Turkey heads for its next crisis after the lira plunges by 15%

Turkey sacked its central bank governor after just four months in the job, sending the lira down by 15% against the dollar and stocks down by 9%.  

Which building boasts the world’s “fastest revolving doors”? asks The Economist. Turkey’s central bank is surely a contender. Three governors have been fired in less than two years by capricious president Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Naci Agbal, the latest boss, was removed at the weekend after just four months in the job. That sent the Turkish lira plunging by 15% against the dollar. Turkish stocks tumbled by 9%.  

Agbal’s sin was to have raised interest rates, a big no-no with Erdogan, who subscribes to the eccentric view that higher interest rates bring higher inflation (all economists and analysts believe the opposite). Turkish inflation hit 15.6% last month, prompting Agbal to raise interest rates two percentage points to 19%.  

Turkey is not the only emerging market under pressure. Higher US Treasury bond yields have strengthened the dollar. That has prompted central banks from Brazil to Russia to hike interest rates in order to defend the value of their currencies. New Turkish central bank governor Sahap Kavcioglu, an Erdogan ally, looks poised to reverse Agbal’s interest-rate hikes next month. That reduces the lira’s appeal to investors, prompting them to sell it. 

This affair is a reminder of the importance of independent central banks, says John Authers on Bloomberg. There are many leaders with odd economic views, but most leave monetary policy to the experts. Autocractic Erdogan cannot resist the urge to meddle. 

A familiar script 

The next steps are predictable, says Phoenix Kalen of Societe Generale. Kavcioglu will first try to use the central bank’s dwindling currency reserves to defend the lira, “lose the currency battle with markets, and ultimately have to engage in emergency” interest-rate hikes, precisely what he wanted to avoid in the first place. Capital controls could also be in the pipeline. Expect “a vintage emerging markets crisis”. 

Trouble in one emerging market can quickly spread to others, notes Russ Mould of AJ Bell. When Malaysia imposed capital controls in 1998, global investors fled from other emerging markets for fear of similar measures. The turmoil rippled worldwide, sending the FTSE into a bear market. 

Other big emerging markets look better insulated this time, says William Jackson of Capital Economics. All appear to have the currency reserves they need to ward off a crisis, leaving Turkey as a struggling outlier. Foreign investors have also learnt their lesson from the 2018 lira crisis: non-resident holdings of Turkish assets have fallen by half in dollar terms since then. That reduces the odds that trouble in Turkey will spread beyond its borders. The latest bout of erratic policymaking is bad news for Turkey. A weaker lira will bring higher inflation; the banking sector looks to be in trouble. But it should have a “limited” impact further afield. 

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