By David Dolan and Nevzat Devranoglu
ISTANBUL/ANKARA, Nov 24 – Turkey’s central bank could raise interest rates for the first time in nearly three years on Thursday to prop up a stumbling lira currency, a move that would defy President Tayyip Erdogan’s relentless drive for cheaper credit.
Twelve of 19 economists polled by Reuters expect the bank to lift its benchmark one-week repo rate by 25 basis points, to 7.75 percent, when it meets on Thursday. That would mark the first tightening since January 2014, when the bank met in an emergency session to put a floor under the lira.
Such a move would put the central bank at odds with Erdogan, who believes that high interest rates are curbing economic growth. On the eve of the meeting, the president said he had a right to criticise the central bank despite its independence.
“Since I took on the job of leading Turkey 14 years ago, I have only fallen short of making headway in a few areas that I desired. One of those is the cutting of interest rates,” he said in a speech at the stock exchange.
“I have nothing against the independence of the central bank, but I cannot allow my people’s will and rights to be taken away with high interest rates,” he said. Erdogan was also due to chair a meeting of senior government officials to discuss the economy on Wednesday, sources in the presidency said.
He has become particularly outspoken on the issue of interest rates following an attempted military coup on July 15.
Since the failed putsch, more than 125,000 people in the military, judiciary and elsewhere have been sacked or suspended while about 36,000 have been jailed pending trial. The scope of the crackdown has worried Turkey’s Western allies and shaken confidence in the economy, adding to the pressure on the lira.
A rate increase now could give the lira – which is down 14 percent this year – a boost, as investors have so far consistently bet the central bank was unlikely to go against Erdogan’s calls for cheaper credit.
“A hike – either 25 bps or 50 bps – would imply that the central bank had the option to hike rates despite the government’s reluctance to do so,” Finansinvest economist Burak Kanli said in emailed comments, adding that this would therefore be positive for the lira.
While the effect of a 25-basis point increase would be short-lived, Kanli said that 50 basis points would “send a clear message” to the market and could stop investors from taking positions against the currency.
The central bank is due to announce its decision at 2 pm (1100 GMT).
The lira has been hit by a resurgent dollar following Donald Trump’s election as U.S. president and due to widening security concerns at home. On Wednesday it touched a record low of 3.4170 against the dollar following Erdogan’s comments.
Erdogan wants to make it cheaper for Turks to borrow so they spend more and spur a flagging economy expected to grow just 2.8 percent this year, well short of the 4.5 percent previously expected and last year’s 4 percent.
Last month he declared himself an “enemy” of interest rates, calling them a “means of exploitation”.
So far, the central bank has duly followed Erdogan’s call for cheaper credit, cutting the top end of its interest rate “corridor” – the highest of the multiple rates it uses to set policy – at seven of its last eight meetings.
But some see signs of a possible shift: last month, the bank singled out the lira as the reason for a pause in easing.
Furthermore, at a meeting of top economy officials on Friday, the central bank agreed it would “take the necessary steps” to ensure price stability, sources in the prime minister’s office said. Some analysts saw that as increasing the probability of a rate increase.
However, others said that concerns about the economy were likely to outweigh worries about the slide in the lira.
“The economy is on a very, very weak footing,” said Manik Narain, emerging markets strategist at UBS in London, adding that he thinks the bank is more likely to stay put on Thursday.
“Broadly speaking, what we’ve learned over the last two years is that the authorities seem to be more concerned about rate hikes than currency weakness,” he said.
Deputy Prime Minister Nurettin Canikli appeared to express the same view on Wednesday evening, when he brushed off concern about the lira’s weakness, saying the pressure was largely from global factors.
He also said a lira crisis was “out of the question”.
Whether or not the central bank decides to raise interest rates on Thursday, one thing is clear: investors are less than sanguine about Turkey’s outlook.
In a report this week, J.P. Morgan downgraded its outlook for Turkish equities to “underweight” from “neutral”
“For Turkey, we see that equity valuations are cheap in a historical context. But that is the only positive we can scrape up,” the bank said. “The political situation continues to raise questions in investors’ minds.”