What’s going on at the foreign ministry’s National Trading House of Hungary is anyone’s guess. Charged with opening trading houses abroad to assess business opportunities and facilitate trade, the trading houses themselves are shrouded in mystery. However, thanks to a series of lawsuits filed by online daily 444.hu (with the help of Transparency International and the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union), information about the trading houses is finally coming to light.
To begin with, it seems that not all trading houses are the same. In some countries, the trading houses are financed and operated directly by the Hungarian state. In other countries, they are operated by a third party and are not officially financed by the state.
Based on information obtained from the National Trading House, 444.hu reports that between 2013 and 2015 the trading houses spent some HUF 5.5 billion (USD 20 million) generating some HUF 2.8 billion of business for Hungarian companies — hardly an efficient use of Hungarian taxpayer money.
The trading houses have helped Hungarian businesses sell ovulation microscopes to Kazakhstan and Ghana, laptops into Zambia, preserved sour cherries into Botswana, and second-hand Tokaji wine barrels to Ireland, reports 444.hu.
In addition to operating losses, the National Trading House of Hungary lost billions of forints which it inexplicably kept on account at Quaestor brokerage house, whose spectacular collapse in March last year cost investors and taxpayers alike hundreds of billions of forints.
According to the National Trading House, it made two transfers to Quaestor in March and April 2013 worth around HUF 9.3 billion. In March 2015, just hours before Quaestor went belly up, the brokerage transferred HUF 3.8 billion to its client.
The Hungarian government has been criticized for its role in the collapse of Quastor’s bond-selling unit. One reason is that Hungary’s financial regulators completely missed the impending disaster. Another reason is that ministries, government agencies and state-owned companies alike kept huge funds on deposit with the brokerage for reasons that have never been adequately explained.
Within days of Quaestor suddenly collapsing in March 2015, it was revealed that various state budgetary offices managed to pull their funds out of the brokerage right before it went bankrupt, and that funds were being remitted to government bodies even as private investors were told that Quaestor had already filed for bankruptcy.
Former Quaestor CEO Csaba Tarsoly is now facing trial for his involvement in what appears to have been an elaborate Ponzi scheme — one costing investors and taxpayers hundreds of billions of forints.
The plot thickens
According to documents obtained from the National Trading House about its activities, there is no record of a National Trading House in Moscow. When 444.hu asked the National Trading House where the information is relating the Moscow office, the trading office replied that no office ever existed.
There is a website to the Moscow Trading House still listed on Quaestor’s website, but that does not explain why the National Trading House (despite the foreign minister’s Moscow office ribbon-cutting appearance in 2013) denies its existence.
Other interesting people tied to the National Trading House project
Last week, Hungarian news site mno.hu reported that a company belonging to former government minister Tamás Fellegi would be taking over the National Trading House office in Israel. According to the conservative online daily, Fellegi’s company is to receive some HUF 2.4 million per month to run the Israel office.
Fellegi, of course, was entrusted by the Hungarian government to take over lobbying efforts in Washington and run a US-based foundation launched and funded at the behest of the Prime Minister’s Office in 2013. Later, Fellegi popped up as the organizer and promoter of the Hungarian Pavilion at the Milan World Fair in 2015.
Another company, ALX Magyar–Török Kereskedelmi Központ Kft., which runs the National Trading Houses in Turkey, Greece and Cyprus, is tied to Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s son-in-law through its owner, Adnan Polat. Individuals belonging to this close circle have been connected through various corporate filings.
According to another story published on mno.hu, individuals close to several leading Fidesz politicians (including Szijjártó, National Bank of Hungary governor György Matolcsy and former government spokesman András Giró-Szász) have contracted in one way or another with the National Trading House.