August 23, 2018 | By Brian Hanson, Steven Cook, Steven Cook, Henri Barkey

Deep Dish: The Turkish Lira Crisis

The Turkish Lira has been plunging in value, causing investor concern about a greater financial contagion. This comes amid heightened tensions between the United States and Turkey about a range of domestic and geopolitical issues. Turkey experts Steven Cook and Henri Barkey join economist Phil Levy on this week’s Deep Dish to delve into the causes and consequences of this emerging market crisis.



[Intro: Steven Cook: A stupefying 80 percent of the Turkish public believes that the United States was complicit in the failed coup attempt in July 2016.

Henri Barkey: ...can see that one tweet from Donald Trump essentially sunk their currency. So we...

Phil Levy: We've got soaring prices, a crashing currency, and banks that are starting to get into trouble. So the present course looks unsustainable, the way out, for the most part is going to involve doing some things that he's really not going to enjoy doing.]

Brian Hanson: This is Deep Dish on Global Affairs, going beyond the headlines on critical global issues. I'm Brian Hansen and today we're talking about the unfolding Turkish currency crisis and its economic and political implications.

Brian Hanson: This is a complicated crisis that includes both economic factors as well as political factors. So we have with us two experts on Turkey and politics, Steven Cook and Henri Barkey. And one international economics expert, Phil Levy.

Brian Hanson: To help us understand what's happening, we have Steven Cook, he is the Eni Enrico Mattei Senior Fellow for Middle East and African Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, and also a columnist at Foreign Policy Magazine. Welcome Steven, good to have you on.

Steven Cook: It's a pleasure to be with you, thanks.

Brian Hanson: Joining us as well is Henri Barkey, a professor at Lehigh University, the former director of the Middle East program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, and a former member of the U.S. State Department Policy Planning staff. Welcome Henri.

Henri Barkey: Hey, thank you for inviting me.

Brian Hanson: And closing out our troika is Chicago Council's own Phil Levy who is our Senior Fellow for the Global Economy, also a former White House trade economist who worked in the State Department as well, and a Deep Dish regular, it's good to have you on, Phil.

Phil Levy: Good to be here, thank you.

Brian Hanson: So today's discussion is really prompted by the economic crisis in Turkey which has recently grabbed the headlines. Turkey has been one of the fastest growing emerging markets in the world and then just recently has been hit by an economic crisis.

Brian Hanson: One of the markers was that the value of the Turkish lira fell 40 percent against the dollar compared to the beginning of the year. In the midst of this currency crisis, President Trump really doubled down, doubling steel tariffs and aluminum tariffs on Turkey, demanding the release of U.S. pastor Andrew Brunson. Turkish president Erdogan called this economic warfare, and this economic crisis comes at time when there's already heightened tensions between the U.S. and Turkey on many issues.

Brian Hanson: Detention and human rights abuses, a slide toward authoritarianism in Turkey. U.S. refusal to extradite Turkish cleric Gulen who is living in the U.S. and who Erdogan accuses of leading the coup against him in 2016.

Brian Hanson: Turkey recently purchased Russian air defense systems. Turkey's been on the opposite side of the Syrian war and taken actions including fighting with U.S. Kurdish allies and even threatening military action against U.S. troops.

Brian Hanson: All the while, turkey's a NATO ally, it's a country of 82 million people about the same size as Germany, and it occupies a critical geopolitical position at the crossroads of Europe, the Middle East, and Central Asia.

Brian Hanson: There's lots to unpack here, and lots at stake, for a country that most American's don't think very much about. So Steven, with this backdrop, I'd like to start with you by asking a question that comes to us from one of our Deep Dish listeners through our Deep Dish and Global Affairs Facebook group.

Brian Hanson: Justin Hunter asks, how much of this economic crisis is the result of internal political discord or recent sanctions, or some other cause. Essentially, why is this crisis happening?

Steven Cook: Well, thanks for the question. It's an important one and I just want to say as an aside, I just realized why this is called Deep Dish. Being a kid from New York, I prefer to have my pizza New York style but I can understand the attraction of deep dish.

Steven Cook: Anyway, look, I think the economic crisis is something of Turkey's own making, and the poor decision making at, quite honestly, the Turkish presidency. President Erdogan has unorthodox views on the economy, and the most important thing to remember about this views is that he believes that high interest rates cause inflation.

Steven Cook: And as a result, he has been very strong in pressuring the central bank on keeping interest rates low. Interest rates low have been a key to growth, growth has been a key to the electoral successes of President Erdogan's Justice and Development Party over the course of the last 16 years.

Steven Cook: With higher interest rates, Turks who have been living on easy and cheap money will now have less money in their pockets so it'll also have a major impact on big Turkish business and Turkish banks who have been borrowing dollars on the cheap, and suddenly are facing higher interest rates.

Steven Cook: Erdogan has done everything that he can to undermine the independence of the central bank because of President Erdogan's unorthodox views, because Turkish leaders, the president himself, the finance and treasury minister, have said that there really is no reason, though for the lira crisis, it's an attack by the United States.

Steven Cook: That has not done much to calm investors in the Turkish currency or the Turkish economy.

Brian Hanson: So Phil, you're an economist. Erdogan doesn't want to raise interest rates, I think he called them the mother and father, high interest rates the mother and father of all evil in the world.

Brian Hanson: What is the standard economic response to a situation where your currency is plunging, people are disinvesting from your country, what's the classic response?

Phil Levy: Well, the classic response is to do pretty much the opposite of what he's doing. I think the important thing to remember is the raising interest rates is like restricting the money supply. If you have too much money sloshing around, people think, ah, that money's going to be worthless, and they try to get out of it.

Phil Levy: And that's what's happening with the Turkish lira right now. So usually the response would be, raise interest rates, convince people that there won't be too much money around, and attract investors in with the higher rates, usually that's done in conjunction with a program, say with the International Monetary Fund. That's looking particularly problematic in Turkey's case, given the standoff with the United States.

Brian Hanson: So the monetary fund being, somebody comes in and bails out the country, essentially lending the country money so it can continue to pay its debts as the crisis unfolds.

Brian Hanson: What happens, any of the three of you, what happens internally, what's going on inside of Turkey right now. When the currency is plunging, how does that affect things inside the country.

Phil Levy: What you have in a country like Turkey, or most countries that are very integrated in world trade, is they're very dependent on imports for things that they consume. So in Turkey's case, energy is a very important import.

Phil Levy: Energy usually priced in dollars, that means that when the Turkish lira plunges 40 percent against the dollar, your energy imports just became a lot more expensive. And that's not only energy, that's everything you've been importing. So it tends to be very painful. Turkey has high and raging inflation at the moment, and this will stoke that.

Brian Hanson: So in practice, what happens, then, inside of Turkey as people experience rising prices, it sounds like, and have a hard time repaying their debts because their Turkish lira just is not able to buy as much foreign currency when they're trying to repay. Is that what people are going to experience?

Phil Levy: Yeah, that's what they experience and it gets to be very difficult for banks to deal with this sort of situation which then tends to inhibit commerce more generally. And these things can build on themselves in a form of panic, where people see.

Phil Levy: If you've been holding on to lira and you've just seen their value plunge 40 percent, your inclination is probably, I've got to get rid of my lira, and get into dollars, but doing that just pushes the currency even further.

Brian Hanson: So one of the things that some people have talked about in the midst of this crisis is the concern about contagion. That what starts in Turkey will spill over the borders and will have impact in other countries and essentially drive a similar set of economic crises and panic in other places.

Brian Hanson: Why might that happen, what are the conditions under which that happens and how likely is that in this particular situation?

Phil Levy: It's a serious concern. There's a couple ways this can happen. One, you can have direct effects where a reasonably big country like Turkey, if it gets into trouble, it can pull others down with it. So for example, the European Central Bank just flagged that there were some major European banks that were lenders to Turkey, and might be in trouble if their, if the Turkish borrowers got into trouble.

Phil Levy: So you can have knock on effects like that. The other thing that can happen is, it can serve as a signal to investors elsewhere, hey you should be a little more worried about emerging markets than you thought. And the extent that they start looking for common causes like, how will people handle tightening money in the U.S.?

Phil Levy: They might start to reevaluate investments in places like South Africa, India, or Brazil. Where it's not a direct effect, it's not their trade with Turkey that's getting hit, but it's people thinking, this is a common phenomenon and I'm going to pull back elsewhere.

Brian Hanson: So in other words, taking their money out of those countries, causing perhaps those currencies' decline, and also having the same internal investment issues, if I followed that.

Phil Levy: Which we have seen. Not to the same extent, and there's some arguments as to why Turkey's situation, their fundamentals are worse than those other countries. But investors in panic mode are not always very discriminating.

Brian Hanson: Steven and Henri, I want to bring you into this conversation in terms of, what's going on inside of Turkey? We hear about plunging values of the lira, what does that mean for the average person in Turkey and what are we seeing going on inside that country?

Henri Barkey: Well, first of all, the lira has stabilized to some extent, I mean, at one point it's so very, very low levels, but since then, the government took certain actions, reduced foreign currency purchasing ability which means that people can't buy liras as much and therefore, I'm sorry, dollars, I should say, [inaudible 00:11:08] it's solidified the Turkish lira.

Henri Barkey: But it is still the precarious situation. For individuals, it's just that, you know, everything now is much more expensive. The fact of the matter is, I believe the real impact will be seen in a month or so when the inflation rate really spikes. Today the Turkish inflation rate is between 15 and 16 percent, it's bound to go much, much, much higher. And if the central bank doesn't respond to that, then you will have the real crisis.

Henri Barkey: I think this is only the beginning of a much longer process.

Phil Levy: Let's also keep in mind, if I could just jump in here for a second, that there are a number of other developments that are likely to occur in the coming weeks or months. One, you mentioned in your opening the situation with regard to Andrew Brunson, this North Carolina pastor who's been living in Ismir for almost three decades.

Phil Levy: If he is not released, the Trump administration has promised to apply additional sanctions on Turkey, that's going to have an impact on the economy. In addition, there is, there were negotiations over fines that a Turkish bank called Halkbank is going to have to pay for its central role in helping Iran evade sanctions.

Phil Levy: If this crisis between the United States and Turkey deepens, there is the chance that the Trump administration, through the Justice Department, will impose very, very large fines. This is the largest sanctions evading scheme in history, and there's been negotiations.

Phil Levy: The Turks had not wanted the fines to be so huge, but if in this war of words between the two governments, the Trump administration decides to impose very, very large sanctions, it could have a major effect on Turkey's banking sector.

Brian Hanson: One of the things that has struck me about the political coalition that has supported Erdogan is its been more conservative, socially conservative forces in the country, but the business community that has done very well under Erdogan has been a strong base of political support as well.

Brian Hanson: Given that scenario that you all have been laying out about the impacts, the real economic impacts of how this crisis could play out, what is likely to happen politically inside the country and to Erdogan support?

Henri Barkey: Well look, in terms of the business community, the business community is essentially today divided into two. One is a group of businesses, it's a very large group, that is completely, completely in Erdogan's pocket. That is to say that they get contacts from the government, every time the government starts a big infrastructure project, whether it's an airport or a bridge or a highway, it's these companies that get those projects. So they will do whatever Erdogan says.

Henri Barkey: Now, the more traditional business sector, the ones that really came up in the 60's, 70's, and 80's, those, too, are to some extent beholden to Erdogan, so all of those companies in one way or the other are beholden today to Erdogan. There are very few large companies that are not. But they also they are not in the position to take on the government and you should remember that today in Turkey. And that, in some ways, is more important whether the interest rates are increased or not, is the fact that this is a system where there is no A, rule of law, no separation of powers. The judicial is completely controlled by Erdogan, parliament does not figure in decision making, which means that if you have any trouble with the government, you can't rely on the court system to essentially save you. So that creates a situation where you do what the government tells you to do.

Brian Hanson: So it's interesting, it sounds like, then, that Erdogan is in this crisis and feeling in a fairly strong position, that he can maintain domestic support in the face of these economic challenges. Which leads me to a question that I'd wanted to ask, Steven, you mentioned that Erdogan has blamed outsiders, particularly the United States for this economic crisis.

Brian Hanson: Does the actions that President Trump has already taken and those that you talked about a moment ago that are being contemplated, does that play into Erdogan's hands in some way in shoring up his domestic support by being able to blame the U.S. more convincingly, or do you think that these policies can be effective?

Steven Cook: Well, from my perspective I think more public pressure on Turkey over its bad behavior, in particular its holding of American citizens as essentially bargaining chips, we're going to exchange for Fethullah Gulen and this Turkish banker, Mehmet Haken Atilla, who was found guilty of this scheme to help Iran evade sanctions is a welcome change.

Steven Cook: For too long the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations have overlooked Turkish bad behavior and it has essentially given the Turks license to do things like take Pastor Brunson and other Americans essentially hostage.

Steven Cook: There's been a lot of commentary about President Trump's tweet last Friday announcing the sanctions on aluminum and steel. It does strike me as that, a bit gratuitous, it was in line with, kind of, the President's negotiating style. And it did, in fact, give President Erdogan more material to work with in blaming the United States in engaging in economic warfare against Turkey.

Steven Cook: However, I think we're talking about margins here. A stupefying 80 percent of the Turkish public believes that the United States was complicit in the failed coup attempt in July 2016. So people are already given to believe that the United States is engaged in an effort to undermine the Turkish regime.

Steven Cook: And all Erdogan had to do was say, it's the United States, the United States is engaged in an economic coup. And I think it puts him in a strong political position. But I don't think that this is an argument for the United States to pull back from the public pressure.

Brian Hanson: So some people are concerned about the relationship with the U.S. and Turkey deteriorating because of things like the security relationship through NATO, even though Turkey and the U.S. have been on different sides of the Syrian war, the important role that Turkey can play in that region. Are those interests still as important as they were before, or is this a case of Henry Kissinger's classic line, America has no permanent friends or enemies, only interests, and that those interests are shaped, are changing, therefore U.S. policy is changing. Do we need to protect that relationship?

Henri Barkey: Well, interest work both ways. I mean, remember that just as the United States has interest in turkey and in turkey's important position in the region, the Turks also have an interest in maintaining a relationship with the United States. In fact, turkey lives in a very dangerous neighborhood and what makes Turkey essentially secure and an important power is the fact that it is a member of the NATO alliance.

Henri Barkey: So as much as turkey talks about changing alliances and cozying up to Russians, Chinese, Somalis, you name the country, the fact of the matter is that Turkey without the NATO alliance would be a very vulnerable country to pressure from everybody else.

Henri Barkey: But I would say that, following what Steven was saying earlier, that you have essentially a structural problem today in Turkey, and what's that structural problem? Is that because Erdogan, the buck stops with Erdogan. He has nobody to blame.

Henri Barkey: He can't blame parliament, he can't blame ministers, he can't blame his son in law, he, the buck stops with him. The only people he can blame are the outsiders and who's the most powerful outsider? United States, right? So structurally we are in a situation in which he's going to blame us for everything. And the mistake, I think, U.S. administrations have made until now, Trump, Obama, and going back, is every time the Turks have blamed us for everything, including as Steven said, organizing the coup, a failed coup of July 2016, that we never pushed back and said, how dare you say this. How dare you say that we, as an ally, would try to overthrow an ally government, right? And push back. And take the Turks on.

Henri Barkey: Instead we basically, we have this very condescending attitude that says, oh the Turks are Turks, they will say nonsense like this, we'll just let it roll off of our back, we're not going to take them seriously. But when we do not, what happens is, as Steven also said, I think Steven said 80 percent of the Turkish public believes that we were involved in the coup, I think it's 95 percent, right? Or maybe there are three people in Turkey who don't believe that.

Henri Barkey: I mean, because the government has pushed this narrative over and over and over, and we are paying the price for having taken this issues lightly. And so looking forward, right, the relationship is going to be difficult but at the end of the day, Turkey needs the U to work out a whole series of issues.

Henri Barkey: He thinks he can work with Russians but remember, the Russians, when the Turks shot down an airplane, immediately the Russians imposed sanctions, so much so that the Turks had to back down and cry uncle within a couple of weeks. So the Russians as a tough neighbor. They're not going to take, be gentle with the Turks. They play to separate us from the Turks, but in general, and one more, another important factor, look at the Turkish economy.

Henri Barkey: It is completely embedded in western financial and economic networks. The Russian economy is as big as the Italian economy. So let's also look at who Turkey trades with most. It's the west. Where does Turkish export go? Mostly the west.

Phil Levy: Let me just add one thing, put a finer point and be at the risk of disagreeing ever so slightly with Henri, who, I think, explained the importance that NATO and the United States has been to turkey over a long period of time, and how important turkey has been to the United States.

Phil Levy: But I think that now, three decades after the end of the Cold War, there isn't a common interest or overarching threat that binds the two countries together and what we're seeing now, what we've seen in the last two weeks, the flashpoint around Andrew Brunson, I think if you look deeper, reflects a relationship that has been changing.

Phil Levy: Where two countries that do not share interests, have different priorities and have different goals. President Erdogan and his now infamous op-ed in the New York Times last Friday listed Turkey's complaints against the United States. Well, there is a longer list of american complaints about Turkish behavior including everything from buying advanced weapon systems from the Russians that could potentially compromise America's own weapon systems that are in the Turkish arsenal or are going to be in the Turkish arsenal, to undermining the U.S. policy on Iran, to undermining american efforts to fight the Islamic state in Syria.

Phil Levy: And then there's a much longer list. So I think the Turks have signaled that they are not necessarily as interested in preserving a strategic partnership, and I think over time, turkey's importance to the United States has waned, and I think that's why the Trump administration sees an opportunity to finally take public their complaints about Turkish behavior.

Brian Hanson: So Steven, just to follow up with that, and I'd also love to get Henri on this too, what should be the goal of U.S. policy vis a vis Turkey right now, what should we try to accomplish?

Steven Cook: Well, just very quickly I think that we should continue to apply pressure on the Turks to release not only Andrew Brunson but also the other Americans that they're holding. And then I think that its time for congress and the administration to think more clearly about what this relationship means and what we're getting out of it and I think that if you take a look at the record over at least the last 10 years, there isn't much but I would say that as we move forward with the Turks despite the anger that we hear from Ankara that its important to maintain the public pressure on the Turkish government because its really the only way in which we can compel them to respond.

Steven Cook: we have two other examples of this. Henri mentioned an incident in which the Turks shot down a Russian jet. The Russians applied sanctions immediately and put a lot of pressure on turkey, the Turks came around. Angela Merkel, the chancellor of Germany, threatened business ties between the two countries. Suddenly a German Turkish journalist was released from Turkish prison. I think those are models from which the United States should be interested in following

Brian Hanson: And Henri, what do you think our goals should be of U.S. policy, what should we be trying to achieve?

Henri Barkey: I think what we need is a completely fresh start. We need to have an honest conversation between the Turks and the Americans as to what it is the relationship is about. Only and essentially also put down some important red markers in terms of Turkish behavior, whether it is the anti-Americanism, the racism in the Turkish press against Americans, two, more importantly, that you never take on, not just american citizens but also free employees of the american embassy in turkey, who are in jail. Two of them are in jail, one of them is in house arrest. But they are being charged with preposterous conspiratorial cases which is, they're all designed to put pressure on us, to get hostages, essentially, before, the things that the Turks want.

Henri Barkey: And the fact that they are in jails, we are still, Trump or no Trump, we are still the most important power in the world, and all, if the Turks have any question about that, all they have to do is see that one tweet from Donald Trump essentially sunk their currency.

Henri Barkey: So, we are still the big boy on the block and it is, time has come for to have this conversation. Yes, there are issues that the Turks are also upset about this, but we can work them out. And when you look at the question of Brunson and the free employees of the Turkish embassy, this was the easiest issue to solve.

Henri Barkey: They should not have become crisis. And it is a dereliction of duty on the part of the U.S. government for having allowed this to become a crisis. I mean, I think its time for, restart, rethink, and if we take a summit, between the two leaders, the problem is we don't really understand how Mr. Trump functions in these summits so I'm kind of a little bit reluctant to have a big summit over all the issues.

Brian Hanson: So Phil, Henri and Steven have talked about the tensions, the growing tensions in the relationship with the U.S.. I want you to connect that tension to the financial crisis and how it is likely to unfold. Is the U.S. important for the resolution of this, of the financial crisis? What could it do to make it better or worse and do we care what the U.S. does in terms of resolving this crisis?

Phil Levy: Yeah, we do care, it is connected. I think the way to think about this through both democratic and republican administrations, one of the cornerstones of U.S. international economic policy has been try to avoid big financial crises. It's a little bit like when you see a brush fire starting up near a fuel depot. You put it out, you don't argue about what other things might be going on. Because there's a chance that things can go really wrong and get out of hand.

Phil Levy: So that's been a point of emphasis for a long time. What we've seen the Trump administration do is effectively fan the flames a little bit, and it happens in two ways. One, the threats about Turkish steel tariffs were less important in their own right as much as they were important as a signal that the U.S. was not going to step in and help out if this crisis in Turkey really gets out of hand.

Phil Levy: The U.S. role matters a lot because it also has a veto at the IMF, at the International Monetary Fund. And so the standard recourse that most countries have, which we've really relied upon since the second World War, has been, go to the IMF, they'll stop the panic, they'll stop the contagion, and they'll get things under control.

Phil Levy: If the U.S. is giving a teetering country a shove and then not, potentially going block that mechanism for stopping a panic, it raises serious concerns that things could get out of control.

Phil Levy: One of the things in the situation is the politics and there's the economics for Erdogan and Turkey. At the moment on the economic side he doesn't have a lot of really good choices. He can sort of blame this on the United States and he can take a tough stand, but he's got soaring prices, a crashing currency, and banks that are starting to get into trouble.

Phil Levy: So the present course looks unsustainable. The way out, for the most part, is going to involve doing some things that he's really not going to enjoy doing. Which tends to be tightening up the fiscal belt, in other words reducing outlays for the government, and also allowing interest rates to go up quite a bit.

Phil Levy: The other approach he's taken to this means that he's not left himself many graceful ways to climb down. So the politics and the economics are colliding here in ways that will be very challenging for him.

Brian Hanson: Thank you Phil, Steven, and Henri for being here this week. Clearly this is a story that will continue to unfold and I appreciate all three of you providing insight that will allow all of us to interpret this story as it continues to unfold.

Brian Hanson: And thank you for tuning in to this episode of Deep Dish in Global Affairs. As a reminder, the opinions you heard today belong to the people who expressed them and not the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. You can find our show under Deep Dish on Global Affairs wherever you listen to podcasts. If you liked the show, please take a moment and let us know by tapping the subscribe button so that you can get each new episode.

Brian Hanson: And if you think you know of someone who would enjoy this episode, please tap the share button and send it to them as well. If you have questions about anything you heard today or if you want to submit questions for an upcoming guest, please join our Facebook group Deep Dish on Global Affairs.

Brian Hanson: This episode of Deep Dish was produced by Evan Fazio. I'm Brian Hanson, and we'll be back soon with another slice of Deep Dish.



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