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“We must believe in the Central European renaissance” – interview with István Máté-Tóth


“We must believe in the Central European renaissance” – interview with István Máté-Tóth

Interjú Máté-Tóth Istvánnal

István Máté-Tóth has 20 years of capital market experience, and has worked for over 18 years at the Swiss bank Credit Suisse. Today, he serves as Deputy CEO of the Budapest Stock Exchange, responsible for trade and business development. He has vast experience with risk taking, which is one of the reasons he feels so close to the Budapest Festival Orchestra. He joined the Board of Trustees in 2022. The BFO is a unique, world-class orchestra, whose members are not afraid of major challenges, but in fact embrace them, he says. We hope you will enjoy this next installment in our series of interviews introducing the members of the BFO Board of Trustees.

I have to admit: the field you have long been active in is almost an entirely unfamiliar territory for me. And because I assume that many of our readers are also not particularly well-informed about the profession of finance and banking, or the world of the stock exchange, I would like to ask you to describe what it is you deal with. I would also like to hear how all of this relates to the Budapest Festival Orchestra.

István Máté-Tóth: It is probably no coincidence that the Board of Trustees of the BFO includes several individuals who, like me, come from the banking sector or the world of finance – like András Simor and Gábor Illés. As for me: I was involved in the capital market sector in Great Britain for twenty-one years. It is my conviction that the people working in this field are individuals who are conscious in their risk-taking. They are individuals for whom major challenges form a key element of their behavior, which thus involves a large amount of risk-taking. I am convinced that the BFO also likes major challenges.

In the United Kingdom, you worked at the Financial Conduct Authority – the name itself is particularly exciting to me –, which suggests that you were responsible not only for your own risk-taking, but also for the risks others took. Was that indeed the case?

I. M-T.: Yes, this really was an incredibly exciting task. The British approach to this is completely unique. No other stock market places this much organizational emphasis on managing conduct. I saw and experienced so many interesting things. Firstly, the British stock markets are far more developed than those of any other country in Europe. In Great Britain, the way stock market actors interact with one another developed over centuries, along with the most appropriate practices in the market.

Just as the English, over centuries, have also perfected the science of caring for their lawn...

I. M-T.: Exactly. Quite similarly, they had enough time to collect experiences observing and understanding the movements of the financial world, and shaping their legal system. I was tremendously fortunate to have been able to spend so many years in a setting which was so professional in terms of operations.

How does someone become a stock exchange professional? What was the road that led you there?

I. M-T.: We often tell our children that they will one day have the kinds of jobs which they do not even know about yet; the same held true for me. When I was growing up in the 70s and 80s, no one thought that Hungary would one day be a country with a financial and capital market. I come from Kiskunhalas, a small town; and that is where I went to high school. I then enrolled in university in the German Democratic Republic, but by the time I graduated, the GDR had become the Federal Republic of Germany, and I was able to experience the transition. I then continued my studies at the recently established Central European University, and did so in Prague, in fact, which was where CEU started out. From there, I went to England, where I studied economics. I then returned to school in Hungary, and from there had a direct path to the banking sector.

Did your parents or any of your ancestors pursue a similar profession?

I. M-T.: No, no one in the family. And, oddly, I was not particularly interested in money before I graduated from university. Later, as well: it was not so much the money that I was focused on. I wanted to understand the road that money travels as it makes its way from households to companies.

Did you have any idea of what you wanted to be?

I. M-T.: Initially, I was interested in transportation and related economic matters; although if I really think back, I was more interested in pursuing a career in academia. In London, I was even accepted to a PhD program, but we did not have the necessary financial background for this, so we decided I would put off doctoral school for a year. I was expecting to focus my research on Eastern European privatization.

That must have been a hot topic at the time.

I. M-T.: It was, but I had to postpone my studies. This was how I ended up with an auditing company. I was then hired by a prominent bank, Credit Suisse.

These days, they are in the news with their collapse – I imagine that does not make you happy!

I. M-T.: Absolutely: it is a very painful story. Anyway, at that large Swiss bank, where I was employed as a corporate analyst, I really fell in love with the profession, and I ended up staying for twenty years. After a while, I was transferred from the headquarters in Hungary to England.

You are a member of a generation for which it was not difficult to be in the right place at the right time: that was when the world of finance, banking and stock exchanges was opening up to Hungarian professionals. Doors were opening for everyone who had at least a little talent.

I. M-T.: We really were tremendously lucky! If I look at the young people graduating today from university, I see that they possess incomparably more knowledge than we did. But back then, there was no one to measure our knowledge against. For me, it was a great advantage that I was able to study abroad. This also greatly helped improve my ability to take risks. I also spoke foreign languages, which was not typical at the time.

Was it your parents who encouraged you to study foreign languages?

I. M-T.: No. I, myself, realized that I was interested in languages, and because I was blessed with a fairly good knack for languages, I sought out the opportunities to learn. This was also why I went to study in the GDR.

Were you there in Berlin at the collapse of the wall?

I. M-T.: I was studying in Dresden, but my wife was attending university in Berlin at the same time. That is where we met, and I happened to be with her when the wall came down. It was a tremendous experience.

In Prague, you were one of the first students of CEU. What was the Central European University like at that time?

I. M-T.: Compared to the Prussian style of teaching that I had been used to, it was tremendous to experience a completely different, far more free and open model of education. We had excellent instructors – the best in the world in their own fields. In Prague, CEU ended up in the same position as it did later in Budapest. Václav Klaus asked them to look for a different home, because they were not welcome in Prague. Of course, I was happy that the school was moving to Budapest, although I was no longer studying at CEU at the time. It is a real shame that it is no longer located here. It should not have left!

Let’s get back to the Budapest Festival Orchestra. As we have already mentioned, you are not the only significant supporter and benefactor of this world-famous ensemble who joins the BFO from the world of money-making and wealth accumulation. I was wondering – and perhaps doing so unjustly – whether this gesture towards the orchestra is a desire to compensate for or offset perceptions of the status you hold in this increasingly polarized world. I hope you do not find the question offensive.

I. M-T.: I think that is a fair point. I’m sure this plays a role for all of us. As for myself, I joined the Board of Trustees because my friend, Gábor Illés, asked if I wanted to be a part of this activity, which is the source of so much joy for him. This is not my first encounter with music. I attended an elementary school specializing in song and music, and I’m still glad that I did. Mrs. Katona, our teacher, was an outstanding music instructor: a terrific, highly cultured woman and a wonderful educator, from whom we learned a lot. Then, when I ended up in Dresden, I found the cultural scene there very exciting. It did not cost much to attend very high quality events, including some very good concerts. And the same for Prague: in the previous system, culture was easily accessible to all. For me, listening to music was a need that was a part of my life since childhood. Right now, I’m at the watershed where I’ve spent just as much time abroad as I have in Hungary. We moved back five years ago. And what keeps us here, in part, is the very rich cultural scene, for example. Being able to access the most diverse selection of the arts, which of course includes listening to classical music and concerts. Just how much we are consciously trying to compensate the negative moral aspects of our activities connected to the money markets – that is worth pondering. Even if that is the case – and there must be some truth to it –, I don’t think this is the only reason why I feel good about standing with the BFO. This is a unique orchestra. They are world-class, that is beyond a doubt. I think that everyone in Hungary appreciates this, no matter if they are young or old, and regardless of political sympathies; everyone is in agreement. Yes, the state does support the BFO, but it also supports so many other things, and they do not all become world-class. I’m convinced that the orchestra’s global success is due primarily to Iván Fischer. I’m also sure that having a group of supporters, of which I am a proud member, also plays a role. I think this is a major privilege.

You have already mentioned that you used to work with risk-taking. I, for one, believe Iván Fischer is a major risk-taker in the art world. He comes up with new ideas almost every week, and then goes on to realize the majority of them, even if many don’t believe them possible. What do you think?

I. M-T.: I find that those who are truly successful dare to take risks. I especially enjoyed seeing how in British schools, they teach kids to take risks. I find the opposite is true in Hungary: no encouragement is provided for trying something whose outcome is uncertain. If a child does not do well on a final test, there is a chance they will receive a bad grade at the end of the year. In Great Britain, on the other hand, they tend to say that if you mess up, you can learn from that and do better next time. This makes kids much braver. In order for someone to be successful, they must be more daring and willing to take risks. Otherwise, there are no results.

You moved back from England five years ago. Do you regret it?

I. M-T.: No. Not at all. I wouldn’t say that everything is rosy in Hungary; there are things which are very good, and things which are very bad. But we are able to be happy about the things we can be happy about, even if many of our friends do not agree on everything. We can still talk about everything and no one feels they have to hide their opinion. I am, fundamentally, an optimist, and I feel that we must believe in the Central European renaissance.

Will your children also pursue careers in finance?

I. M-T.: I am not influencing them in this. I have three daughters, and we don’t yet know what direction their lives will take, but I am certain that they will be able to be successful.

Interview by Júlia Váradi.

István Máté-Tóth has 20 years of capital market experience, and has worked for over 18 years at the Swiss bank Credit Suisse. Starting out as an equity analyst, he later served as Managing Director heading the Emerging Market Equity Research business, before being named Co-Head of European Equity Research. At the Financial Conduct Authority in the United Kingdom, he worked for several years at the UK Listing Authority. He was also a volunteer on the CFA UK’s Career Development Committee and helped found the CFA UK Women’s Network. Fluent in English and German, he has served for the past two years as Deputy CEO of the Budapest Stock Exchange, responsible for trade and business development.