Managing The Soft Landing Of The Turkish Economy. Better Late Than Never

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Managing The Soft Landing Of The Turkish Economy. Better Late Than Never

Turkey’s GDP growth will slow down to a more sustainable 4% in 2012, down from 8.5% in 2011 and 9.0% in 2010. Driven by strong domestic consumption and private investments, Turkey seems to have no problems growing. The problem is the large current account deficit (10% of GDP) that is the result of the domestic savings rate (13% of GDP) falling short of investments (23% of GDP).

The second highest external deficit in the world makes Turkey’s decade-old economic  success story susceptible to a potential deepening of the European economic crisis. This was the case during the global financial crisis four years ago when Turkey’s growth rate slumped to -4.8% despite its healthy domestic growth dynamics. Nonetheless, Turkey’s annual GDP growth rate between 2002 and 2011 recorded a healthy average of 5.4%.

Armed with strong domestic and international credibility, the Turkish government became somewhat overconfident as it left the solution of the large current account deficit problem to the Central Bank (CBRT). The government-friendly CBRT management tried its best as it managed an orderly, yet sizeable devaluation of  the Turkish Lira in 2011. In an effort to help tame domestic consumption, it imposed a 25% limit to bank credit growth, down from as high as 40% in 2010.

However, all these measures proved insufficient as  the oil prices continued to rise into 2012, despite a softpatch in the global economic recovery. Turkey’s energy import bill exceeded USD 50 bn in 2011, accounting for 2/3 of its record-high current account deficit of USD 77 bn.

Finally, the usually growth-oriented and self-confident PM Erdogan was convinced by the more prudent economy minister Ali Babacan that something more fundamental needed to be done to reduce import dependency and to increase domestic savings. The first policy response was to unveil wide-ranging investment incentives aimed at import substitution in areas such as mining, chemicals and defense electronics that caused the trade deficit.

State Contribution to Private Pension System to Help Boost Domestic Savings

Second and more recently, the government announced measures to help improve Turkey’s notoriously low savings rate. The specific measures include a lower withholding tax rate for longer-term bank deposits  as opposed to the current practice of a 15% flat tax across all maturities, a zero withholding tax rate for equity mutual funds (defined as those having at least 75% invested in listed Turkish stocks) versus a 10% tax for all other mutual funds, and, finally, the all-important government contribution to Turkey’s relatively young but strongly growing private pension system.

In essence, the government will start matching 25% of all participants’ contributions, up to a limit of 25% of the minimum wage that currently stands around USD 500 per month (after-tax: USD 400). This means the government will contribute at most USD 125 per month to an individual’s private pension account. With 2.8 million members and TL 16 bn (USD 9 bn) in assets under management (1.2% of Turkey’s USD 772 bn GDP), the 10-year-old private pension sector welcomed this change with the hope that growth in assets under management (AUM) will accelerate. There are widely varying estimates for the pension fund size to reach TL 50-90 bn (USD 30-50 bn) in five years’ time.

We find these forecasts conservative in light of comparisons with other emerging economies such as Chile and Poland. An important difference in the comparison is that Turkey’s private pension system is a voluntary, defined-contribution pension plan (the socalled 3rd pillar in the World Bank model) whereas most Latin American and CEE countries adopted World Bank’s model with a mandatory second pillar. Thus, most Turks still rely on the government-funded social security system which is a typical PAYGO, defined benefit retirement plan. However, as Turkey’s GDP per capita now exceeds the USD 10,000 mark, the growing middle class will find the social security retirement salary insufficient to maintain post-retirement life standards, and hence, increasingly participate in the voluntary private pension plans.

Spill-over Effects of Pension Funds Growth to Turkish Capital Markets

One industry expert claimed the big jump in the private pension system will be achieved when GDP per capita exceeds USD 15,000, probably sometime between 2018 and 2020. We think Turkey’s pension funds by then will have reached the point where Poland is today. With 15% of GDP, the Turkish pension funds have the potential to reach USD 180 bn by 2020, with the following potential spill-over effects on the development of Turkish capital markets:

  • Local equities accounted for only 15% of the Turkish private pension funds – in comparison to 30% in Poland. Keeping the 15% equity allocation constant, a Merrill Lynch study estimates annual inflows of some USD 750 mn from Turkish private pension funds into local equities. Taking the Polish case as a reasonable guide, we think such inflows may soon reach USD 1.5 bn per year, more than the average USD 850 mln annually invested by foreign investors into Turkish equities.
  • Notwithstanding its reduced borrowing needs, the Turkish Treasury is offering longer term local bonds such as 10-year to help form the Turkish yield curve, helping investors and corporates better utilize debt markets. As Turkey’s EU-defined government debt-to-GDP ratio fell to 39% last year, way below the EU’s Maastricht criterion of 60%, the government no longer crowds out the debt markets, thus allowing the corporate bond market to start growing. Bonds issued by major banks offer an additional yield of around 1.0% on top of the government bond yield, currently at 9.3%, while non-bank corporate bonds offer spreads ranging from 1.5% to 4.0%.
  • The Treasury is also offering floating rate notes and inflation-linked bonds (the so-called CPI-indexed government bonds) which are essential for pension funds whose primary objective is to maintain the purchasing power of the participants against inflation. The last 10-year CPI-indexed bonds yielded 3.5% per annum above the CPI.
  • The Government plans to allow pension funds to invest into gold, real estate and SUKUK (Islamic bonds) instruments, helping broaden the pension fund investor base to more conservative sections of the society.

Asset Management Needs Further Reforms to Complement the Progress in Pensions The new incentives for the private pensions are in line with the Turkish government’s determination to help develop the local capital markets and make Istanbul a regional financial center. To this end, the tax laws are being revised to make it as easy as it is in Luxembourg to conduct asset management business in Turkey. However, the reform package did not propose any measures towards making asset management more competitive. Presently, large banks dominate the business by restricting the distribution of mutual funds to themselves. In a similar vein, the pension companies, most of which are owned by large banks, grant the management of their pension funds to sister asset management companies. Due partially to the lack of competition, the pension funds paid asset management and distribution fees as high as 3.7% of AUM in 2011.

One criticism the pension reform faces is the fact  that Turkey’s private pension system is an optional system, as opposed to the mandatory pension systems in the CEE and LatAm countries, and hence, it may not have the desired impact on the development of the local equity and corporate debt markets. While academically true, the sharp reversals in the private pension reform of the CEE countries in the aftermath of the global crisis lend support to a gradualist approach.

For example, Poland reduced pension contributions from 7.3% of the gross salary to 2.3%, diverting 5% towards social security, while Hungary nationalized its private pension system altogether. These reversals may shake the trust in the private pension system and potentially disrupt the growth of local markets. By contrast, Turkey has chosen to keep its private pension system optional, but encourage participation through a meaningful state contribution.

The article was kindly provided to us by Expat Capital - one of the largest independent investment and asset management companies in Bulgaria. Based in downtown Sofia, the company offers asset management and financial advisory services. The company has a wholly-owned licensed asset management subsidiary, Expat Asset Management, with several mutual funds and lots of individual investment accounts for a select group of clients. As of April 2012, the Expat assets under management are over EUR 28M.

Mehmet Gerz is Chief Investment Officer of Ata Asset Management, a leading independent local investment manager in Turkey. Ata manages Turkish equity and fixed-income mutual funds as well as discretionary portfolios, pension funds, and a local hedge fund investing in non-Turkish assets.

Previously, Mr. Gerz was Regional Director, responsible for investments in Turkey, MENA and EuroAsia regions, at the New York-based hedge fund Drake Capital. His professional experience also includes serving as Head of Equity Research, Strategist and Research Analyst at a number of Turkish brokerage companies, incl. Yapi Kredi and Bayindir, and as Buy-side Analyst at Sparx Asset Management.

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Image courtesy: Matthew Boyer, 2011, Flickr CC.


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