What went wrong for Turkey? Its economy is 'in the midst of a perfect storm'

The free fall in the Turkish lira has stoked fears of an economic fallout that could spill over into other emerging markets and the banking systems in Europe.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan blamed the plunge in the currency on “an operation against Turkey” and dismissed suggestions that the country’s economy was facing troubles. But strategists from J.P. Morgan Asset Management said the NATO member has found itself “in the midst of a perfect storm” of worsening financial conditions, shaky investor sentiment, inadequate management of the economy and tariff threats from the U.S.

“Turkish assets have been under severe pressure,” the strategists wrote in a Friday note. “While Turkey makes up a small percentage of the global economy and financial markets, investors are worried about the issues in Turkey causing damage in other markets around the world, particularly Europe.”

In the immediate term, policy decisions out of Washington have sparked Turkey’s currency crash: The lira plunged as much as 20 percent against the dollar on Friday after President Donald Trump said he approved doubling metals tariffs on Ankara. But the cracks in Turkey’s economic foundation were already spreading before the American president made his move.

Turkey has in recent years been one of the fastest-growing economies in the world, even outperforming economic giants China and India last year. In the second quarter of 2018, the country reported 7.22 percent growth in its gross domestic product.

That expansion, however, was fueled by foreign-currency debt, analysts said. At a time when central banks around the world were pumping money to stimulate their economies after the global financial crisis, Turkish banks and companies were racking up debt denominated in U.S. dollars, they said.

That borrowing, which fueled consumption and spending, resulted in Turkey running deficits in both its fiscal and current accounts. The former happens when government spending exceeds revenue, while the latter essentially means a country buys more goods and services than it sells.

The country’s foreign currency debt now stands at more than 50 percent of its GDP, according to estimates by the International Monetary Fund.

Turkey is not the only economy with “twin” deficits and high amounts of foreign currency debt. Indonesia, for example, also runs fiscal and current account deficits and its foreign currency borrowing is roughly 30 percent of GDP.

But unlike Indonesia, Turkey doesn’t have large enough reserves to rescue the economy when things go wrong, said Richard Briggs, an analyst from research firm CreditSights.

According to Briggs, Turkey’s reserves are notably low compared to its $181 billion in short-term debt denominated in currencies other than the lira. On top of that, much of the foreign currency in Turkey is held by banks, and those funds could be withdrawn by customers, he added.

That means when the lira falls, Turkey may not be able to buy up its currency to prevent it from spiraling further. If that situation worsens, the country would have to find other ways to finance its debt, including possibly getting bailed out by the International Monetary Fund.

To many analysts, Turkey wouldn’t have gotten into the current predicament if its central bank had been left to do its job.

The Turkish economy has been “overheating” with inflation — at 16 percent in July — way exceeding the central bank’s target of 5 percent. Raising interest rates could have helped to stem such a massive increase in consumer prices: Higher rates tend to attract foreign investors, who would need the lira to buy Turkish assets. That could in turn support the currency, which makes imports cheaper and lessens the burden of paying back foreign debt.

But Erdogan has said he’s in favor of lower interest rates to continue driving growth. His influence over the country’s central bank has undermined investor confidence, experts have said.

“President Erdogan continues to prioritize growth and lower rates which will extend the current crisis, rather than allowing the economy to rebalance. He is here to stay, and markets don’t have confidence in him. That’s a dangerous mix,” Briggs wrote.

Without raising interest rates, Turkey has few other options to get out of its economic problems, said Eric Robertsen, global head for foreign exchange, rates and credit research at Standard Chartered Bank.

Turkey earlier said it was limiting banks’ foreign exchange swap transactions but it wasn’t implementing capital controls. Those measures are merely “baby steps” and won’t do much unless interest rates are raised, Robertsen told CNBC’s “Squawk Box.”

“The interest rates policy is kind of the critical line of defense,” he said. “What they have to do is make sure that currency doesn’t leave the country in a full-fledged capital flight … it has to be a combination of currency measures and interest rates, there’s no way around that.”

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