Turkey’s lira crisis: How bad can it get?

A money changer counts Turkish lira banknotes at a currency exchange office in Istanbul. (AFP)
Updated 15 August 2018

Turkey’s lira crisis: How bad can it get?

  • Relations with US turn increasingly sour
  • Selling pushes lira to five to the dollar

ISTANBUL: Three, four, five, six… What next?
Turks have over the last half decade counted the rapid depreciation of the Turkish lira on the screens outside doviz (exchange) booths with a mixture of bewilderment, alarm and ironic amusement.
The currency had spent much of 2014 hovering at just over two to the dollar but broke through the three mark for the first time after the 2016 failed coup bid and then slid to four earlier this year.
But the haemorrhaging reached an unprecedented intensity in the last weeks as Turkey’s ties with the US strained further and markets questioned their trust in Turkish policymakers, pushing the currency to five against the dollar.
A new bout of selling Friday on increased strains with the US forced the lira over six against the dollar for the first time, with the currency at one point shredding a quarter of its value in a single day.
Economists say that while the government may be tempted to muddle through the current situation in the hope the external and economic background improves, the lira’s fall harbors considerable dangers for the economy, in particular the banking system.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s current dash for growth coupled with unorthodox pronouncements on monetary policy — including that lower rates can bring down inflation — have put him on a collision course with markets.
The central bank, nominally independent but never defying Erdogan, appears to have abandoned the conventional monetary policy of using rates hikes as a tool to support the currency and bring down inflation.
Erdogan’s “tight grip” on the central bank and the fact “higher interest rates do no fit with Turkey’s economic growth strategy” meant that the central bank has kept interest rates on hold, Nora Neuteboom, economist at ABN Amro, told AFP.
“Erdogan’s aim is to improve the economic position of households,” she said, adding the government wanted to “keep the music playing” even as external and internal imbalances grow.
After his June 24 election victory, Erdogan put his son-in-law Berat Albayrak in charge of a newly expanded finance ministry while a new presidential system did away with the office of prime minister, whose last incumbent Binali Yildirim had on occasion urged caution in economic policy.
The new system also increased Erdogan’s control over the central bank, which on July 24 baffled markets by leaving rates unchanged despite inflation that in July came in at 15.85 percent.
“The markets have lost confidence in the triumvirate of President Erdogan, his son-in-law as finance minister and the Turkish Central Bank’s ability to act as it needs to,” said Charles Robertson, global chief economist at Renaissance Capital.
According to the Capital Economics consultancy, the plunge in the lira risks putting further pressure on the banking sector in Turkey due to the scale of the credit boom and one third of bank lending being denominated in foreign currencies.
“If some of these vulnerabilities crystalize they could tip the economy into a full blown crisis,” said its economist Yasemin Engin.
US investment bank Goldman Sachs alarmed investors with an assessment that a further drop in the lira to 7.1 to the dollar “could largely erode” the excess capital of Turkish banks.
As the lira tumbled in value — with no breakthrough in sight in the impasse with the US, sparked by the jailing of American pastor Andrew Brunson — the government has remained sanguine with few comments aimed at rallying markets.
The issue has also largely stayed off the front pages of mainstream Turkish newspapers, where critical Turkish economists are given little space, leaving social media as the main forum of debate.
“The pro-government media is diverting attention by showing movies and series,” complained Mustafa outside an exchange booth close to Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar.
The external value of the lira is not a prime concern of Erdogan’s core supporters, many of whom have no plans for foreign holidays and readily accept government rhetoric that economic problems are caused by outsiders seeking to weaken Turkey.
“I have full confidence in this government, I’m sure it will find a way out and reverse the trend,” said Erdogan supporter Sabahattin.
Should the woes of the lira risk feeding into a widescale economic crisis, the government still has levers at its disposal.
It could impose capital controls on forex transfers or even call on the IMF for bailout help, although economists regard the former an extreme measure with only marginal probability and the latter unlikely given one of Erdogan’s proudest achievements was paying off all of Turkey’s IMF debt in 2013.
But he could also swallow his pride and allow the central bank to make an emergency rate hike as it did on May 23 one month ahead of the elections, when a 300 basis points hike in the headline rate was announced.
“Erdogan is pragmatic,” commented Neuteboom.
“And if the situation continues to deteriorate and the lira depreciation and high inflation have a too big an impact on the economic situation — and that is what it looks like right now — he will in the end give in.”


Apple embarks on EU court battle over 13-billion-euro tax bill

Updated 1 min 40 sec ago

Apple embarks on EU court battle over 13-billion-euro tax bill

  • he EU accuses Apple of parking untaxed revenue earned in Europe, Africa, the Middle East and India, in Ireland,
  • Apple fiercely denies the tax bill. The US government also insists the order by Brussels constitutes a major breach of international tax law

LUXEMBOURG: Apple embarks on an epic court battle with the EU on Tuesday, fighting the commission’s landmark order that the iPhone-maker reimburse Ireland 13 billion euros ($14 billion) in back taxes.
Lawyers for the world’s biggest company will face EU officials in a Luxembourg court, challenging a decision that CEO Tim Cook slammed at the time as “total political crap.”
The European Commission’s conclusion was delivered in August 2016 by Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager, a shock decision that put Europe at the forefront of an emerging effort to rein in the power of US big tech.
The two days of hearings on Tuesday and Wednesday will take place at the EU’s lower General Court, where judges will give their judgment no earlier than 2020.
Any appeal would then go the EU’s highest court, the European Court of Justice, for a final decision that could land as late as 2021.
The EU accuses Apple of parking untaxed revenue earned in Europe, Africa, the Middle East and India, in Ireland, which has emerged as a European hub for big tech and global pharma giants.
This privilege allegedly gave Apple an advantage over other companies, allowing it to avoid taxes between 2003 and 2014 of around 13 billion euros which, according to Brussels, constituted illegal “state aid” by Ireland.
Apple fiercely denies the tax bill. The US government also insists the order by Brussels constitutes a major breach of international tax law.
“The European Commission has tried to rewrite Apple’s history in Europe, to ignore Ireland’s tax laws and, in doing so, to disrupt the international tax system,” Tim Cook said in an open letter in 2016.
The group insists that it is in the United States, where the company invests in research and development and thus creates wealth, that it must pay taxes on the revenue in question.
This became possible after a major tax overhaul in the US at the end of 2017 that allowed Apple to repatriate profits made abroad. Apple has promised to pay Washington a tax bill of $37 billion, in addition to the taxes already paid in the United States.
The California-based giant is supported in its fight by Ireland which has also appealed, refusing to be singled out as a tax haven.
“We will present a very strong case,” promised Irish Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe on Friday.
The two days of hearings are taking place in a tense trade context between the EU and the United States where President Donald Trump accuses Europeans of deliberately attacking American technology giants.
The EU’s Competition supremo, Vestager, is in particular accused by the US president of “hating” the US. He has slammed her as the “tax lady” because of the investigations and heavy fines imposed on US groups such as Google.
Pending the conclusion of the case, Apple has blocked the funds in an escrow account: a total of 14.3 billion euros, after interest.
The group, which has been present in Ireland since the 1980s, employs around 6,000 people in Cork, the country’s second-largest city.
The first signs of how the Apple case may finish will come as early as September 24 when the General Court will rule on whether the EU was right to demand unpaid taxes from Starbucks and a unit of Fiat Chrysler.