A Credit-fuelled Economic Recovery Stores Up Trouble for Turkey

Turkey is repeating the mistakes that led to the 2018 lira crisis and another freefall for the currency may not be far off.

Expert comment Published 17 February 2020 Updated 3 February 2023 2 minute READ

Fadi Hakura

Former Consulting Fellow, Europe Programme

Headquarters of the Central Bank of the Republic of Turkey. Photo: Getty Images.

Headquarters of the Central Bank of the Republic of Turkey. Photo: Getty Images.

Since the 2018 economic crisis, when the value of the lira plummeted and borrowing costs soared, Turkey’s economy has achieved a miraculous ‘V-shaped’ economic recovery from a recession lasting three quarters to a return back to quarterly growth above 1 per cent in the first three months of 2019.

But this quick turnaround has been built on vast amounts of cheap credit used to re-stimulate a consumption and construction boom. This so-called ‘triple C’ economy generated a rapid growth spurt akin to a modestly able professional sprinter injected with steroids.

This has made the currency vulnerable. The lira has steadily depreciated by 11 per cent against the US dollar since the beginning of 2019 and crossed the rate of 6 lira versus the US dollar on 7 February. And there are further warning signs on the horizon.

Credit bonanza

Statistics reveal that Turkish domestic credit grew by around 13 per cent on average throughout 2019. The credit bonanza is still ongoing. Mortgage-backed home sales jumped by a record high of 600 per cent last December alone and the 2019 budget deficit catapulted by 70 per cent due to higher government spending.

Turkey’s central bank fuelled this credit expansion by cutting interest rates aggressively to below inflation and, since the start of this year, purchasing lira-denominated bonds equivalent to around one-third of total acquisitions last year to push yields lower.

Equally, it has linked bank lending to reserve requirements – the money that banks have to keep at the central bank – to boost borrowings via state and private banks. Banks with a ‘real’ loan growth (including inflation) of between 5 and 15 per cent enjoy a 2 per cent reserve ratio on most lira deposits, which authorities adjusted from an earlier band of 10-20 per cent that did not consider double-digit inflation.

Cumulatively, bond purchases (effectively quantitative easing) and reserve management policies have also contributed to eased credit conditions.

Commercial banks have also reduced deposit rates on lira accounts to less than inflation to encourage consumption over saving. Together with low lending rates, the boost to the economy has flowed via mortgages, credit card loans, vehicle leasing transactions and general business borrowings.

Accordingly, stimulus is at the forefront of the government’s economic approach, as it was in 2017 and 2018. It does not seem to be implementing structural change to re-orient growth away from consumption towards productivity.

In addition, governance is, again, a central issue. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s near total monopolization of policymaking means he guides all domestic and external policies. He forced out the previous central bank governor, Murat Cetinkaya, in July 2019 because he did not share the president’s desire for an accelerated pace of interest rate reductions.

New challenges

Despite the similarities, the expected future financial turbulence will be materially different from its 2018 predecessor in four crucial respects.

Firstly, foreign investors will only be marginally involved. Turkey has shut out foreign investors since 2018 from lira-denominated assets by restricting lira swap arrangements. Unsurprisingly, the non-resident holdings of lira bonds has plummeted from 20 per cent in 2018 to less than 10 per cent today.

Secondly, the Turkish government has recently introduced indirect domestic capital controls by constraining most commercial transactions to the lira rather than to the US dollar or euro to reduce foreign currency demand in light of short-term external debt obligations of $191 billion.

Thirdly, the Turkish state banks are intervening quite regularly to soften Lira volatility, thereby transitioning from a ‘free float’ to a ‘managed float’. So far, they have spent over $37 billion over the last two years in a futile effort to buttress the lira. This level of involvement in currency markets cannot be maintained.

Fourthly, the Turkish state is being far more interventionist in the Turkish stock exchange and bond markets to keep asset prices elevated. Government-controlled local funds have participated in the Borsa Istanbul and state banks in sovereign debt to sustain rallies or reverse a bear market.

All these measures have one running idea: exclude foreign investors and no crisis will recur. Yet, when the credit boom heads to a downturn sooner or later, Turks will probably escalate lira conversions to US dollars; 51 per cent of all Turkish bank deposits are already dollar-denominated and the figure is still rising.

If Turkey’s limited foreign reserves cannot satisfy the domestic dollar demand, the government may have to impose comprehensive capital controls and allow for a double digit depreciation in the value of the lira to from its current level, with significant repercussions on Turkey’s political stability and economic climate.

To avoid this scenario, it needs to restore fiscal and monetary prudence, deal the with the foreign debt overhang in the private sector and focus on productivity-improving economic and institutional reforms to gain the confidence of global financial markets and Turks alike.