EU stats office in talks with Hungary over inflation calculations

By Gergely Szakacs

BUDAPEST (Reuters) – The EU’s statistics agency said on Thursday it was in talks with Hungary’s main data body over how energy inflation was calculated, days after two local economists suggested current figures underestimated the strength of price growth.

The EU agency Eurostat said the talks, which started in the autumn, were part of broader efforts to harmonise inflation statistics across the bloc. It made no mention of the economists.

The Hungarian Central Statistics Office (HCSO) earlier this week dismissed the economists’ assertions and said the changes it made to calculations in 2022 were in line with EU standards. It did not respond to a request for fresh comment on Thursday.

Hungary’s headline inflation figure dipped into single digits in October for the first time since April 2022, with a 9.9% reading that undershot market forecasts of 10.4%.

On Tuesday the opposition daily Nepszava newspaper cited economists Tamas Mellar and Tamas Katona, two former HCSO heads, as saying that under the previous methodology, October headline inflation would have been 1 to 2 percentage points higher.

On Thursday Mellar, who is also an opposition lawmaker, told online news website the statistics were being used for what he called “propaganda purposes”.

Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s government has put pressure on Hungary’s central bank to cut interest rates more sharply to help the economy climb out of recession, while the economy minister has called several times for a review of the bank’s inflation target.

Hungary’s central bank, which has led a charge in rate cuts in central Europe, lowering its key rate by a combined 650 basis points since May to 11.5%, said Eurostat validated and regularly audited any changes in the measurement of inflation.

“These controls, in our opinion, ensure that the HCSO provides a reliable picture of the development of inflation every time, in line with regulations and international methodological standards,” it said in an emailed response.

Eurostat said it was in “regular dialogue with all EU member states’ statistical offices on matters relating to harmonisation and development of HICP (Harmonised Index of Consumer Prices) statistics” and also regularly verified compliance with the methodological guidelines.

“In the case of Hungary, Eurostat is in discussion with HCSO on the calculation method for energy inflation,” its press office said.

Asked whether the outcome of the talks could lead to a revision of past Hungarian inflation data, Eurostat said these were “in principle allowed, but also very rare”.

It did not release any more details on the talks.

The HCSO implemented a methodological change in August 2022 to take account of changes in government subsidies for household electricity and gas prices.

In a statement on Wednesday, the HCSO said the methodological change was adopted when energy prices were rising, and the methodology applied has been unchanged ever since.

“Changing the measurement methodology to show a stronger decline in prices would be a professionally questionable approach, which has not even been considered by the Office,” it said.

(Reporting by Gergely Szakacs, Editing by William Maclean and Andrew Heavens)