Suspension of lira transactions by European banks hints at trouble to come

Suspension of lira transactions by European banks hints at trouble to come
People walk on the deserted Istiklal Street in Istanbulss, during a four-day curfew to prevent the spread of the coronavirus epidemic. (AFP)
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Updated 19 May 2020

Suspension of lira transactions by European banks hints at trouble to come

Suspension of lira transactions by European banks hints at trouble to come
  • Move comes after Ankara temporarily imposed similar bans on UBS, BNP Paribas and Citigroup

JEDDAH: Luxembourg-based Clearstream Banking and Belgium-based Euroclear Bank have jointly decided to suspend Turkish lira transactions over a shared electronic communications platform.

The decision is effective from May 18, according to a statement posted on Clearstream’s website.

The reason for the move was related to the liquidity restrictions on the lira due to the current coronavirus pandemic, Clearstream said in the statement. However, it recommended that its customers should maintain a buffer amount in their cash accounts in lira, and that they should monitor their securities settlements, trading on the Borsa Istanbul (Istanbul Stock Exchange) and cash transfer activity to prevent any failed transactions.

Orkun Saka, visiting fellow at London School of Economics and assistant professor of finance at University of Sussex, said it was not a good sign for international investors.

“However, it also depends on why these investors transact with Turkish financial markets. If the speculative players who simply trade Turkish lira to make profit from a possible crisis situation are discouraged by ‘sand in the wheels’ policies, it is not too bad for Turkey,” he told Arab News.

“On the other hand, if these regulations become permanent and start scaring investors who have productive capacity and intentions in the country, this could translate into a huge loss in the long term,” he added. Experts say the decision will make it more difficult for foreign investors to obtain and make transactions in lira. It is also a sign that the convertibility of Turkish lira might be at risk. Some financial analysts have also drawn attention to the possibility that Turkey might begin introducing capital controls to deflect the lira’s weakness, which would discourage external financing of the national economy.

The currency hit an all-time record low of 7.2 lira per US dollar on May 7.

On the same day, Turkish authorities introduced a transaction ban on BNP Paribas, Citigroup and UBS — a controversial move that was lifted after four days once they had all satisfied their liabilities with local banks.

The concerns over “speculative attacks” on the currency remain very fresh in the minds of Turkish officials.

Pro-government media accused unknown financial institutions of currency manipulation, while Turkish state-owned banks reportedly sold significant amounts of foreign currency recently in their battle to defend the currency against the dollar.

Last week, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan blamed the lira’s plunge on “those who think they can destroy our economy and corner us by exploiting financial institutions abroad.”

The volume of trading in lira has plummeted considerably as other foreign banks suspected further measures might be taken against them. For Saka, the recent ban on three foreign banks was a sign that Ankara will bring more regulations on capital flows to continue prioritizing a stable currency and low interest rates in the future.

“This will restrict the behavior of international investors bringing money in and out of the country. So far, the government has been temporarily applying these defense mechanisms to fend off speculation, but there is a risk that these may turn into permanent features of the Turkish financial markets,” he said.

In the meantime, the Turkish government is searching for funding from its allies to avoid a new currency crisis, similar to that of 2018, which increased unemployment and inflation rates.

Establishing currency swap lines with Japan and the UK, and expanding current facilities with China and Qatar, are reportedly on the table.

The government has also brought in stricter limits on local banks’ FX trading.

Saka noted that intervention policies, such as those applied by Turkey in 2018, are meant to be short-term, and that strict interventions are usually abandoned a few years after a crisis. “Let’s hope this will be the case for Turkey too,” he said.