August 15, 2018 / 5:30 PM / 3 months ago

In eye of the storm, Turkey's new finance chief faces credibility test

ISTANBUL (Reuters) - Turkish Finance Minister Berat Albayrak faces a key credibility test on Thursday when he hosts a conference call with global investors to reassure them that policy makers can contain the country’s worst currency crisis since 2001.

FILE PHOTO: Turkish Treasury and Finance Minister Berat Albayrak speaks during a presentation to announce his economic policy in Istanbul, Turkey August 10, 2018. REUTERS/Murad Sezer/File Photo

Albayrak, President Tayyip Erdogan’s son-in-law, was named finance minister just over a month ago and is a relative unknown for international investors, who fear Turkey’s economy is increasingly hostage to political interference.

The lira has lost nearly 40 percent against the dollar this year, tumbling to a low of 7.24 on Monday, fueled in part by Erdogan’s relentless calls for lower interest rates despite soaring inflation. The slump has led to fears of contagion across emerging markets.

Some 3,000 investors and economists have registered for Thursday’s call, due at 1300 GMT. Albayrak is not expected to take questions, but investors will be looking for signs he has the strength to act independently of his father-in-law.

“The big strike against him is his being Erdogan’s son-in-law,” said Paul McNamara, an investment director at GAM London Limited. “Even if he was the best man for the job, the optics are Third World.”

The lira firmed 3 percent on Thursday ahead of Albayrak’s presentation, partly on the back of liquidity measures by the central bank to try to stabilize the currency without resorting to an outright hike of its benchmark interest rate.

Albayrak, married to Erdogan’s daughter Esra, studied banking and finance in the United States and worked for Turkish conglomerate Calik Holding, seen as close to Erdogan’s ruling Islamist-rooted AK Party. He rose to become chief executive officer before entering politics three years ago.

Within months he was elevated to the cabinet as energy minister. In July, after Erdogan was re-elected with sweeping new executive powers, the president named him to head the newly established Treasury and Finance Ministry, putting him in charge of a portfolio previously divided between two ministers.

Turkish academics and newspaper columnists who attended a briefing with him in July portray Albayrak, 40, as well-equipped for the job of steering the Turkish economy, casting him as hands-on and willing to listen to contrary views.

International investors have so far been less convinced.

The lira lost nearly 3 percent within minutes of his appointment, with investors worried by the departure of former deputy prime minister Mehmet Simsek and former finance minister Naci Agbal, both seen as market-friendly figures in a country pursuing increasingly unorthodox economic policies.

“The issue here is that he lacks credibility,” Piotr Matys, an emerging markets strategist at Rabobank, said of Albayrak. “The market doesn’t want to give him the benefit of the doubt”.

“CLOSER TO THE MARKET”?

Investors are likely to want to see more detail from him than he delivered last Friday, when, from a hall in the ornate Ottoman-era Dolmabahce palace on the shores of the Bosphorus, he outlined the government’s new economic plan in a powerpoint presentation to Turkey-based bankers and business leaders.

He promised central bank independence, tighter budget discipline, structural reform and “sustainable and healthy growth”. But the lack of detail or clear action worried markets.

In the presentation “he was dealing with the right issues” but was still talking about future action, said Guillaume Tresca, senior emerging markets strategist at Credit Agricole.

“But it’s too long. We need something right now,” Tresca said.

Albayrak has echoed Erdogan’s assertion that the currency crisis is the result of an “economic war”.

But while he may be little known to foreign investors, he has held a series of meetings in Turkey with business people, academics and civil society groups since becoming finance minister.

Kerem Alkin, an economics professor and writer at the pro-government Sabah newspaper, described him as “energetic and open to all kinds of opinions”, citing a meeting he held with a group of academics in late July.

“He only made a short introductory speech and took notes tirelessly for two and a half hours... He welcomed opinions from people not close to the government,” Alkin said.

Under constitutional changes that took effect after the July election, the post of prime minister was scrapped, narrowing the circle of influence around Erdogan, who has dominated Turkish politics for 15 years and who has branded interest rates the “mother and father of all evil”.

The last time Turkey’s central bank held an emergency meeting to hike rates, in May, it was then-prime minister Binali Yildirim who convinced Erdogan of the need for drastic action, people familiar with the matter said.

Whether Albayrak would be willing or able to do the same is an open question for investors.

Erdal Saglam, a columnist for Hurriyet newspaper who attended a July briefing with Albayrak, said the minister’s thinking was “closer to the market” than many people imagine.

“But given his situation (as Erdogan’s son-in-law), how much room he has to maneuver in implementing what he has in mind is difficult to gauge,” Saglam told Reuters.

Additional reporting by Claire Milhench in London; Editing by Dominic Evans, Gareth Jones and Nick Tattersall

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