Erdogan tells Turks to buy crumbling lira as Trump turns the screws

ISTANBUL/WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Tayyip Erdogan told Turks on Friday to sell their gold and dollars to support the crumbling lira, which was in free fall as U.S. President Donald Trump escalated a feud with NATO ally Turkey by doubling tariffs on metals imports.

The lira TRYTOM=D3 has long been falling on worries about Erdogan’s influence over monetary policy and worsening relations with the United States. That turned into a rout on Friday. The currency dropped as much as 18 percent at one point, the biggest one-day fall since a 2001 financial crisis in Turkey.

Reverberations spread through global markets, with European stock markets especially hit as investors took fright over banks’ exposure to Turkey. U.S. stocks were also rattled.

The lira has lost more than 40 percent this year. It hit a new record low after Trump announced he would punish Ankara in a wide-ranging dispute. He said he had authorized higher tariffs on imports from Turkey, imposing duties of 20 percent on aluminum and 50 percent on steel.

The lira, he noted on Twitter, “slides rapidly downward against our very strong Dollar!”

“Our relations with Turkey are not good at this time!” he wrote.

An important emerging market, Turkey borders Iran, Iraq and Syria and has been mostly pro-Western for decades. Financial upheaval there risks further destabilizing an already volatile region.  

Without naming countries, Erdogan said supporters of a failed military coup two years ago, which Ankara says was organized by a U.S.-based Muslim cleric, were attacking Turkey in new ways since his re-election two months ago.

The new duties on Turkey are double the level that Trump imposed in March on steel and aluminum imports from a range of countries. The White House said he had authorized them under a section of U.S. trade law that allows for tariffs on national security grounds.

Turkey’s trade ministry said the tariffs were against World Trade Organisation rules.

FOCUS ON PASTOR

While Turkey and the United States are at odds over a host of issues, the most pressing disagreement for Trump has been the fate of American Christian pastor Andrew Brunson, who is on trial on terrorism charges for allegedly supporting a group that Ankara blames for a failed coup in 2016. He denies the charges.

Turkish officials held talks in Washington this week but there was no breakthrough.

(Graphic: Emerging market currencies slide – tmsnrt.rs/2vzelu5)

The Turkish crisis set off a wave of selling across emerging market assets, reviving the specter of contagion that has been the sector’s Achilles heel for decades.

The lira sell-off deepened concern over whether over-indebted Turkish companies will be able to pay back loans taken out in euros and dollars after years of overseas borrowing to fund a construction boom under Erdogan.

The president, who says a shadowy “interest rate lobby” and Western credit ratings agencies are attempting to bring down Turkey’s economy, appealed to his countrymen’s patriotism.

“If there is anyone who has dollars or gold under their pillows, they should go exchange it for liras at our banks. This is a national, domestic battle,” he told a crowd in the northeastern city of Bayburt.

“Some countries have engaged in behavior that protects coup plotters and knows no laws or justice,” he said. “Relations with countries who behave like this have reached a point beyond salvaging,” said Erdogan, who warned of “economic war.”

Turkey, home to the Incirlik air base which is used by U.S. forces in the Middle East, has been a NATO member since the 1950s. It is host to an X-band radar, a critical part of the Western alliance’s missile defense system again Iran.

Ivo Daalder, a former U.S. ambassador to NATO and now president of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs think tank, said Turkey could grind decision-making at NATO’s headquarters in Brussels to a halt if the dispute with Trump got out of hand.

FILE PHOTO: A money changer counts Turkish lira banknotes at a currency exchange office in Istanbul, Turkey August 2, 2018. REUTERS/Murad Sezer/File Photo

“Also completely underestimated is Turkey’s capacity to effectively shut down everything that happens in Brussels if they want to, because Brussels works on consensus and nothing, literally nothing happens without consensus,” he said.

COUP ALLEGATIONS

Although Erdogan struck a defiant tone, his foreign ministry called for diplomacy and dialogue to solve problems with Washington and Trade Minister Ruhsar Pekcan said “we implore President Trump to return to the negotiating table.”

Ankara wants the United States to extradite Fethullah Gulen, a Pennsylvania-based cleric who Turkish authorities say masterminded the coup attempt in which 250 people were killed. Gulen denies the allegation.

Brunson, an evangelical Presbyterian from North Carolina, was jailed for allegedly supporting a group that Turkey blames for the failed coup and was moved from prison to house arrest in July.

His cause resonates with Trump’s Christian conservative supporters, who could be influential as Republicans seek to retain control of Congress in midterm elections in November.

Jay Sekulow, an attorney for Trump who is also representing Brunson’s family, told talk-show host and political commentator Sean Hannity’s radio program on Friday: “We’re close to getting a resolution in that case.” He offered no further details.

Erdogan enjoys the support of many Turks even though food, rent and fuel prices have all surged.

Some economists were unimpressed by the government’s handling of the crisis.

“Confidence needs to be regained. It is obvious how it will be done: since the final decision-maker of all policies in the new regime is the president, the responsibility of regaining confidence is on his shoulders,” said Seyfettin Gursel, a professor at Turkey’s Bahcesehir University.

(Graphic: Turkish banks’ external assets and liabilities – tmsnrt.rs/2McsLts)

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan addresses his supporters in Rize, Turkey August 10, 2018. Cem Oksuz/Presidential Palace/Handout via REUTERS

Additional reporting by Susan Heavey, Matt Spetalnick, Yara Bayoumy and David Brunnstrom in Washington and Tuvan Gumrukcu in Ankara; Writing by David Stamp and Alistair Bell; Editing by Dominic Evans, Mark Trevelyan and Frances Kerry

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