Turks urged to buy plunging lira after US doubles tariffs

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (right) has remained defiant in the face of pressure from US President Donald Trump.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (right) has remained defiant in the face of pressure from US President Donald Trump.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Erdogan's defiant speech comes as Trump acts to punish Turkey in growing dispute

ISTANBUL/ANKARA • President Recep Tayyip Erdogan told Turks yesterday to exchange gold and the greenback into lira, with the country's currency in free fall after US President Donald Trump turned the screws on Ankara by doubling tariffs on metal imports.

The lira has been falling on worries about Mr Erdogan's influence over monetary policy and worsening relations with the United States.

That turned into a rout yesterday, with the lira diving more than 18 per cent on the day and more than 40 per cent this year to a new record low after Mr Trump took steps to punish Turkey in a wide-ranging dispute.

Mr Trump said he had authorised higher tariffs on imports from Turkey, imposing a 20 per cent duty on aluminium and 50 per cent on steel. The lira, he noted on Twitter, "slides rapidly downward against our very strong Dollar!" "Our relations with Turkey are not good at this time!" he said in an early morning post yesterday.

While Turkey and the US are at odds over a host of issues, the most pressing disagreement has been over the detention of US citizens in Turkey, notably Christian pastor Andrew Brunson who is on trial on terrorism charges.

A delegation of Turkish officials held talks with their counterparts in Washington this week but there was no sign of a breakthrough.

NATIONAL CRISIS

If there is anyone who has dollars or gold under their pillows, they should go exchange it for liras at our banks. This is a national, domestic battle.

PRESIDENT RECEP TAYYIP ERDOGAN

Waves from the crisis spread abroad, with investors selling off shares in European banks with large exposure to the Turkish economy. The lira sell-off has deepened concern, particularly about whether over-indebted firms will be able to pay back loans taken out in euros and US dollars after years of overseas borrowing to fund a construction boom under Mr Erdogan.

The Turkish leader's characteristic defiance in the face of the crisis has further unnerved investors. Mr Erdogan, who alleges a shadowy "interest rate lobby" and Western credit rating agencies are attempting to bring down Turkey's economy, appealed to Turks' patriotism.

"If there is anyone who has dollars or gold under their pillows, they should go exchange it for liras at our banks. This is a national, domestic battle," he told a crowd in the north-eastern city of Bayburt.

"This will be my people's response to those who have waged an economic war against us," he said, before assuring the crowd: "The dollar cannot block our path. Don't worry."

That is unlikely to mollify investors who are also worried by the growing dispute with the US. The tensions with Washington have, for investors, underscored Turkey's authoritarian trajectory under Mr Erdogan.

"The basic reason the exchange rate has gone off the rails is that confidence in the management of the economy has disappeared both domestically and abroad," said prominent economist Seyfettin Gursel, a professor at Turkey's Bahcesehir University.

"First of all, confidence needs to be regained. It is obvious how it will be done: since the final decision-maker of all policies in the new regime is the president, the responsibility of regaining confidence is on his shoulders."

Turkey's sovereign dollar-denominated bonds tumbled, with many issues trading at record lows. Hard currency debt issued by Turkish banks suffered similar falls. Meanwhile. the cost of insuring exposure to Turkey's sovereign debt through five-year credit default swaps has spiralled to the highest level since March 2009, topping levels seen for serial defaulter Greece, which has had three bailouts in the last decade.

The lira's relentless depreciation drives up the cost of imported goods from fuel to food for ordinary Turks. New Finance Minister Berat Albayrak - Mr Erdogan's son-in-law - acknowledged that the central bank's independence was critical for the economy, promising stronger budget discipline and a priority on structural reforms.

Presenting the government's new economic model, he said the next steps of rebalancing would entail lowering the current account deficit and improving trust. There would be a transformation in the finance ministry with regards to taxation, he said. However, this did nothing to revive the currency.

"The tweet is mightier than the Turkish sword," Mr Cristian Maggio, head of emerging markets strategy at TD Securities, said in a note to clients. "Albayrak's plan was uninspiring at best."

REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 11, 2018, with the headline 'Turks urged to buy plunging lira after US doubles tariffs'. Print Edition | Subscribe