Heidelberg Materials’ reaction to changes in the law in Hungary received attention this week in the German press. The government introduced its Act on Hungarian Architecture in March 2023 that will enable it to set production levels and prices upon foreign-owned cement producers when the new legislation takes force in July 2023. An unnamed executive at the Germany-based Heidelberg Materials told Der Spiegel that, “These regulations represent a complete violation of all rules of the European single market.” They added that the Hungarian government appeared to be trying to force the producer to sell up. The report further alleges that the owners of Duna-Dráva Cement, Heidelberg Materials and Schwenk Zement, also received an offer to buy them out in mid-2022 from an individual with links to Prime Minister Victor Orbán.
This latest move to corral the cement sector in Hungary follows a number of recent changes in legislation. Notably, Decree 404 was introduced in July 2021. This set a 90% tax on the ‘excess’ profits of cement, plaster, chalk, gravel, sand, clay, lime and gypsum producers with the stated intention of wanting to prevent rising prices. The government set a threshold price for cement of Euro56/t at the time. At the same time it also blocked exports of cement and other raw materials of declared strategic importance unless affected companies had registered with the Ministry of the Interior. The European Commission (EC) responded to a parliamentary question on the matter in November 2021 saying that it had sent a formal letter to Hungary informing it that it was breaching some parts of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (EU) on the free movement of goods. Although it noted that the new law also affected exports outside the EU, which was beyond the EC’s remit. It added that the so-called ‘mining royalties’ did not seem to breach EU tax law.
Concerns over these issues between Hungary and Germany also surfaced in October 2022 when Orbán met with the German Chancellor Olaf Scholz. At this time Thomas Spannagl, the head of Schwenk Zement, said that the windfall profit tax in Hungary had a “serious negative” impact on business and that importers were not affected in the same way.
Heidelberg Materials’ subsidiary Duna-Dráva Cement is the largest cement producer by production capacity in Hungary with two integrated plants at Beremend and Vác. Together they have a production capacity of 2.8Mt/yr, according to the Global Cement Directory 2023, or about 70% of the country’s active national capacity. Heidelberg Materials reported that its result from equity accounted investments fell by 27% year-on-year to Euro262m in 2022 from Euro356m in 2023 due to a decline in earnings particularly in China and Hungary. This compares to a 4% drop to Euro3.74bn in its result from current operations before depreciation and amortisation across the whole business. Despite this it also noted that Hungary’s overall economic output had grown by 5% in 2022.
Just before the new laws affecting cement companies starting arriving in mid-July 2021, the Hungarian Competition Authority started an investigation into a “drastic” increase in raw material prices. This followed a warning a year earlier in 2020 that it had started competition supervision proceedings against the three main market participants: Duna-Dráva Cement, Lafarge Cement and CRH. All three are foreign-owned companies.
Lafarge Cement Hungary operates the Kiralyegyháza plant and it is due to change its name to Holcim in May 2023. Its predecessor companies, Holcim and Lafarge, also used to run plants at Hejocsaba and Lábatlan before the merger in 2015. However, the Hejocsaba plant ran into legal problems between Holcim and another investor, shut in 2011 and was later forcibly taken over by the other party in 2014. Today the plant operates as Hejőcsabai Cement- és Mészipari (HCM) but cement production is reportedly yet to restart nearly a decade later and Holcim says that legal proceedings are still ongoing. The Lábatlan plant, meanwhile, closed for good in the early 2010s. CRH took over some of Holcim’s other operations in Hungary in 2015 at the same time as the formation of LafargeHolcim but does not run any cement plants in the country at present. It does own cement plants in nearby countries that are able to supply the Hungarian market as well as running 19 concrete units. It describes itself as the “number two player” in the local market. It wasn’t specific on Hungary in its financial results for 2022 but it did describe sales in its Europe East region as being ahead of 2021, “due to a strong focus on commercial actions to offset significant cost inflation.”
Construction costs in Hungary do appear to have grown faster than other European countries in the second half of 2021 as the country came out of the coronavirus pandemic. However, the country’s anti-immigrant labour stance may have also contributed to the situation, in addition to the high-energy prices and supply chain bottlenecks experienced elsewhere. In addition, cement companies are also capable of monopolistic behaviour. For example, Duna-Dráva Cement’s proposed acquisition of Cemex Croatia was blocked by the EC back in 2017 on competition grounds. However, given how international the cement industry has become, it is surprising to see this kind of treatment from a government within the European Union.