reform and banking reform have still a very long way to go. Although compared to the performance of her fellow-travellers, Hungarian performance may well be qualified as satisfactory, one cannot escape the temptation of applying a different standard to Hungary. In particular, a country which has had twenty-plus years of reform experience, including the implementation of commercial banking, bankruptcy legislation, VAT and PIT reforms, and the launching of trade liberalisation and reorientation before the collapse of communism, has clearly developed a certain edge in terms of institution-building. These circumstances, coupled with the professed cordial relationship with the two multilateral financial institutions, and the lack of political and philosophical differences over economic issues – so typical in the underdeveloped world – could well have led one to expect Hungary to accelerate rather than decelerate the pace of changes, once geopolitical constraints and ideological taboos suddenly evaporated in 1989/1990. While the list of domestic factors explaining these developments is indefinitely long, one may still wonder why the Washington twins, especially the Fund, could not make better use of leverage it certainly had over a country whose balance of payments was in a very shaky position between 1988 and 1991. The Fund and the Bank are, of course, no substitutes for a world government. However, ever since systemic transformation started, and especially since the Russian accession in 1992, these organisations have willy-nilly been taking up roles far exceeding their original mandates and the aspirations of the bulk of their staffs. They invested considerable amount of time, funds and expertise into understanding balance of payments adjustment recipes and other conventional considerations may not be directly applicable or helpful in mastering the task of economic transformation. Thus, the customary reference either to the “dogmatisms” of the IMF or the “political narrowmindedness” of the local elites may prove inadequate in explaining Hungarian story.

Project leader:
László Csaba