Hungarian banker and media mogul Zoltán Spéder in government’s sights

June 10, 2016

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Zoltán Spéder, CEO and major shareholder of Hungary’s FHB Bank, and one of the main beneficiaries of the Orbán regime, is under fire from state and pro-government media. Nothing exemplifies Spéder’s close relationship with Minister Overseeing the Prime Minister’s Office János Lázár and other leading Fidesz politicians better than the rape of Takarékbank. But now, the government is doing pretty much everything imaginable to destroy his reputation and his business that they, too, helped build.

The rape of Takarékbank involved the takeover of Hungary’s previously independent savings cooperatives sector via legislative fiat, and its sale to an entity controlled by FHB via an “international tender” that effectively excluded foreign parties from bidding.

Takarékbank was formed decades ago when Hungary’s otherwise independent and unconnected local savings cooperatives joined forces to pool resources and expand the scale and scope of services they provided, including bank transfers, payment and cash withdrawal services, and levels of financing otherwise too large for any one credit union to provide on its own. The range of financial services provided by Takarékbank through its constituent members proved efficient and effective. And it was built from the ground up by small Hungarian businesses.

In November 2012 DZ Bank, Germany’s much larger version of Takarékbank, sold its shares (some 38.46 percent of the bank) to Hungary’s state-owned National Development Bank (Nemzet Fejlesztési Bank, NFB). The government declared the details of the transaction a “trade secret.” The reason given for this initial purchase of shares in Takarékbank was to “streamline” services provided by its 1600 branch offices.

In 2013, the National Development Bank tried to get the other shareholders of Takarékbank to approve the transfer of a single share to a company tied to an associate of Spéder. When the shareholders refused, the Hungarian government passed lex specialis legislation requiring Takarékbank to allow the Hungarian Postal Service to acquire 20 percent of the shares in the company through an increase in capital, that is, for the nominal value of the shares (as opposed to the fair market value), effectively devaluing the shares of the other shareholders. Through the capital injection imposed by law, the state’s stake in Takarékbank increased to 58.46 percent (38.46 percent through the state-owned National Development Bank and 20 percent through the Hungarian Postal Service).

The lex specialis not only allowed the government to circumvent both the Economic Competition Authority (Gazdasagi Versenyhivatal, GVH) and the Financial Services Oversight Agency (Penzugyi Szervezetek Allami Felugyelete, PSzAF), it also allowed the government to pass a law whose provisions violate existing laws in force, including laws regulating the institution of private property.  The law provided for any shareholders opposing changes within the Takarékbank to be stripped of their shares.

Takarekbank’s shareholders were then forced to elect a new board of directors and new executives acceptable to the state-owned majority shareholders.

The law also created a new government regulatory agency, the Savings Cooperatives Integration Organization (Szövetkezeti Hitelintézetek Integrácios Szervezete, SZHISZ) to help “streamline” the entire savings cooperative sector.

In 2014, the state sold its shares in Takarékbank to a company controlled by Zoltán Spéder via an “international tender” which, for all intents and purposes, excluded foreign bidders.

The $127 million question

During this process Takarékbank was integrated with the Hungarian Postal Service and the Savings Cooperatives Integration Organization, with key FHB executives being appointed to head the latter organizations. Eventually, some HUF 35 billion (USD 127 million) worth of assets under management by Takarékbank were subsequently transferred to the FHB Bank.  (And that is merely the tip of the iceberg-ed.)

None of this would have been possible without the willingness of the Hungarian parliament to adopt legislation in direct violation of the existing rule of law.

Voices of dissent

The rape of Takarékbank did not go unchallenged. Ferenc Dávid, general secretary of the National Association of Entrepreneurs and Employers (VOSZ), bitterly complained to a number of media outlets that the nationalization of Takarékbank was tantamount to theft.  Even Sándor Demján, one of the richest men in Hungary and president of the Hungarian Savings Cooperatives Association, criticized the government’s takeover of Takarékbank and the creation of SZHISZ.

However, legal attempts to thwart the nationalization and subsequent sale of the government’s shares in Takarékbank in August 2014 came to nought after Hungary’s Constitutional Court upheld the government’s right to pass legislation interfering in commercial matters, including the expropriation of private property and the curtailment of property rights, providing sufficient explanation is provided.

Recently, Demján and the Hungarian Banking Association wrote letters to the Hungarian government expressing their concerns over the Takarékbank-FHB conflation.

What goes around, comes around

The Hungarian Banking Association has publicly expressed its concern with the strong position FHB gained with the help of the government. Online daily 444.hu reports that the banking association’s open criticism of FHB’s strengthened position may be a sign that the government has withdrawn its support of Spéder, who clashed with the government in January when he diluted the state’s shares in FHB with a capital injection, effectively employing the same trick that the government used in 2013 to dilute shareholders’ ownership. According to 444.hu, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán himself said he did not approve of FHB’s move.

Banker or media mogul?

Years ago, disagreements like this would have been unimaginable between the prime minister and Spéder, whose vast media holdings include online dailies Index.hu, Napi.hu, Portfolio.hu and Infóradió.

Not surprisingly, Spéder’s media outlets largely ignored the rape of Takarékbank.

Creating a “market player”

Earlier, the government propped up FHB by allowing it to seemingly merge with Takarékbank and the Hungarian Postal Service. The government forced the savings cooperatives into an “integration” entity that was managed by Spéder, while FHB and the Hungarian Postal Service began to merge, too. The government justified these decisions on the grounds that it was attempting to create a market player capable of challenging foreign-owned commercial banks, as well as the Sándor Csányi-led OTP, Hungary’s largest commercial bank.

Simicska redux?

Now, the friction between the government and Spéder has escalated to a whole new level.

Recently, state and pro-government media launched a full-scale campaign against him.

On Monday, legislation curbing Takarékbank‘s further integration with the other savings cooperatives was rushed through parliament.

On Tuesday, the National Bank of Hungary, in its capacity as legal successor of the PSzAF, assessed a HUF 100 million fine against FHB for alleged restricted market manipulation.

By Wednesday, FHB’s stock lost 15 percent of its value on the Budapest Stock Exchange (BUX) in response to these developments.

Cutting off one’s nose to spite one’s face?

The fall in FHB’s stock price also impacted by nearly HUF 1 billion the state’s shares in the bank, but not nearly as much as it hurt Spéder’s. According to 444.hu, the sudden decline in FHB’s share value reduced the value of Spéder’s holding company, A64 Vagyonkezelő, in FHB by some HUF 3 billion.

Another major shareholder, Vienna Capital Partners, suffered losses in excess of HUF 3 billion, reports 444.hu.

Another day, another police raid

On June 9th, Hungarian news site mno.hu reported that Hungarian police had raided several FHB offices and seized computers in connection with a series of crimes committed in January.

Shortly thereafter, state-run media reported that the police had also received a criminal complaint from the National Bank of Hungary and would start investigating the Hungarian Postal Service, run, as in the case of the Takarékbank and FHB, by former FHB Bank executives.

On top of all this, 444.hu reported yesterday that Hungarian tax authorities have for weeks been conducting a comprehensive audit of CEMP (Central European Media & Publishing) Zrt., a media company owned and run by Spéder.