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Turkey’s Trade Deficit Reveals an Economy in Deep Trouble

Palestinian demonstrators holding posters of PM Erdogan and the Turkish flag

Photo Credit: Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90

I’ve been hammering away at Turkey’s credit bubble problem for the past eight months: consumer lending is still growing at a nearly 30% annual rate, after dipping into the teens earlier this year (I am annualizing the 3-month growth rate). But the trade data just released for June show a slowing domestic economy.

With the economy clearly slowing, where are all the loans going? The answer is indicated by the extremely high interest rates charged by Turkish banks:

At 18% interest, consumers have to borrow to pay the interest on previous loans. In other words Turkish banks are capitalizing interest, and booking profits on loans that would go sour if they stopped lending additional money to borrowers to pay the interest. The much-vaunted strength of Turkey’s banks (whose stock prices recovered smartly this year) appears to be an illusion. The economic outlook isn’t good.

From the Financial Times‘ Beyond Brics blog:

At first glance, newly released figures for Turkey’s foreign trade suggest the country’s economy is holding up well despite the travails of its neighbours in Europe.

But as ever the devil is in the detail and hidden away in the numbers are some more uncomfortable indications that darker days lie ahead for the Turkish economy.

Figures from TUIK, the statistics office, show a 30 per cent reduction in Turkey’s trade deficit, from $10.3bn in June 2011 to $7.2bn in June this year. Other figures from TIM, the Turkish exporters’ association, show exports for the 12 months to July reaching $142.6bn, a healthy 12.3 per cent up on the previous twelve months.

Taken together, the two sets of figures could suggest continued success for Turkey’s exporters, while Turkish consumers have reined in their love of expensive imported goods.

But dig a little deeper…

To begin with, according to TIM’s figures for July, Turkish exports for the month actually fell by 5.5 per cent over July 2011 while both TIM and TUIK show worrying falls in exports to Turkey’s core European markets.

According to TUIK, Turkey’s exports to the EU dropped from 48.2 per cent of the total in June 2011 to only 37.1 per cent this year. TIM’s data suggest a drop from 47.7 per cent in July last year to 40.3 per cent.

According to TIM, the bulk of the fall came in two keys sectors: automotive, which saw exports in July plunge 22.3 per cent; and ready-to-wear textiles, where exports in July fell by 12 per cent.

While the two organisations collate their figures in different ways the outlook is clear: as Europe continues to sneeze, Turkey will catch a cold.

The picture is more worrying when the effect of the weakening euro is taken into account, an effect which economy minister Zafer Caglayan estimates cost the country $550m in July alone.

So far so bad. But according to Ozgur Altug, chief economist at Istanbul’s BCG Partners, the real bad news is hidden not in weakening export figures but in the falling import figures – which helped contribute to fall in the trade deficit and to a reduction Turkey’s current account deficit from $77bn a year ago to $67bn by the end of May this year.

Altug points out that Turkey’s dependence on imported energy remains the chief culprit behind its current account deficit woes. “Despite falling oil prices, the 12 month rolling energy balance rose to $51.4bn by the end of June this year, compared with $47.8 at the end of 2011,” he says. “The government has been successful in rebalancing the economy but the structural problems such as the growing need for imported energy are still there”.

Altug warns that an improvement in the non-energy trade deficit is also illusory. He points to an 11 per cent drop in imports of intermediate goods over the first half of this year and a 16 per cent drop in consumer goods over the same period.

Both, he suggests, are a direct result of slower GDP growth, with the former suggesting a drop in imports of capital goods used to expand output, the latter indicting declining consumer confidence. The root problem, he suggests, is Turkey’s failure to capitalise on years of rapid economic expansion to increase the contribution of exports to the overall economy.

About the Author: David P. Goldman writes the "Spengler" column for Asia Times Online, and contributes frequently to The Tablet, First Things, and other publications. He was global head of debt research for Bank of America (2002-2005), global head of credit strategy for Credit Suisse (1998-2002), and also held senior positions at Bear Stearns and Cantor Fitzgerald.


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At 18% interest, consumers have to borrow to pay the interest on previous loans. In other words Turkish banks are capitalizing interest, and booking profits on loans that would go sour if they stopped lending additional money to borrowers to pay the interest. The much-vaunted strength of Turkey’s banks appears to be an illusion.

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