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Dennis Shen
istanbul bridge from the boat with Turkey flag

The Turkish central bank backed up words with action in last week’s monetary policy decision – raising the key repo rate 475bps to 15% from 10.25%. In addition, the central bank indicated that commercial banks will have access to financing exclusively via the one-week repo auction window, with the repo rate henceforth the “only” indicator of monetary policy.

This ends for now a phase of “backdoor”, unorthodox rate increases via alternative tools that the central bank had employed to avoid any unwanted attention from President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan – who prefers low interest rates – and which had failed to assuage market concerns of too-easy central bank policy.

The central bank’s rate increase, both in its scale and in the consolidation of various policy instruments, was intended to address investors’ immediate concerns, ease pressures on the lira and stem a full-blown currency crisis. This has eased some concerns that central bank policy would remain behind the curve under new governance.

Shift near term to a more market-friendly, conventional monetary policy

The sizeable 30% depreciation in lira this year before ex-Central Bank Governor Murat Uysal’s dismissal appears to have been the final straw that forced this month’s reset of economic governance and the shift, at least near-term, towards a more market-friendly, more conventional monetary policy framework under Governor Naci Ağbal.

With this rate hike, Ağbal demonstrated that he holds enough influence and sway with the Turkish president to convince him to tolerate higher rates near term to fight inflation. Turkey’s real policy rates were negative before Thursday’s policy change with an annual rate of inflation of 11.9% in October. Real policy rates have since flipped to +2.8%

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Complacency quickly returned after rate hike initially calmed investors’ nerves in 2018

That said, we have been here before. In 2018, the central bank raised rates by 625bps and similarly consolidated multiple policy instruments to reverse a sharp lira sell-off, only for complacency to speedily re-emerge by the following year as the lira stabilised and inflation receded.

The Turkish government’s underlying bias in favour of looser monetary policy has not dissipated overnight. Nor has Turkey’s executive presidency, in place since 2018 and which overtly subverts central bank independence, changed.

Possibility of greater near-term lira stability, but longer-term governance risks remain

While any sustained return to conventional monetary policies amid this year’s crisis could support greater lira stability in the short run and possibly help begin a process of rebuilding depleted foreign-exchange reserves, longer-term risks remain that significant institutional and governance deficits of the past re-emerge once the immediate crisis is in the rear-view mirror.

An important upcoming task is using this forthcoming window to rebuild Turkey’s official reserves, which stood at USD 82.4bn on 15 November, compared with USD 105.7 at year-end 2019 and USD 134.6bn at a 2013 peak. Official reserves cover around 61% of short-term external debt. Net reserves excluding short-run swaps with domestic banks stood at all-time lows of negative USD 47.5bn in September, cut sharply from (positive) USD 18.5bn at end-2019.

The government needs to tackle external-sector weaknesses

The risk that a longer-standing structural depletion of Turkey’s foreign-currency reserves poses to the economy’s external sector stability remains real and calls upon the near-term shift in policy frameworks to not only be maintained but strengthened. This will require tighter, more sustainable monetary, fiscal and structural economic policies over a longer period both in crisis and outside of crisis – something that has been lacking in the past – which prioritise lower but more sustainable economic growth.

In addition, Turkey needs to strengthen its flexible exchange rate regime – a traditional credit strength – and reduce severe external sector vulnerabilities, such as structural current account deficits, economic vulnerabilities to capital outflows and high FX exposures.

Scope downgraded Turkey’s foreign-currency long-term issuer and senior unsecured debt ratings to B from B+ on 6 November, while affirming Turkey’s long-term issuer and senior unsecured debt ratings in local currency at B+. Scope revised the Outlooks on Turkey’s long-term ratings in both foreign and local currency to Negative from Stable. Scope will next review Turkey’s sovereign ratings and Outlooks in H1-2021.

For a look at all of today’s economic events, check out our economic calendar.

Dennis Shen is a Director in Sovereign and Public Sector ratings at Scope Ratings GmbH.

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