Turkish Central Bank Sells Dollars as Rate Cut Weakens Lira

Lira Banknotes
Turkey’s central bank has $93 billion to defend a currency whose slide is accelerating after a surprise rate cut. Photographer: Kerem Uzel/Bloomberg

Turkey’s central bank began dollar sales today with $93 billion available to defend a currency whose slide accelerated after a surprise rate cut.

The bank sold $50 million in an auction, receiving $91 million of bids, and said future sales may be larger to help protect the lira. The currency plunged to a two-year low after the central bank reduced its benchmark yesterday, citing the risk of a recession imported from Europe. The lira pared losses, adding 0.3 percent to 1.735 per dollar at 3 p.m. in Istanbul.

Governor Erdem Basci is seeking to shore up the lira as counterparts in Japan and Switzerland do the opposite, trying to stem currency gains as global market losses drive investors toward the safest assets. Basci’s critics say it’s his policies that left the lira vulnerable. By keeping borrowing costs at record lows this year even as Turkey’s economy surged on the back of a credit boom, he is squeezing the interest-rate premium that attracts foreign cash to emerging markets.

“The central bank is taking large risks by cutting interest rates in the current global environment,” Maarten-Jan Bakkum, an emerging markets strategist at ING Investment Management in the Hague, which oversees about $460 billion, said by e-mail. It “should be more worried about attracting capital in difficult global times than about the negative impact from the Euro zone crisis on Turkish growth.”

‘Larger Buffer’

More than $4.4 trillion has been wiped off equity market values worldwide since July 26, driving the MSCI All-Country World Index down more than 10 percent from this year’s high.

The slump threatens to dry up the flows of foreign money that Turkey increasingly depends on to finance its current-account deficit. The gap ballooned to $68.2 billion, or about 9 percent of economic output, in the 12 months through May. That makes Turkey vulnerable to swings in risk appetite and demands “a larger buffer of both private and official foreign-exchange reserves,” Moody’s Investor Services said on Aug. 3.

Instead of adding to Turkey’s savings, Basci is set to start spending them. The central bank will announce at 11 a.m. each day whether there’ll be a dollar auction.

The bank also said today that it will release $930 million in liquidity by cutting the reserve requirement for banks’ foreign-currency deposits, a measure that takes effect Aug. 19.

At his disposal to combat a potential flight of investors from the lira, Basci has reserves equal to about 18 weeks of imports. That compares with about 22 weeks in Poland and 40 weeks in Thailand, according to Bloomberg data.

Investors ‘Underwater’

The lira has fallen about 11 percent this year, meaning losses for anyone who bought into lira-denominated bonds whose yield peaked at 9.29 percent this year. The currency fell 2.5 percent yesterday, its biggest decline in 3 months.

“Any local bond investment is now underwater in currency-adjusted terms, which is going to come as something of a surprise to those who chased the apparently attractive yields on offer earlier this year,” Michael Shaoul, chairman of Marketfield Asset Management, said in a note to clients.

Basci predicts that inflation, currently 6.3 percent, will miss the year-end target of 5.5 percent, though he says it will slow toward target levels by 2013. Pressure on prices is declining as industrial output figures show the economy is slowing from the 11 percent annual growth it reported in the first quarter, the bank says.

‘No Reason’

“There’s no technical or fundamental reason for the lira to lose more value,” he said in an e-mailed statement today, forecasting a “rapid improvement” in the current-account gap.

The central bank on July 25 halted dollar-purchase auctions and returned $590 million to banks by cutting reserve requirements. Basci said on July 28 that he has tools to prevent further lira weakness.

The last time it used the dollar sales tool was in March and April 2009, when it sold $50 million a day. In June 2006, after a 16 percent slump in the lira the previous month, the bank spent $1 billion in two days of auctions plus $2.1 billion in direct purchases on the market to support the currency.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, re-elected to a third term in office on June 12, said July 27 that there’s no need for concern over the value of the lira. The currency will naturally find a “middle ground,” he said.

“The bank’s reserves might not look enormous, but there’s plenty of ammunition there as long as it’s used to manage an orderly depreciation, rather than defend a particular level,” said Inan Demir, chief economist at Finansbank AS in Istanbul. Still, sales may start immediately because “there’s already pressure on the market.”