Turkish politicians are expressing concern that the country's booming economy is at risk as the nation's consumers binge on buying and borrowing while Europe struggles to put out the debt fire in Greece.
Deputy Prime Minister Ali Babacan warned on Wednesday that Turkey must take steps to prepare for a possible fallout from debt crises in the U.S. and Europe. A day earlier, Bulent Gedikli, deputy president of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and its point man on economic matters, said "black clouds" are gathering over the global economy and urged Turkish consumers to "not spend too much."
"This will have negative effects on Turkey," Gedikli said in an interview for the TV8 channel. "Thus, be cautious. Hold on to what you've got."
On the surface, Turkey's economy is wracking up an impressive performance this year. Gross domestic product grew by 11 percent year-on-year in the first quarter, outstripping China, the benchmark for the world's boom economies. Annual inflation slowed to 6.2 percent in June from 7.2 percent in May and unemployment dropped 2.1 percentage points in the past year to 9.9 percent in April, the first single-digit figure since July 2008.
But other numbers are worrying, mainly a yawning deficit in the country's current account. The deficit widened to $7.75 billion in May, or about 9 percent of GDP over the past 12 months. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) forecast this week it will touch 10.5 percent in 2011 and only shrink marginally next year.
"This is the Achilles heel of the Turkish economy. The problem is that there are no easy solutions. It's a structural problem that can only be solved in time," Yarkin Cebeci, chief economist for Turkey at JPMorgan Chase Bank, told The Media Line.
The Turkish lira testifies to the extent of the problem. Even though Turkey is one of the few economic bright spots in the region, investors have been shy about putting money into the economy. The lira declined to its lowest in more than two years against the dollar this week while the Istanbul Stock Exchange is down for the year.
Tackling the deficit presents a dilemma for Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who rode to victory in June elections in large part due to the strength of the economy and is now seeking broad political support to reform the constitution. Bringing down the deficit would probably require him to take unpopular measures such as raising interest rates and cutting government spending.
In fact, Turkey's superfast growth is at the root of its current account problem. Turkey's growth has been dominated by expansion in the financial, retail and construction sectors, pushed along by consumer spending and credit growth. Turkey's central bank has powered the boom by lowering interest rates even as the economic growth accelerated.
Exports are growing, too, but imports are growing faster and the outlook for exports is growing dimmer, according to the latest survey of Turkish executives. The foreign trade expectation survey was down 3 percent in the third quarter, which the economy minister, Zafer Caglayan, attributed to the debt crisis in Europe. Some 57 percent of Turkey's exports went to Europe in the January-May period of 2011.
Not only government officials but some economists have expressed concern about Turkey's economy overheating. The IMF confirmed that this week by revising its 2011 GDP forecast for Turkey to 8.7 percent from a previous 4.6 percent.
Murat Ucer, adviser for Turkey for the U.S. firm GlobalSource, agreed that the economy was "overstretched" at the end of 2010 and early this year, but that growth is probably slowing and may prove to have been negative in the second quarter because of Turkish elections and a more tepid global economy. Loan growth has probably reached a plateau, he said.
All that will help moderate the current account deficit, which tends to widen as the economy grows.
"But if Europe gets another hit, growth-wise Turkey will pay the price. It's a big risk. More importantly, if the European banking sector gets a big hit from sovereign debt, then that could be a big issue. We need bank lending with the current account deficit," Ucer told The Media Line.
But Ucer and other economists agree that Turkey has a long-term problem of bringing down the current account deficit. Ucer said the government has to slow growth, tighten fiscal policy and raise interest rates. "The prime minister obviously doesn't want to do that," he added.
Emre Alkin, an Istanbul-based economist, said the government also has to take measures to lower manufacturers' costs because industry, the pride of the country's economy, is being hit by cheaper competition and relies too much on imported raw materials, machinery and components. Manufacturers have to move up the value change from the current focus on textiles and appliances to sectors such as avionics and optics, he said.
"As production costs are rising in Turkey's businesses are thinking twice about whether to invest or enlarge domestic capacity," he told The Media Line. "Right now, they would rather go abroad, to Southeast Asia, Eastern Europe - Bulgaria and Hungary."
Zafer Caglayan, the minister responsible for exports and manufacturing, seems to agree. He said last week that incentives to boost the use of Turkish-made inputs in manufacturing will be "at the core" of the agenda of the government that was re-elected June 12, and "will solve the current-account deficit permanently."
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