For Whom the Bells Toll

For Whom the Bells Toll

May 2012

 Misguided policy choices drive Turkey’s economy to the edge of economic crisis.

Turkey’s soaring economic growth over the past decade and Turkey’s weathering of the global financial crisis have led the Western media to promote the country as a supposed model for success. But over the past year, that image has been changing. An recent in-depth profile in the Economist offers an example of the truth that is becoming increasingly apparent to global observers: Turkey’s overheated growth is masking serious structural problems in the economy that threaten the future of the nation.

 

The country’s GDP rose by 8.5% in 2011 after a 9% increase in 2010. But the inflation rate has also soared to 10.4% in march, and the current account deficit, financed mainly by inflows of “hot money,” averaged 10% of GDP last year. Such figures are enough to show that Turkey is in very volatile and dangerous territory.

The economic crisis Turkey witnessed in 2001 was a wake-up call for the country. Under the guidance of the International Monetary Fund and Economic Affairs Minister Kemal Dervis, the government made significant reforms. When the Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power the following year, it continued along the lines laid out by Dervis and the IMF reaping the fruits of the reforms implemented by the previous government. While the ruling party would like to try to take credit for this success, in truth all AKP has done is take the growth model and stick to it to; actually to a very irresponsible degree.

As investors flocked to emerging markets such as Turkey, the return of risk appetite to global markets in the first quarter of 2012 created a false sense of complacency for policymakers. Combined with the strong GDP growth figures of the past two years, investors’ interest fed a sense of overconfidence in AKP government. The severe problems faced by some of Turkey’s neighbors, such as Greece, and the state of other EU economies have failed to give Turkish policymakers the reality check they severely need.

The depreciation of the lira should have made Turkish exports more attractive, but instead the country continues to run a persistent trade deficit.

As AKP strengthened its political status, the party leadership favored pure economic growth. Today the outcome of focusing on GDP performance while turning a blind eye on to critical economic fundamentals are clear. Turkey’s current account deficit has soared to become one of the highest in the world, and the inflation rate has risen well above the 5.5% target for 2011. High dependency on energy imports leaves the country particularly vulnerable to high oil prices and worsens the current account deficit. The depreciation of the lira should have made Turkish exports more attractive, but instead the country continues to run a persistent trade deficit ($7 billion in January and $5.9 billion in February). These issues, along with the over reliance on hot-money flows into the country to drive growth and its potentially volatile effect on the exchange rate, means that Turkey is very vulnerable to external shocks. The country’s growing vulnerability amid increasing global uncertainties increases the risk of an economic collapse.

The Central Bank of Turkey (CBT) has abetted AKP’s strategy of growth at all costs, veering off the usual path of prudent interest-rate management by maintaining its “corridor” of rates instead of a benchmark on which lenders can count. The bank’s leaders say this strategy helps them better manage hot-money flows, but the confusion may be keeping more stable investors away. Further more CBT’s does not have enough foreign-exchange reserves to effectively defend the lira -the bank reported earlier in April that the reserves have now fallen below $80 billion- which, combined with the current account deficit poses a major risk. CBT governor Erdem Basci is a politically weak figure who appears to be beholden to Prime Minister Erdogan, which calls the policymaking independence of the bank into serious question.

The CBT’s “fuzzy math” and the government’s dismissal of serious structural problems leave the impression that AKP views the economy as nothing more than a numbers game. Impressive growth figures may strengthen the political power of the ruling party. But a deeper look suggests that they have not generated as widespread a prosperity as has been advocated and advertised. Turkey’s unemployment rate remains around 10%, dropping from13% in end 2010. and it ranks in the top three of OECD nations in terms of income inequality. The country’s minimum wage is set well below the poverty line, meaning that large numbers of Turks fall among the “working poor,” unable to earn their way into prosperity. At the same time, the soaring inflation rate has lowered the purchasing power of these struggling households. These are serious problems that the government seems unable or even unwilling to address. The Government’s Medium Term Program for the economy, which aims to lower the current account deficit and increase domestic saving, is off to a middling start, with the public-sector gap between saving and investment actually set to increase in 2012.

Rather than taking solid action, AKP leadership has preferred to downplay the clear risks and continued to encourage Turks to spend more, fueling the economy -in effect gambling with the debt of Turkish consumers, as household indebtedness has soared in the past three years. The ruling party continues to kick the can down the road, apparently leaving reform to future governments, as it pursues growth at all costs and dismisses the risks posed by the possibility of capital flight. A growth model based on internal consumption and external financing is a strategy creating a probable crash.

Both short-term and long-term steps are needed to control the current account deficit. In the short-term, the central bank should abandon its unorthodox monetary policy, which has largely confused investors, in favor of a more predictable policy that can calm volatility. In the longer term, Turkey must reduce its high dependence on foreign sources of energy, in which a significant portion of the current account deficit problem is rooted. Despite promoting the contrary, there has been no concrete increase in Turkey’s renewable energy sector, and the countries energy dependency is still increasing every passing year.

An economic crisis at home, driven by a sudden reversal of hot-money flows, could pose a threat to Turkey’s sovereignty.

Another major factor in steering Turkey toward an economic “soft landing” would be reining in the overheated growth of consumer credit, in part via a centralized credit rating system. Banks’ distribution of credit cards has grown out of control, but AKP is ignoring the risk and focusing only on the shaky economic growth fueled by the credit boomÑdemonstrating yet again that its current policies serve the well-being of the party more than the country. The struggles of Greece and Italy to rein in their debt serve as cautionary tales. An economic crisis at home, driven by a sudden reversal of hot-money flows, could pose a threat to Turkey’s sovereignty.

An economic crisis could bring a quick turnaround in the Turkish political climate, one for which opposition leaders should be prepared. Picking up the pieces of AKP’s failed economic policies would be a difficult task, but it is one that Turkey’s leaders will likely not be able to avoid.

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