Global Investing

Waiting for current account improvement in Turkey

The fall in Turkey’s lira to record lows is raising jitters among foreign investors who will have lost a good deal of money on the currency side of their stock and bond investments.  They are also worrying about the response of the central bank, which has effectively ruled out large rate hikes to stabilise the currency. But can the 20 percent lira depreciation seen since May 2013 help correct the country’s balance of payments gap?

Turkey’s current account deficit is its Achilles heel . Without a large domestic savings pool, that deficit tends to blow out whenever growth quickens and the lira strengthens . That leaves the country highly vulnerable to a withdrawal of foreign capital. Take a look at the following graphic (click on it to enlarge) :

In theory, a weaker Turkish lira should help cut the deficit which has expanded to over 7 percent of GDP.  Let us compare the picture with 2008 when the lira plunged around 25 percent against the dollar in the wake of the Lehman crisis. At the time the deficit was not far short of current levels at around 6 percent of GDP.  By September 2009 though, this gap had shrunk by two-thirds to around 2 percent of GDP.

An IMF paper at the time praised Turkey’s response, noting that allowing the lira to weaken had limited the country’s 2009 economic contraction to less than 5 percent compared to the 8 percent fall that would have been the case, had it held the lira stable.

That adjustment is yet to happen this time – the deficit stayed almost unchanged over 2013 despite the currency’s steady depreciation against the dollar. But perhaps these are early days.

Watanabes shop for Brazilian real, Mexican peso

Are Mr and Mrs Watanabe preparing to return to emerging markets in a big way?

Mom and pop Japanese investors, collectively been dubbed the Watanabes, last month snapped up a large volume of uridashi bonds (bonds in foreign currencies marketed to small-time Japanese investors),  and sales of Brazilian real uridashi rose last month to the highest since July 2010, Barclays analysts say, citing official data.

Just to remind ourselves, the Watanabes have made a name for themselves as canny players of the interest rate arbitrage between the yen and various high-yield currencies. The real was a red-hot favourite and their frantic uridashi purchases in 2007 and 2009-2011 was partly behind Brazil’s decision to slap curbs on incoming capital. Their ardour has cooled in the past two years but the trade is far from dead.

With the Bank of Japan’s money-printing keeping the yen weak and pushing down yields on domestic bonds, it is no surprise that the Watanabes are buying more foreign assets. But if their favourites last year were euro zone bonds (France was an especially big winner)  they seem to be turning back towards emerging markets, lured possibly by the improvement in economic growth and the rising interest rates in some countries. And Brazil has removed those capital controls.

Turkish savers hang onto dollars

As in many countries with memories of hyperinflation and currency collapse, Turkey’s middle class have tended to hold at least part of their savings in hard currency. But unlike in Russia and Argentina, Turkish savers’ propensity to save in dollars has on occasion proved helpful to companies and the central bank. That’s because many Turks, rather than just accumulating dollars, have evolved into savvy players of exchange rate swings and often use sharp falls in the lira to sell their dollars and buy back the local currency. Hence Turks’ hard currency bank deposits, estimated at between $70-$100 billion –  on a par with central bank reserves — have acted as a buffer of sorts, stabilising the lira when it falls past a certain level.

But back in 2011, when the lira was in the eye of another emerging markets storm, we noticed how some Turks had become strangely reluctant to sell dollars. And during this year’s bout of lira weakness too, Turkish savers have not stepped up to help out the central bank, research by Barclays finds. Instead they are accumulating dollars — “rather than being contrarian, their behaviour now seems aligned with global capital flows,” Barclays  analysts write. While the lira has weakened to record lows this year, data from UBS shows that the dollarisation ratio, the percentage of bank deposits in foreign currency, has actually crept up to 37.6 percent from 34.5 percent at the start of the year. Here’s a Barclays graphic that illustrates the shift.

What are the reasons for the turnaround? In the past, those selling dollars to buy back cheap lira could be confident they would not be out of pocket because the central bank would support the lira with higher interest rates.  But ever since end-2010, when the bank embarked on a policy of determinedly keeping interest rates low, they no longer have this assurance. Barclays write:

Turkey’s (investment grade)bond market

We wrote here yesterday on how Turkish hard currency bonds have been given the nod to join some Barclays global indices as a result of the country’s elevation to investment grade. Turkish dollar bonds will also move to the Investment grade sub-index of JPMorgan’s flagship EMBI Global on June 28.

Local lira debt meanwhile will enter JPM’s GBI-EM Global Diversified IG 15 percent Cap Index —  the top-tier of the bank’s GBI-EM index. But the big prize, an invitation into Citi’s mega World Government Bond Index, is still some way off. Requiring a still higher credit rating, WGBI membership is an honour that has been accorded to only four emerging markets so far.

Still, the Turkish Treasury is not complaining.  Even before last week’s upgrade to investment grade by Moody’s, it was borrowing from the lira bond market at record cheap levels of around 5 percent for two-year cash. Ten-year yields are down half a percentage point this year. One reason of course is the gush of liquidity from Western central banks. But most funds (at least those who were allowed to do so) had not waited for the Moody’s signal before buying Turkish bonds. So the bond market was already trading Turkey as investment grade.

Mrs Watanabe in Istanbul

Japanese mom-and-pop investors’ penchant for seeking high-yield investments overseas is well known. Mrs Watanabe (as the canny player of currency and exchange rate arbitrage has come to be known) invests billions of yen overseas every year via  so-called uridashi bonds, debt denominated in currencies with high yields.  Data shows the lira has suddenly become the red-hot favourite with uridashi investors this year.

In a note entitled Welcome Mrs Watanabe, Barclays analysts estimate $2 billion in lira-based uridashi issuance this year, ahead of old favourite, the  Australian dollar.

So far, Japan’s exposure to Turkey is negligible at just 1.2 percent of their emerging market portfolio investments (Brazil is 4 percent, Korea 3 percent and Mexico 2 percent).  But Turkey’s high yields (almost 8 percent on one-year bonds) and the lira’s resilience mean the figure could rise to $5-$6 billion a year. That is almost half of total portfolio flows to Turkey in 2011, Barclays says.

How Turkey cut interest rates but didn’t really

How do you cut interest rates without actually loosening monetary policy? Turkey’s central bank effectively did that today.

I wrote this morning that the bank and its boss Erdem Basci were gearing for rate cuts, thanks to the lira’s steady rise (see the graphic)  that should help tame inflation later this year (provided the global investment feel remains positive). But I also said a rate cut was unlikely to happen today. I was wrong — and right too. The central bank cut its overnight lending rate by 100 basis points to 11.5 percent while keeping the one-week repo rate  — the main policy rate — steady at 5.75 percent.

So why is this not a real cut? Note that the former overnight rate hasn’t been used for over a month. Instead the central bank has been using the “corridor” between the lending and borrowing rates to adjust policy on an almost daily basis. The upper end of the corridor is in fact used more to tighten policy when there is a need to defend the lira, analysts point out. And most importantly, the central bank has already been providing funds at the cheaper 5.75 percent rate.

Turkey gearing up for rate cuts but not today

Could the Turkish central bank surprise markets again today?

Given its track record, few will dare to place firm bets on the outcome of today’s meeting but the general reckoning for now is that the bank will keep borrowing and lending rates steady and signal no immediate change to its weekly repo rate of 5.75 percent. With year-on-year inflation in the double digits, logic would dictate there is no scope for an easier monetary policy.

But there are reasons to believe the Turkish central bank, whose mindset is essentially dovish, is letting its thoughts stray towards rate cuts. Consider the following:

a) Governor Erdem Basci has already said he does not see the need for further policy tightening  b)The lira has strengthened  9 percent this year against the dollar and is back at levels last seen in early September, thanks to almost one billion dollars in foreign flows to the Turkish stock market and well-subscribed bond issues. And crucially c) Global factors are supportive (developed central banks are continuing to pump liquidity and a bailout  has finally been agreed for Greece) .

Can Turkey confound the pessimists again? The numbers say no

Doomsayers have been prophesying Turkey’s economic boom to deflate into bust for many months now. The recent revival in positive investor sentiment worldwide ar has helped silence some voices. Others say it is a matter of time. 

Data on Friday showed annual inflation accelerated from last year’s 3-year highs to 10.6 percent in January. It is likely to remain elevated at least until May, analysts predict. And trade data released this week indicate Turkey will likely have finished last year with a current account gap of around 10 percent of GDP last year — the biggest of any major developing economy. All this appears to indicate that the central bank will have to keep monetary policy tight and might even have to even raise rates, should the current resurgence in risk appetite fade. But rather optimistically, the government is still forecasting 4 percent growth this year. The IMF says 0.4 percent is more likely. A report today by Capital Economics, entitled “Turkish boom hits the buffers”, says recession is a cinch.

Neil Shearing, the report’s author, notes that imports of both consumer and capital goods have fallen by around $1 billion over a 12-month rolling period. That indicates a contraction in private consumption and fixed investment, he writes. Some of this could of course be down to the lira’s weakness last year, that aided some import substitution, Shearing acknowleges. But he says that all signs are that: