After 18 days of intense negotiations on a new financial package, an International Monetary Fund (IMF) mission failed to reach an agreement with Turkey and left Ankara on Tuesday. Mehmet Simsek, the minister of state responsible for the economy, told reporters on Monday that the talks had briefly been halted and would resume “after the removal of some disagreements on remaining issues.” On Tuesday Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said that the talks would continue after a 10-day break (Hurriyet Daily News, January 27).
Since Turkey’s previous $10 billion standby loan agreement came to an end in May, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government has resisted pressure from Turkish business circles, investors, and international financial/economic institutions to sign a new accord. Although the global financial crisis further heightened the urgency for an IMF program to inject additional funds and ensure trust in the markets, the government preferred to stall the negotiations, because it was reluctant to accept constraints on public spending before the coming elections. It has remained optimistic that it can weather the global crisis with its own resources (EDM, December 10).
The decision to put the talks on hold came as a surprise. On January 25 the governor of the Central Bank, Durmus Yilmaz, estimated that Turkey would have a foreign financing gap of around $30 billion this year and called on the government to sign the letter of intention before the local elections slated for March. His remarks about the progress in the negotiations and his emphasis on ensuring fiscal discipline were interpreted as strong signals that an agreement might soon be reached. Markets responded to Yilmaz’s remarks with stock prices increasing the next morning. When the news about halting the talks arrived, however, stocks fell (Anadolu Ajansi, January 25; ANKA, January 26).
News of an agreement had been expected before Erdogan and Simsek left for Davos to attend the World Economic Forum (WEF). In the meantime, there have been questions about the standing of the Turkish-IMF talks and whether Turkey could postpone an agreement until after the local elections in March.
Disagreements over fiscal regulations and public-sector reforms were the major cause of the deadlock in the talks. Simsek said that although the government did not want to postpone an agreement until the elections, talks on some mid- and long-term structural reforms would continue. According to experts, differences of opinion persist on several issues: local administrations; reform of state-owned enterprises; and the requirements for “financial rule,” which is the IMF’s new criterion for financial discipline. Although the IMF and the Turkish treasury have held workshops about how to define this concept, it remains a mystery to many. One expert claimed that this new requirement included stringent regulations on the budgetary deficit, the interest-free budget surplus, and the ratio of debt stock to the gross national product. These demands will probably require the introduction of new legislation that might limit political influence on economic decisions and curb government spending (www.haberturk.com, January 28; Sabah, January 28).
Some observers argue that although Simsek did his part in the negotiations, the talks hit a point at which Erdogan needs to be convinced (Milliyet, January 28). The likely constraints on the government demanded by the IMF appear to irritate Erdogan. Before leaving for Davos, he asked the IMF not to bring in new conditions for Turkey. Erdogan criticized the IMF for introducing new issues into the continuing negotiation process and reopening issues to which Turkey had already responded. Erdogan warned that this attitude increased Turkey’s concerns and sensitivity and asked the IMF to take Turkey’s unique conditions into account and stop treating it like any other country in the world (ANKA, January 28).
These remarks reflect Erdogan’s belief that Turkey needs to invest to create more jobs in order to cushion the effects of the crisis. He evidently thinks that the IMF’s demands for increasing taxes, tightening the budget, and freezing government spending will limit investments and exacerbate the effects of the crisis on the Turkish people.
Talks between the IMF and Turkey over the new loan agreement continued in Davos. Parallel to the meetings between the Turkish and the IMF teams, Erdogan met IMF Deputy Managing Director John Lipsky on January 28. Following the meeting, both Erdogan and Lipsky told reporters that they had had a fruitful discussion and would resume the talks after the 10-day break (Anadolu Ajansi, January 29).
Meanwhile, WEF President Klaus Schwab described Turkey as the top country in its region, noting its strategic location on energy routes and recently heightened diplomatic profile. Schwab said that Turkey’s recent structural reforms would help it emerge from the global crisis much stronger than before (Anadolu Ajansi, January 28).
Other experts also believe that Turkey is much stronger and better equipped to deal with the global crisis than it was with past economic crises. It was noted at a conference that the AKP government’s previous structural reforms might be paying off, particularly because the banking sector was now in good shape and the government had been relatively successful in reducing public debt, easing the inflation rate, and boosting public and foreign direct investments (Today’s Zaman, January 29).
Nonetheless, most economists have draw attention to the contraction in the Turkish economy. Since the economy is integrated closely into world markets, it is vulnerable to the adverse effects of the crisis. Stagnation in global markets harms Turkish export industries such as textiles and the automotive industry. Consequent drops in industrial production and the utilization of capacity led to a shrinking of the Turkish economy toward the end of 2008, and the growth rate is likely to drop in 2009. Yilmaz urgently called for an IMF accord to avoid liquidity problems and improve credit conditions (www.ntvmsnbc.com, January 28).
It will be interesting to see how long Erdogan will resist such pressures and insist on driving “a tough bargain” with the IMF.