Back to basics: Former Turkish central bankers on avoiding crisis

Veterans of Turkey’s central bank have advice for today’s policymakers: Raise interest rates now and keep it simple.

A street vendor waits for customers near the Spice Market also known as the Egyptian Bazaar as the outbreak of the coronavirus continues in Istanbul, Turkey, which last week ratings agency Moody's said is headed towards a balance-of-payments crisis [File: Umit Bektas/Reuters]

Veterans of Turkey’s central bank have some advice for today’s policymakers who are on the front lines of Ankara’s unorthodox battle against a record-low lira and the economic effect of coronavirus: Raise interest rates now and get back to basics.

Four former policymakers, including a governor, told the Reuters news agency the bank must win back some credibility by moving to wrestle inflation down to target for the first time in nearly 10 years.

The first step in heading off a possible crisis, they said, is setting aside back-door policy tools and using a meeting next week to formally raise the benchmark policy rate. That could slow a 20 percent drop in the lira which has put it among this year’s worst-performing currencies.

Analysts say a rate increase is unlikely, especially given President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s repeated calls for cheaper credit and the sacking last summer of the previous central bank chief for ignoring instructions.

Under new Governor Murat Uysal, the bank slashed rates to 8.25 percent from 24 percent in less than a year, and has held them there since May.

“The trend is going toward a one-man rule, so talking about central bank independence is absurd right now,” said Bulent Gultekin, governor in 1993 and now a professor at The Wharton School in Philadelphia.

Istanbul 2
A man checks his receipt after changing money at a currency exchange office in Istanbul, Turkey [File: Murad Sezer/Reuters]

“The central bank cannot alone reform overall Turkish economic policy. But in the meantime they can gain some time by raising rates to ensure, for now, there is no panic.”

The bank did not immediately comment. Governor Uysal previously said the bank has policy independence and policy is in line with projections that inflation will soon start to slow.

Extraordinary tools 

Turkey’s currency touched an all-time low this week beyond 7.5 to the US dollar, keeping imports expensive and inflation near 12 percent despite a sharp economic slowdown due to the coronavirus.

Analysts say the selloff has laid bare the limits of Turkey’s costly interventions in foreign exchange (FX) markets to stabilise the lira. They calculate the central bank and state banks have sold some $120bn in dollars since last year.

The interventions have played a role this year in nearly halving gross FX reserves at the central bank, which has also bought record amounts of government bonds to backstop Ankara’s fiscal response to the pandemic.

Hakan Kara, who was the bank’s chief economist until last year, said extraordinary tools such as interventions and tweaks to required reserves have been over-used and are now blunted.

“These should not be a substitute for the fundamental instrument, the policy rate,” he said, adding the bank needs to “break the spiral” of confidence among citizens and investors.

Only two of six economists polled by Reuters expect a rate increase next week, while they are split on whether one will come by year-end.

Istanbul, Turkey
The business and financial district of Levent, which comprises banks’ headquarters and popular shopping malls, in Istanbul, Turkey [File: Murad Sezer/Reuters]

Uysal has said policy reflects expectations inflation will soon dip and reserves naturally fluctuate. Finance minister Berat Albayrak – Erdogan’s son-in-law – said the bank sometimes intervenes to stabilise the currency, and that exporters benefit from some depreciation.

Crisis warning 

This month, the lira has held mostly flat, thanks in part to indirect steps to tighten credit that have raised average funding costs to 10.3 percent from 7.3 percent in two months.

Yet last week ratings agency Moody’s said Turkey is headed towards a balance-of-payments crisis and noted the central bank’s “unsuccessful attempts to defend the lira” have cut its buffer down to lows not seen in decades.

Fatih Ozatay, a central bank vice president from 2001 to 2006, said reserves would not be a problem if the lira were free-floating and economic policy was on the right track.

“If there is a need for fixing, it is not only the duty of the central bank,” he said. “I’d prefer a direct increase in the policy rate instead of raising the average funding rate.”

Another former policymaker, Ibrahim Turhan, who has since helped found the opposition Future Party, said the competence and independence of the bank has eroded since 2016 when annual inflation last dipped below 7 percent, near its 5 percent target.

“There can be no inflation without the central bank’s permission,” he said. “It has to regain its independence before anything else.”

Source: Reuters