April 4, 2013 / 12:30 PM / 4 years ago

UPDATE 3-Hungary takes aim at lending, company foreign currency debt

5 Min Read

* Cbank announces three-pronged plan to boost lending, relieve firms of debt

* Measures not as extreme as some analysts expected

* Deputy governor Balog says no further plans to stimulate economy

* Economy Ministry says c.bank plans could help kickstart growth

* After early losses, forint rebounds 1 pct against euro

By Krisztina Than and Gergely Szakacs

BUDAPEST, April 4 (Reuters) - Hungary's new central bank governor launched plans on Thursday to help small- and medium-sized firms survive recession and get cheap credit worth around $2.1 billion.

But analysts said the sum may not be enouch to revive economic growth.

The announcements confirmed months of market speculation that Gyorgy Matolcsy, a close ally of Prime Minister Viktor Orban, would extend into the bank a government campaign of pro-growth policies he created as economy minister.

But they did not go as far as some analysts had expected, easing some fears on markets about the policies.

The bank's deputy governor Adam Balog told Reuters that the bank had no plans for further measures to stimulate the economy on top of the programmes announced on Thursday and would evaluate those in a few months' time.

Analysts said the programme could stabilize the forint and Hungarian assets in the short term and give room for more interest rate cuts by the central bank, but the measures would not have a significant impact on growth.

"Overall, the size and the scope of the program ease concerns about excessive monetary easing which may undermine stability," said Eszter Gargyan, an analyst at Citigroup.

"The total impact on growth and net increase in corporate loans is likely to be negligible."

Matolcsy's pledges to use the bank to further Orban's economic policies - which eschew traditional austerity measures espoused by the European Union and International Monetary Fund in favour of taxing foreign companies, seizing private pension funds, and other measures - had kept markets on edge.

"Hungary needs a turnaround in economic growth," Matolcsy told a news conference, adding that the bank's mandate allowed it to support government economic policy if it meets its goals of price and financial stability.

The Economy Ministry said in a statement that it welcomed the bank's programme which could help kickstart growth and the new initiative "was an example of the strategic partnership of the Hungarian government and the central bank."

Matolcsy said the central bank would extend up to 250 billion forints ($1.06 billion) in credit to commercial lenders for free in a plan based on the Bank of England's Funding for Lending scheme so they would lend to small and medium-sized firms at an interest of up to 2 percent.

It would spend the same amount in another plan to help those companies refinance loans denominated in euros and Swiss francs - now expensive due to the weaker forint - with low-cost loans in the Hungarian currency.

The bank said in a statement that it was not planning a similar scheme to help households indebted in foreign currency.

Under a separate scheme to be developed with the government and banks, the central bank expects Hungary's short-term external debt to fall by 1 trillion forints, which would allow for a reduction of the bank's foreign currency reserves by about 3 billion euros.

In parallel with this, the central bank aims to reduce the stock of two-week bills, its main instrument to drain excess liquidity from the banking system, to 3.6 trillion forints from 4.5 trillion to curb related interest expenditures.

Market Relief

The forint hit a more than three week high shortly after the announcements.

Economists said that because Matolcsy had not announced measures such as a large bond-buying programme from the central bank or another type of quantitative easing, the forint could rebound.

"In terms of what markets had feared, that is, reserve drawdown and huge amounts of bond buying, that hasn't happened and the statement shows they are still staying within the realms of orthodoxy," said Manik Narain, an analyst at UBS.

"Possibly Matolcsy has dialled back from the most unorthodox policy plans and I think markets may be relieved."

Investors have been concerned about the bank's independence under Matolcsy because of his links with Orban, who has been accused by the European Union and United States of weakening Hungary's young democracy.

Orban faces elections next year and his government needs to show to voters that the economy is recovering from recession.

The forint has lost about 4 percent this year, more than any other currency in emerging Europe, although investors say Hungary's relatively high interest rates - at 5 percent the second highest in the European Union - had supported it.

Despite the weakness, investors have continued to buy Hungarian debt, and government yields fell on Thursday by around 40 basis points across the curve in government bond tenders.

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