By Orhan Coskun and Nevzat Devranoglu
ANKARA, Dec 7 – The Turkish government’s eleventh-hour rescheduling of a meeting of its economic team to include the president last month was another stark reminder for investors: when it comes to policy, Tayyip Erdogan likes to call the shots.
Erdogan’s drive for lower interest rates has rattled financial markets and, along with alarm about the crackdown after the July coup and a stronger dollar, contributed to the lira currency losing a fifth of its value this year.
Officials say this has widened a rift in the economic team between reformists who want more to be done to appease international investors – such as Deputy Prime Minister Mehmet Simsek and Finance Minister Naci Agbal – and populists such as Deputy Prime Minister Nurettin Canikli and Economy Minister Nihat Zeybekci.
Adding to the confusion is the central bank, which raised rates for the first time in nearly three years last month, despite Erdogan’s appeals.
“There isn’t complete harmony among the economic leadership. On one side, there are those who are attuned to the needs of the global economy and act as anchors for the markets. On the other, there are those who want more national economic policies,” a senior official from the ruling AK Party said.
“It seems Simsek and Agbal are anchors in the eyes of the markets, and they are crucial for the Turkish economy to be understood internationally.”
The party has relied on the economy’s strong growth as the pillar of its success. Divisions among its top ranks could not come at a more inopportune time, both for Turkey’s economic stability, and the party itself, as slowing growth and stubborn inflation risk undermine its achievements in the eyes of voters.
Officials at Simsek and Agbal’s offices were not immediately available for comment.
“The policy setting is not transparent,” said Dan Raghoonundon, an emerging markets portfolio manager at Janus Capital. “It’s very hard to know who is in charge and when markets don’t have transparency or visibility they tend to assume the worst.”
When Prime Minister Binali Yildirim, an Erdogan stalwart who is generally seen as being aligned with the populists, last month abruptly rescheduled a meeting of the Economic Coordination Committee (EKK), sources in his office cited a scheduling conflict.
However, some analysts saw the last-minute change as a move by Erdogan to stamp his authority on a meeting where weakness in the lira was due to be discussed.
Erdogan, who as president is supposed to be above party politics, does not normally attend meetings of the EKK. An official at the presidency said there was nothing unusual in his attendance at the rescheduled meeting.
“The economy is very important and President Erdogan just wanted to discuss the latest developments and measures. Such a meeting is not an exceptional issue for the government, officials, or President Erdogan himself,” the official said.
In the past, the AKP was seen as being able to balance populist rhetoric with the needs of financial markets – delivering hospitals, roads and airports, and ensuring growth and jobs, while remaining sensitive to the needs of markets.
Lately, investors aren’t so sure.
“Until now, they could always come to a compromise of some sort, and resolve their differences. But now, there are concerns they cannot find middle ground and that the divisions could continue to get worse. This is the risk that has markets worried,” a local banker said.
WHO’S IN CHARGE?
Yildirim, who replaced Ahmet Davutoglu as prime minister in May after widespread reports of divisions between Davutoglu and Erdogan over the economy, has gone to lengths to say he is in charge of the economic team. Officials say he has recently shown some sympathy with the reformist camp, although he maintains his allegiance to Erdogan.
“I am the current chairman of the EKK, and the person who will speak about the economy after me is… Deputy Prime Minister Mehmet Simsek,” Yildirim said in a recent interview with state broadcaster TRT.
“In situations when I am not present, he is the one who has all the say and responsibility regarding the economy.”
All the while, Erdogan has been unrelenting in calling on the central bank to lower interest rates.
“Those in the financial sector can sit comfortably… but the real investor is unfortunately experiencing hardship. So I say: ‘Drop these rates, brother,'” he said a speech on Saturday to mark the opening of a new shopping centre in Istanbul.
Investors are still trying to figure out the position of the central bank under Murat Cetinkaya, who was only appointed in April. Policy is decided by the seven-member monetary policy committee which includes the governor, four deputy governors and two other appointees.
Erdogan, who has described himself as an “enemy” of interest rates, says the central bank is independent but he has a right to criticise it. The bank initially cut rates following Cetinkaya’s appointment, in line with Erdogan’s demands. Last month’s rate hike, however, was seen as appeasing the markets.
As the lira has hit a series of record lows, Erdogan has responded by urging Turks to cash out their foreign currency holdings and buy either lira or gold.
For the time being, that may be the only boost to the lira.
“This kind of dissonance between the president’s concept of interest rate policy and that of the market is creating a huge obstacle for the central bank to intervene and stabilise the currency,” said Phoenix Kalen, director of emerging markets strategy at Societe Generale.
There was likely to be “much more pain” for the lira ahead, Kalen said.