Econ 101: Erdogan’s Turkey

President Erdogan believes that by cutting interest rates on the Turkish lira the resulting depreciation of its exchange rate will cheapen Turkish goods and thus increase their exports and promote growth (the China model, he thinks). Accordingly, he has replaced four central bank governors who could not bring themselves to accede to his demands. “Revolving door-Turkeys-last-four-central-bank-chiefs”

In an earlier disastrous cycle, the Central Bank of Turkey (CBT) reduced its policy rate from 24% in 2019 in steps to 8.5% in mid 2020 only to raise it again to 19% in March 2021 until the latest cuts started in September of this years. In November, “The Monetary Policy Committee (MPC) has decided to reduce the policy rate (one-week repo auction rate) from 15 percent to 14 percent.” “Press Releases/2021/ANO2021-59”  

When I was part of the IMF team in 2000-1 working with the Turkish authorities to regain control of inflation (which ranged from 60 and 100 percent between 1980 and 1999) and clean up the banking sector (they closed 13 banks in 2000), the CBT policy interest rate was briefly raised to 100% (ala Paul Volcker in the US). Inflation declined rapidly to single digit levels (until the last four years) with interest rates quickly following.

The dollar price of the Turkish lira has fallen in half since February of this year (i.e., a dollar will buy twice as many lira–one lira cost 0.14 dollars in February and 0.061 dollar on December 17).  Erdogan seems to think he is choosing to benefit workers (exporters) over consumers (importer), though they are generally the same people.  If the lira depreciates, the rest of the world can buy lira more cheaply and thus (according to Erdogan) will buy more cheaper Turkish exports. This should increase the demand for Turkish good and the jobs that produce them and increase the growth of the Turkish economy.

As any economist can explain to Mr. Erdogan, depreciating the exchange rate with lower interest rates in Turkey than in the rest of the world is achieved by printing more money with which to buy foreign currencies. Broad money (M2) increased almost 48% in November 2020 from a year earlier and 24% from a year earlier this November. But such a rapid increase in the money supply will increase prices in Turkey over and above the increase in the price of imports from the lira’s depreciation. “Turkey-central bank-Erdogan”

Inflation in Turkey has risen from single digits between 2004 to 2016 to “21.3%” in November 2021 (annual rate from a year earlier). According to the Central Banking Journal “Official figures show Turkish inflation reached 21.31% year-on-year in November, but there is considerable controversy over whether these figures are accurate. Several well-informed observers, have told Central Banking that they believe the official figures understate actual inflation.”  “Turkey’s currency hits new low after further rate cut”  Steve Hanke reports the actual rate at around 100%  “Steve Hanke’s estimate of Turkey’s inflation rate”

In short, Mr. Erdogan’s crazy policy of reducing interest rates has not made Turkish goods cheaper for the rest of the world. As the lira became cheaper for foreigners (depreciation), the lira price of those goods became more expensive (inflation). The real effective exchange rate (which takes account of both) is not being significantly reduced because Turkey is experiencing higher and higher inflation along with the lira’s depreciation. Monetary policy works in Turkey the same way as in every other place.  The CBT’s inflation target, by the way, is 5%. “Turkey-Erdogan currency crisis”

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.

The Levant

President Obama has announced his strategy for dealing with the Islamic State (a.k.a. the ISIL—Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant). Does it make sense? In thinking about the answer to that question, consider Kevin Lees’ thoughtful assessment — five-thoughts-on-obama’s-isis-announcement – some reflections by Daniel Drezner– four-questions-about-obamas-isil-strategy and the following fantasy.

In order to kill all 28,000 ISIL fighters now in Iraq the United States and its allies Saudi Arabia, UAE, Jordan, Turkey and, dare I say, Iran, deploy 50,000, 100,000, 150,000 (whatever it takes) ground troops in the region (which includes, of course, Syria). These are augmented by U.S. logistical support (intelligence, aerial bombing, weapons, ammunition, and other supplies etc.). Leave aside the detail that their involvement in Iraq would be at the request of the government of Iraq, while their involvement in Syria would constitute war against the government of Syria. They succeed fully. Then what? Countering-islamic-state-will-be-hard-in-iraq-and-harder-in-syria-officials-say/2014/09/10/

The key question is whether a fully successful, foreign led military assault will result in or lead to a sufficiently strong Iraqi army to defend the country going forward, and in Syria I am not sure what, and that the ethnic/religious groups within Iraq and Syria will have, or soon be able to, resolve their governance issues sufficiently to function effectively as countries. Experience with foreign intervention in civil wars (e.g., Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Iraq in 2004) suggests that progress toward resolving internal issues is suspended as foreigners take over the fighting. Moreover the foreign liberators quickly become foreign occupiers and thus targets of unhappy citizens—if not the ISIL fighters, then their successors.

In that likely case, the United States and its allies will need to govern Iraq and Syria for a few years until local institutions and political forces develop sufficiently to take over self-governance. We did this before in Iraq from 2003-5, with the Coalition Provisional Authority of which I was a part (Senior Monetary Policy Adviser to the Central Bank of Iraq). While some useful institution building was accomplished, the overall effort was a failure, with Iraq’s governance under al-Maliki about where it was in 2004 or worse. Do we really want to try it again?

Aside from deep concerns about war with Syria, I think that President Obama’s strategy as outlined yesterday (Sept 10) is about right if not a bit overly aggressive. Iraq will not address and resolve its internal issues unless they do the fighting to defend their country, working out and making the compromises needed for peace and cooperation among its Sunni, Shia, and Kurdish populations. Limited, non-combat assistance from the U.S. and others can make a large difference, but it is and must remain Iraq’s war. To my taste Obama is leading a bit too much from the front when he should be leading from behind, but he has so far set out a strategy that could work. I hope that he sticks to it.