Their Turkey and Ours

“Recep Tayyip Erdogan believes high interest rates are the cause of inflation, not the remedy for it”  The Economist May 19, 2018 “How-turkey-fell-from-investment-darling-to-junk-rated-emerging-market”

During the 1990s the inflation rate in Turkey averaged around 80% per annum varying between 60% and 105%.  Over that period interest rates on its 3-month treasury bills averaged about 30% above the inflation rate reaching almost 150% in 1996.  The economy grew rapidly in real terms with real GDP growth averaging 8% per annum between 1995-7.  But growth depended heavily on borrowing abroad in foreign currencies.  Banks were poorly regulated, and heavily exposed to foreign exchange risk and to government debt.  Obviously, Turkey’s nominal exchange rate depreciated at about the same rate as its inflation rate in order to preserve a stable real exchange rate.

In the wake of the Asian and Russian debt crises in 1997 and 1998 foreign investors became more risk averse and capital inflows into Turkey were reduced sharply slowing down economic growth from 7.5% in 1997 to 2.5% in 1998.  A serious earthquake in Turkey’s industrial heartland in August 1999 further deteriorated Turkey’s economic performance.  The combined impact of the two pushed the economy into a deep recession, shrinking GDP by 3.6% in 1999.

With support from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in 1999-2003 the Turkish government reigned in its spending and monetary growth and reduced its inflation rate to 10% by 2004. I was a member of the IMF’s Turkey team at that time and remember the long sleepless nights very well. Turkey’s interest rates followed inflation down and, in fact, its real interest rates (nominal interest rate minus its inflation rate) fell from 30% to negative rates as the economy stabilized. During this transition, a number of state owned enterprises were privatized, 18 insolvent banks were intervened, and debt and the financial sector were restructured and strengthened.  Within a few (rough) years the economy was growing rapidly with low inflation and low interest rates.  In 2017 real GDP grew 7.0% though inflation had crept back up to 11.1%.

Following Turkey’s and the rest of the world’s recession in 2009 the country reverted back to its bad old ways.  “Recep Tayyip Erdogan signed a decree easing access to foreign-exchange loans for Turkish companies.  The new rules lifted restrictions that barred companies without revenue in hard currencies from doing such borrowing—as long as the loans exceeded $5 million.”  How Erdogan’s push for endless growth brought Turkey to the Brink

Erdogan observed the low interest rates, low inflation, and high growth and apparently concluded that low interest rates caused low inflation rather than the other way around. Every economist knows that interest rates incorporate the market’s expectation of inflation over the period of a loan in order to establish a market clearing real rate of interest.  In 1996 when a borrower was willing to pay 130% interest and a lender was not willing to accept less it was because they expected 80% to 90% inflation per annum over the life of the loan.  The very high real rate (130% – 80% = 50%) reflects the risk premium of getting it wrong.

Central banks can, if inflation expectations adjust slowly, push real rates down temporarily by lowering nominal market rates below their equilibrium rate.  Doing so, however, increases the rate at which the money supply grows eventually increasing inflation and forcing nominal interest rates higher than they would otherwise have been.

Under political pressure from Erdogan, the central bank of Turkey has kept interest rates lower (and thus money supply growth greater) than are consistent with its inflation target of 5%.  In the last few years inflation has drifted up reaching 11.1% in 2017.  Markets have grown uneasy about the economic situation in Turkey and when the Central Bank failed to increase its policy interest rate last month from 17.75% investors began selling off Turkish bonds and withdrawing funds from the country.  Its exchange rate plummeted.  From January of this year the Turkish lira depreciated from 11.7 per dollar to 16 lira/USD at the beginning of July and to 21 lira/USD on the 22ndof August. Erdogan’s wrong-headed misunderstanding of the role of interest rates is pushing Turkey over the precipice of bankruptcy.

Meanwhile here in the United States, President Trump apparently attended the same school as Erdogan. After breaking a several decades old protocol against commenting on or interfering with the Federal Reserve’s monetary policy when he stated last month that he didn’t want to see the Fed increase its policy interest rate, he did it again a few days ago. “Trump-escalates-attacks-federal-reserve”  Trump’s advice is wrong. The Federal Reserve needs to continue raising its policy rate back toward normal levels (3% to 4%) before inflation momentum becomes any stronger. Real interest rates are still negative (less than the inflation rate).  The Fed should have started increasing rates several years earlier.

Trump and interest rates

There seems to be no norm or conventional wisdom that President Trump is not willing to overturn. Following Fed Chairman Powell’s congressional testimony Tuesday in which he confirmed the Fed’s intention to continue its gradual increase in its policy interest rate, Trump said: “I don’t like all of this work that we’re putting into the economy and then I see rates going up.”  The statement is wrong on multiple accounts.

The economy is now fully employed and interest rates probably should have been returned to normal some time ago.  The alarming current and projected fiscal deficits of the federal government will force interest rates and trade deficits still higher.  This is Trump’s fault– not Powell’s.  “Who pays uncle Sam’s deficits?”  The major policies threatening to undermine the economic boost from tax and regulatory reforms are Trump’s trade policies (pulling out of the Trans Pacific Partnership, stalling and threatening U.S. withdrawal from NAFTA, Steel and Aluminum tariffs (taxes) on our friends in Canada, Mexico and the EU, and a deepening trade war with China).  Leaving the TPP  Resisting the interest rate increases needed to keep inflation at 2% would increase the most regressive tax around (inflation).

But Presidential interference in implementing monetary policy, as is now being undertaken by President Erdoğan in Turkey, violates a long established principle and practice of central bank independence.  Historically, inflation, which falls heaviest on the poor and undermines economic efficiency and growth, has resulted primarily from governments turning to their central banks for financing in misguided and ultimately futile efforts to keep interest rates (government borrowing costs) low.

President Trump can save the economic benefits of his tax and regulatory reforms by rejoining the TPP, rapidly concluding amendments to NAFTA that improve productive efficiency and fairness, dropping the steel and aluminum tariffs, ending the trade war with China, joining with the EU, Canada, Japan and others to bring China into compliance with the rules of a strengthened WTO, and establishing a fiscal budget surplus primarily through entitlement reform.