The falling lira is making it difficult for many Turks to make ends meet. Photo: iStock
Rebel authorities in Idlib are trying to avert economic collapse by replacing the Syrian pound with the Turkish lira. Photo: iStock

All eyes are on the Turkish lira. Its decline has been precipitous – it has already lost more than 40%  of its value against the US dollar this year. For Turkey, which has relied on the inflow of foreign credit, this poses terrible risks.

Enormous debt coupled with a vicious attack for political reasons on the Turkish economy by the US government has pushed Turkey toward the precipice. Will Turkey’s descent take Europe with it and then, certainly, other middle-income countries? Is this the harbinger of a new global financial crisis that would be far more dangerous than the one in 2007-08?

Financial instability

The credit crisis of 2007-08 has not really ended. The problems posed by the collapse of the US housing market and the subsequent debt problems in world banking have not been fixed.

Sober recommendations from the Basel Committee on Banking Supervision as well as from the International Organization of Securities Commissions and the International Association of Insurance Supervisors have been substantially set aside. Instead of genuine reform to the financial sector, the United States government held its interest rate near zero and flushed the financial system with US dollars. The solution to a housing bubble in the United States has been to create a massive debt burden in the middle-income countries.

In countries such as Turkey, recently private companies started to take out more dollar-denominated loans from international financial institutions to fund their operations and even speculative investments. A flood of dollars crashed into these countries. Foreign speculators used this money to invest in their local currencies (including in lira-denominated public-sector securities in Turkey).

The Institute of International Finance showed that this wave continued to crest as recently as the past few years. At the end of 2011, the 30 largest emerging markets were indebted to the tune of 163% of their gross domestic product; in the first quarter of this year, that figure increased to 211% of GDP, an increase of $40 trillion in these countries’ debt. The exit from the 2007-08 financial crisis was through debt-financed economic growth, with a massive balloon of various kinds of debt inflated over the past decade.

Total global debt is estimated to be $247 trillion. That is a figure that should give us pause. Much of this debt, furthermore, went to fund the expansion of the financial sector rather than ti develop the productive and socially beneficial sectors. It is a model of economic growth that demands more debt to finance itself.

There are few other avenues for this unsustainable model. The trigger that might explode this bubble fully comes in the months ahead as countries such as Argentina, Brazil, South Africa and Turkey will confront the maturation of their $1 trillion of dollar-denominated debt. Will they be able to replace these existing loans with fresh loans? Who will be in line to lend money to countries that seem to be at the end of their rope?

Turkey’s flu

Financial crises are not new to Turkey. Major crises struck this country of 80 million in April 1994 and February 2001. In both cases, the country lost a large part of its GDP and its foreign-exchange reserves as interest rates skyrocketed (in 1994, overnight interest rates went from 75% to 700%, while in 2001 they went from 40% to 4,000%).

Recovery came through a variety of means, namely through an IMF-induced “Transition to a Strong Economy” program. The International Monetary Fund program pushed Turkey to “capital-account liberalization,” a fancy way of saying that its banks were encouraged to borrow in dollars from international capital markets and lend in liras to domestic investors.

The entire economy was restructured to rely on lower wages to encourage exports and by the inflow of short-term capital. As this volatile short-term capital rushed into Turkey, the current AKP (Justice and Development Party) government used it to fund extravagant, unproductive projects.

There was no possibility that Turkey could export enough to finance its significant foreign debt. Massive current-account deficits have been vulnerable to the withdrawal of the short-term foreign capital – what is rightly called “hot money.”

In 2011, everything seemed manageable. Turkey was on the threshold of entering the European Union, relations with the United States were on a high, and Anatolian businessmen saw their own manufacturing benefit in markets from Lebanon and Syria to the Persian Gulf to North Africa. Then the war in Syria threw the entire political situation into turmoil. Exports to the Arab world declined, the refugee crisis put pressure on Turkey, and its own political stability ended with the government opening up a new war on the Kurds.

Turkey’s ambitions in Syria ended and the AKP government tried to bring stability by ruthlessly purging any dissenters in the country. Political favors brought incompetent people to take over from those who had been purged. All this brought internal stress into the Turkish economy.

And then came Donald Trump. The tariff policy of the United States – particularly in this case on Turkish steel and aluminum – sent a tremor through the bankers who had lent Turkey money. Higher interest rates in the United States drew money out of places such as Turkey (and other middle-income countries) to rush back to the US, where the dollar is “good as gold.”

All this hit the lira hard. It did not help that the United States and Turkey are in the midst of a political fight over an American pastor who is jailed in Turkey and over a Turkish cleric who lives in the US. Since the attempted coup in Turkey in 2016, tension has existed between the two countries. Now, the US administration has made it clear that even the release of the pastor will not be enough.

“The tariffs that are in place on steel would not be removed with the release of Pastor Brunson,” President Trump’s spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said. “The tariffs are specific to national security.” What that chilling phrase means is not clear.

It is an advantage to Trump that the banks with the largest exposure to the Turkish lira are all European – France’s BNP Paribas, Italy’s UniCredit and Spain’s BBVA. The European Central Bank has already indicated its concern despite the fact that these banks say they are prepared for the worst scenario.

The amounts are not small. Turkish borrowers owe Spanish banks in excess of $82 billion, while French banks are owed $38.4 billion and Italian banks are owed $17 billion. Turkey’s private-sector debt is substantial – within a year it must pay $220 billion to service this debt.

An inability to make these payments as well as a further collapse of the lira could set off a crisis in Europe, which would then have an impact on the global financial markets. Turkey, this time, could be what the US housing market was in 2007.


Turkish Finance Minister Berat Albayrak, who happens to be the son-in-law of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has said that his country has opened discussions with the IMF. He pledged not to put capital controls in place. Capital controls might well be the only option truly to protect Turkey from economic collapse. The AK Party is averse to any radical solution. It will likely conform to IMF policies without going formally to the IMF – to preserve Erdoğan’s façade about being anti-Western. The AKP is now governed by anti-Western rhetoric, but pro-Western policies.

On August 15, the Turkish government approached the World Trade Organization with a formal complaint about the United States’ tariff policy. The complaint says that the US tariffs are against the General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs (1994), the bedrock framework for the WTO, and that even US law (Trade Expansion Act of 1962) violates the 1994 GATT agreement. Five days later, the WTO circulated this complaint among its members. There will now be a serious discussion based on this document.

Meanwhile, across Turkey’s border, Iran has suffered as well from the return of US sanctions. China has provided some short-term succor for Iran. Will it offer such protection to Turkey? When Boeing pulled out of its contract to sell aircraft to Iran, the Russian company Sukhoi offered to do so. Will Russia now make similar concessions to Turkey? Will there be an Asian solution to the Turkish crisis? But can China and Russia, themselves vulnerable to the turbulence of global finance, bail these countries out indefinitely?

Other solutions are necessary, more radical ones.

This article was co-authored with E Ahmet Tonak, who along with Vijay Prashad works at the Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research. The article was produced by Globetrotter, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

Vijay Prashad is an Indian historian, editor and journalist. He is a writing fellow and chief correspondent at Globetrotter, a project of the Independent Media Institute. He is the chief editor of LeftWord Books and the director of Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research. He has written more than 20 books, including The Darker Nations: A People’s History of the Third World, The Poorer Nations: A Possible History of the Global South, The Death of the Nation and the Future of the Arab Revolution, and Red Star Over the Third World. He writes regularly for Frontline, The Hindu, Newsclick, AlterNet and BirGün.