Erdogan economics pushing lira to cliff edge

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has become the source of the country’s economic woes.

Once known as a fiery, but uktimately prudent politician who drove economic reform and Turkey’s bid for membership of the European Union, Erdogan is now a liability.

If one were to draw a price graph, in which Erdogan’s behavior was plotted on the horizontal axis versus the depreciation of the lira on the vertical, one would see a curve that is bending skywards at an ever-increasing rate.

Just as a stock market can be seen as a measure of human development in the long term, a currency is a barometer of confidence in the country’s economy. A currency that gains in value does so because of an improvement in the collective psychology of a currency’s holders.

When a political leader increases his power over a country, its politics and economy, so, consequently, does that person’s performance become the main reference point when deciding, as a saver or investor, whether to hold that country’s currency or not.

Whereas Erdogan once entrusted strong political allies to help him run Turkey – Ali Babacan for the economy, Abdullah Gul in foreign policy for example – he is now attempting to rule it alone. Parliament has been sidelined, emergency rule is in place and the presidential palace in Ankara is filled with advisers that adhere to his skewed view of the world. There is hardly a minister who doesn’t wear an Erdogan moustache.

And, unsurprisingly, the lira is tanking.

The currency reached a record low of 3.98 per dollar on Tuesday. Lira futures -- contracts to exchange lira for dollars at a fixed rate on a specified date -- show that investors expect the currency to slide to 4.08 per dollar in March, 4.2 in June and almost 4.6 by December next year, according to data from CME Group. The December 2018 contracts were trading at 3.86 liras per dollar just two months ago.

Turkish lira December 2018 futures contracts (Source: CME Group)

Erdogan, known as a control freak even in his early years as prime minister – he would call ministers in the middle of the night to ‘confer’ on policy, now has the country in his hands. A referendum on presidential powers last year, won controversially, has seen to that.

But now he is micro-managing more than ever. Fear, an authoritarian’s weapon of choice, has rendered virtually every other policymaker in the country impotent and dependent. Including the foreign ministry – its history still a source of pride for the average Turk – and the central bank, made independent by Erdogan during his early years in power.

And policy-making, once focused on furthering Turkey’s national interests both at home and abroad, is now wielded at Erdogan’s personal whim. In Erdoganistan, the country’s national interests are, in his very words, inexorably intertwined with his own. An attack on himself is an attack on the country as a whole. Period.

So, when Reza Zarrab, an Iranian-Turkish gold-trader with close business ties to Erdogan’s inner circle, was arrested in Miami on a family trip to Disneyland last year, Turkey made it national policy to get him freed.

So much so, that the foreign ministry sent diplomatic notes to the State Department last week demanding to know where Zarrab was and whether he was in good health. His disappearance from court documents and a lockup in Manhattan strongly suggest that he has turned state’s witness. Prosecution evidence assets that Erdogan’s former economy minister and a senior executive of a state-run bank in a money-laundering scheme to break U.S. sanctions on Iran.

And when it comes to economic policy, Erdogan’s interests and views dominate. Those interests are focused on construction and real estate – feeding an industry that both satisfies his ego for “mega projects” aimed at leaving his mark on history, and driving economic growth through a system of often-opaque state tenders and land deals awarded to his business allies.

In order to feed this machine, Erdogan is demanding that interest rates are kept down, despite double-digit inflation and the lira’s ever-sharpening trajectory. Higher interest rates, which would go some way to halting the lira’s recent losses, will merely serve to cause more inflation, not less, he maintains.

But, as Cemil Ertem, Erdogan’s chief economic adviser, said on Tuesday, the president’s motivations go far beyond domestic economics.

Erdogan, as Ertem wrote in Milliyet, sees interest, and its alleged impact on inflation, as a tool of Western powers to keep countries such as Turkey on a leash -- Bretton Woods, Thatcherism, Reaganomics, the Fed under Paul Volcker, all apparently show how interest rates were used as a weapon of the powerful.

Those days are now gone, Ertem maintained, just as, thanks to Erdogan, the era in which five countries rule the world via the U.N. Security Council is coming to a close.