The Turkish people should be familiar with the currency crisis now rocking their country. It is not as if they haven’t seen this film before – lots of times. During the un-lamented 1990s the country was plagued with serial economically illiterate and incompetent governments while inflation soared and the currency melted like ice cream in July. After each bout of near-100% inflation whatever government was in charge – and there were many -- would sheepishly head for the IMF to arrange a bail-out. After pledging absolute obedience to the IMF rules the government would take the money, quickly forget its earlier pledges, and the merry-go-round would start again.
Turkish merchants and businessmen are very clever indeed, and they quickly adapted their operations to the economic realities they faced. Many merchants and hotels simply gave up on the Turkish Lira and began pricing in dollars and Euros. This is still true. The standing joke was that the busiest person in a supermarket was the employee who had to run around the aisles adjusting prices. Tourists used to marvel at becoming instant millionaires when they exchanged their hard currency for the pillow-soft Turkish Lira.
This merry-go-round ended abruptly in 2001 when the currency and interest rates exploded out of control. By this time the people were well and truly fed up with the situation. As soon as they got the chance they voted overwhelmingly for the Justice and Development Party (AKP) by itself to replace the hapless coalition governments that had disastrously mismanaged the economy.
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Now, after almost 17 years of relative stability under a single-party government the country finds itself paying the price for economic follies that had been covered up for years by the global environment of ultra-low interest rates and generous liquidity. Turkish companies loaded up on what was then cheap foreign currency debt, the country benefitted from low oil prices, and relatively cheaper imports began to replace domestic goods. Despite worries about a widening current account deficit the country did not have much trouble rolling over the roughly $250 billion in annual debt re-payments.
That has all changed within the last year. Suddenly cracks appeared in what once seemed like Turkey’s strong economic foundation. Voices of concern about the country’s debt load grew louder, the current account deficit increased, oil prices began to rise (bad news for a country that has to import every drop of oil and every cubic meter of natural gas), inflation crept back into double digits, foreign direct investment dried up. The once-stable currency began to weaken, and those voices of concern grew louder. Finally, the hapless Central Bank screwed up the courage to raise interest rates. But not enough to support the currency.
Just like the 1990s you say. Surely the IMF will ride to the rescue and save Turkey from the consequences of its government’s policies. Not at all. This time is truly different. Foreign commentators regularly opine on what the Turkish government should or must do to stem the rout of the currency. Using those words should or must - dripping with righteous condescension – with this particular Turkish government is like waving a red flag in front of a bull. What, you ask, is so different this time? Plenty.
For openers, the structure of the Turkish government has changed from a parliamentary democracy to a presidential system where the president has supreme – and I mean supreme power. He alone makes all decisions. Ministers may have the power to order their own lunch, but that’s about all. And this president, Tayyip Erdoğan, is a supremely stubborn man with deep-seated – if very bizarre – views about the economy. For one thing, he hates interest rates and only very reluctantly allows the Central Bank to increase them. He has convinced himself – if no one else – that high interest rates create inflation. So much for classical economic theory. It’s also true that higher interest rates would hurt his heavily indebted economic allies in the construction business. But that’s another topic.
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Furthermore, because Erdoğan or his henchmen control virtually every media outlet in Turkey there is very little – if anything -- in the local media about the seriousness of the economic crisis. Erdoğan has successfully changed the narrative from his economic incompetence to the insidious attempts by foreign interests, a.k.a. Americans and ‘Zionists’, to undermine Turkey. Local media love to report how their glorious leader is standing up to American pressure to release the unfortunate American pastor now incarcerated on unspecified, unverified charges of helping the 2016 coup plotters. Trump has played right into Erdoğan’s narrative by slapping additional sanctions on Turkey for failure to release Pastor Brunson who – not incidentally – belongs to the same evangelical wing of the church as Vice President Pence. Furthermore, Trump needs the evangelicals to stay with him for the upcoming mid-term elections.
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In short, it is inconceivable that Erdoğan would resort to the IMF for help in this crisis. To do so would mean admitting his earlier policy errors and undermine his narrative about foreign plots against Turkey. This would amount to an unbearable humiliation. In addition, the IMF would undoubtedly impose conditions that are an anathema to Erdoğan’s ‘unique’ economic theories.
So what happens now? First, he will thrash around and plead with the Russians, Chinese, Qatar and anyone else who will listen for assistance. The Russians can’t – or won’t -- do anything. The Chinese are much too intelligent to get caught in that mess. And I’m not sure that even Qatar wants to get that deeply entangled. Then he could print money and ignore the ensuing inflation. Or he could impose capital controls and/or force conversion of the foreign currency bank accounts into Turkish Lira. Both of these steps would cripple the economy and send it back to pre-1980s when the Turkish economy was essentially closed. But Erdoğan could justify these moves by saying the country is in an ‘economic war’ and he has to impose these measures for national defence. Enough people would buy that rationale to keep him in power. Just look at how long Maduro has remained in power in Venezuela despite the economic disaster there.
Unlike 2001 there is not even the glimmer of political opposition to Erdoğan. The main opposition party CHP is busy eviscerating itself with internal feuds, and the nationalists are rallying around the flag. That leaves the Kurds, who are torn in several different directions. So Erdoğan is pretty much free to do what he wants. Unfortunately, the main losers will be the Turkish people who will suffer severe declines in income. But as long as Erdoğan can maintain the ‘evil foreigners’ narrative national pride will trump (as it were) economic realities.