Hungary seeking to buy out seven utilities

By bne IntelliNews September 23, 2013

bne -

Hungary is in takeover talks with as many as seven public utilities, Prime Minister Viktor Orban said on September 20. With elections on the way in early 2014, the government is looking for a boost in the polls from lowering tariffs and inflation, while bashing foreign investors at the same time.

In a bid to reverse falling approval ratings and preserve the constitutional majority that has allowed it to make so many controversial moves since coming to power in 2010, Orban's Fidesz government has already bought a municipal water firm from France's GDF Suez and the Hungarian gas arm of German energy giant E.ON. It also recently opened talks with Mol on gas storage assets.

The PM, who once again accused utilities of abusing their monopoly positions to dictate prices in his regular Friday appearance on local radio, said the government will continue to seek to take control in order to create a state-owned utility sector in the coming years. The ultimate aim is to reduce tariffs.

To that end, the state is in talks to buy the Pecs water works, according to Portfolio.hu, as well as Fogaz. German giant RWE currently holds a minority stake in the gas supplier to the Hungarian capital. Speculation has also recently been buzzing around Tigaz, one of the country's largest gas distributors that is currently controlled by Italy's Eni.

On the back of that, more tariff cuts are on the way, Orban promised. Having pledged last year to cut household tariffs by 30% before the elections - due to take place by spring next year - the government cut prices by 10% in January. Another similar size drop will be implemented on November 1. The government is currently working on a bill to make household energy supply a non-profit sector, and Orban told the radio station that he hopes to see it submitted to parliament and come into effect ahed of the vote.

"There's much debate on whether this bill should be a two-thirds bill," the PM said, referring to the level of support in the lower house needed for a constitutional majority. "A simple majority law would suffice if we were sure the Socialists will not side with the multinationals against the people."

At the same time, moves are also afoot to target suppliers to commercial customers, Orban revealed, complaining that Hungary needs to rein in energy costs for companies in order to grow the economy. "How could Europe become competitive with the US when energy prices are 30% higher," Orban asked rhetorically, according to the Wall Street Journal. "These energy firms tell me they don't make profit on household energy, only on corporate services. I don't care."

Presuming Fidesz will stay in office, he added: "After the elections, the next government will need to find means to lower tariffs to US levels in case of energy used by the economy."

That's clearly electioneering: the US is one of the world's largest energy producers and is in the midst of a shale gas boom that has dropped prices worldwide; Hungary is heavily dependent on expensive Russian oil and gas imports.

However, it should be able to force a bargain in buying out the utilities. While the opposition has recently demanded an inquiry into the price Budapest paid E.ON for its local gas arm, the government has the upper hand in the talks. Stiff crisis taxes on the sector, coupled with the tariff cuts, have impacted the valuations of utilities. Meanwhile, Hungary filed with the US Securities Exchange Commission in mid-September, opening the way for up to $5bn in new debt. Any new borrowing could be used to pay for the re-nationalisations.

The PM also said the government is looking at the coal industry and called for smaller coal mines to be reopened to provide fuel for the neediest. "Coal mining is still an important industry," he stated, while also warning that the cabinet is set to take an "unexpected" step.

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