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The economics of the ‘Turkish Spring’

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Pitched battles between anti-government demonstrators and Turkish police over several days at Istanbul’s Taksim Square constitute a national uprising against Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s incipient Islamist dictatorship. As of this writing on June 2, tens of thousands of regime opponents are in control of the heart of Istanbul while police have withdrawn. The economic distress of Turkish households is an important factor in the country’s political upheaval.

News media have already dubbed the demonstrations a “Turkish Spring”. That is a turnabout, for the “Turkish model” was touted two years ago as the solution to the economic and social problems of the failing police states of Arab nationalism. Erdogan’s supposedly moderate Islamism and dynamic economic management supposedly offered a way out for Egypt and other failed economies of the Middle East.

Erdogan had declared himself a “servant of Sharia” during his 1994 mayoral campaign in Istanbul, but most Western observers chose to take the would-be Turkish dictator at his subsequent word that he would respect the secular character of the Turkish state.

It was never to be. Erdogan did not preside over an economic miracle – contrary to the credulous estimates of many Western observes – but arranged, rather the usual sort of Third World credit bubble, which has left Turkish consumers to tighten their belts in response to a devastating debt burden. “Economic troubles will dominate the political agenda, and Erdogan’s claim to leadership of the Islamic world – let alone his own country – will look far less credible,” I warned in this space April 23 (see Turkey’s ticking debt time-bomb, Asia Times Online), just before Moody’s assigned Turkey an investment-grade rating, perhaps the poorest judgment by the rating agency since it put a “AAA” stamp on securities backed by subprime mortgages.

Turkey’s problems can’t really be compared to the 2011 revolts in Muslim North Africa, to be sure: the country’s economy will keep functioning, although far below the expectations of ordinary Turks, and its political system is robust. But the anti-government demonstrations denote a turning point in the fortunes of Turkish Islamism.

The demonstrators’ anger, to be sure, centers on Erdogan’s creeping dictatorship: the gradual imposition of Islamic law in a Turkish state founded on secular principles, the jailing of hundreds of regime opponents, and the assimilation of enormous economic power into corrupt monopolies controlled by Erdogan’s party. Leaked US diplomatic cables claimed in 2010 that Erdogan amassed a huge personal fortune through bribery during his term and commissions on the sale of Turkish assets to foreign investors. [1] Kemal Kilicdaroglu, leader of the secular opposition party CHP, compared Erdogan to Hitler.

Syria’s civil war, moreover, sharpens Turkey’s sectarian and ethnic divisions. Perhaps a fifth of Turks adhere to the Alevi sect, a branch of Islam that fairly could be described as moderate, and which votes mainly for the secular parties. Erdogan’s emergence as the leader of militant Sunnism in Syria as well as Gaza, where he patronizes Hamas, worries the Alevis, who have a long memory of Sunni persecution. The Alevis have little to do with Syria’s Alawites, the Assad family’s minority sect, but the Alevis have some sympathy for the Assad government because the Turkish Sunnis are so determined to destroy it.

The Kurdish minority comprises more than a fifth of Turkey, and its fertility rate is double or triple that of Turkish-speakers. Ethnic Turkish Sunnis – the population segment to which the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) appeals – barely make up a majority of the Turkish population, and the demographic trend will make them a minority in 20 years or less. Syria’s two million Kurds have become an independent factor as a result of their country’s civil war, with their own municipal administrations and militias. They view Arab jihadists who dominate the rebel forces with justifiable fear and distrust. Again, Erdogan’s backing of the Sunni rebels upsets Turkey’s Kurds.

Only a small minority of the AKP base, moreover, favors its Islamist agenda. Only 12% of Turks want Sharia to be the law of the land, according to an April 2013 Pew Institute survey, compared to 84% of Muslims in South Asia, 77% in Southeast Asia, and 74% in the Middle East and North Africa.

That is why Erdogan’s mandate rested on economic performance. His Sunni fundamentalist agenda does not appeal to the Turkish majority. But he drew votes from secular Turks on the putative strength of his economic management. The analogy to Hitler is in some respects odious, but it holds in characterizing Erdogan’s covert agenda to impose an ideological dictatorship. The Turkish public correctly views as creeping Sharia the government’s new laws that prohibit the sale of alcohol after 10 pm and ban any portrayal of alcohol consumption in public media.

In his 2011 presidential campaign, Erdogan emulated an earlier Anatolian, namely St Nicholas. As I wrote in a 2012 study for Middle East Quarterly,

Erdogan’s bubble recalls the experiences of Argentina in 2000 and Mexico in 1994 where surging external debt produced short-lived bubbles of prosperity, followed by currency devaluations and deep slumps. Both Latin American governments bought popularity by providing cheap consumer credit as did Erdogan in the months leading up to the June 2011 national election. [3]

Erdogan’s politically directed generosity has come back to bite Turkish consumers. Personal consumption is falling in real terms. GDP growth is close to zero, propped by a 20% rate of growth in government consumption. With government spending dominating economic activity at the margin, it is not surprising that Turkey’s inflation rate stands at 7%.

The aggregate economic data disguise growing distress in the Turkish economy. Government data distinguish salaried employment in the formal sector from “unpaid family employment” and “self-employment”. During the past year, employment in the formal sector-has shrunk by 5%, while “unpaid family employment” has risen by 5%. That means simply that manufacturing and service workers with real jobs were laid off and took the bus back to hard-scrabble farms in central Anatolia or sponged on small family businesses. This is disguised unemployment. A 5% shrinkage in the formal economy workforce is a devastating result.

Turkey’s economy, oddly vaunted as the next China, relies on low- and medium-tech exports to Europe, the Arab world, and the former Soviet Union. It grew as a cheap-labor outlet for European and some Asian manufacturers and sank as the European economic crisis, Russian economic stagnation and disarray among Muslim trading partners shrank its markets. It has a lower rate of high-school graduation than Mexico and an enormous informal economy. A few Turkish universities teach to world standards, but Turkey has nothing to compare to the talent pool of China, Taiwan or Korea.

To sustain the consumer bubble, Turkey ran a current account deficit that reached 10% in 2012, financed overwhelmingly with short-term debt-provided in large measure, according to anecdotal evidence, by the Sunni Gulf States who view Turkey as a bulwark against Iran.

Turkey’s short-term foreign debt is still growing at a 30% annual rate year on year (and at a 70% annual rate during the first three months of 2013). The economic slowdown was supposed to have reduced Turkey’s foreign borrowing; instead, it has accelerated. The patience of Turkey’s funders in the Persian Gulf is long but not unlimited.

Consumer debt outstanding has risen nearly 10-fold since 2006, and jumped by 40% during the past year. As I noted in my April 23 essay, it is hard to reconcile a 40% annual increase in consumer debt with a 5% annual increase in nominal consumer spending (inflation is running at 7%, so real spending is down by 2%). The data imply that Turkish consumers are borrowing enormous amounts to refinance the interest they owe on their existing debt.

Erdogan’s spending spree of 2011 has left Turks with a horrendous hangover. Banks cannot balloon their consumer loan book by 40% a year indefinitely; when the music stops, Turkish households will have to reduce their consumption sharply. Debt-burdened consumers know that this must happen sooner rather than later, and this presentiment probably helps sour the national mood.

“Turkey’s longer-term risks are even more daunting,” I wrote in the cited essay for Middle East Quarterly. “A developing country cannot sustain a fertility rate that leads to a rapid increase in elderly dependents, yet the fertility rate of Turks for whom Turkish is a first language has been in steady decline over the past fifteen years, falling to only 1.5-equal to that of Europe-while its population is aging almost as fast as Iran’s, leaving the country’s social security system with a deficit of close to 5 percent of GDP. “If we continue the existing [fertility] trend, 2038 will mark disaster for us,” Erdogan warned in a May 2010 speech.” Within a generation, half of Turkey’s military age men will come from Kurdish-speaking homes if the present trend continues.

In retrospect, analysts of Turkish politics may conclude, Erdogan’s Islamism was not a fresh start for Turkey but rather a belated attempt to pour Islamic glue into the cracks that threaten to fracture Turkish society. He may already have failed. A growing proportion of Turkish voters has concluded that they made a deal with the devil, and that the devil hasn’t kept his side of the bargain.

Notes:
[1]
US cables claim Turkish PM Erdogan has eight Swiss bank accounts, Hurriyet Daily News, November 29, 2010.
[2]
The World’s Muslims: Religion, Politics and Society, Pew Research Center on Religion and Public Life, April 30, 2013.
[3]
Ankara’s ‘Economic Miracle’ Collapses, The Middle East Quarterly, Volume XIX, Number 1, Winter, 2012.

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Economy

Omicron Variant: Implications on Global Economy

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The prolonged battering of the Covid-19 has been considerably hitting the world economy. While vaccination and a receding in the cases of the cases in virus transmission has provided   brief respite to   the countries that are grappling with the recurring surge of the virus, the resurfacing of another virulent   mutation termed as  Omicron sounds ominous for the future of the world economy .Against this backdrop, this article projects the plausible economic ramifications of the new strand of the virus on the global economy.

The economic downward trajectory occasioned by the Covid-19 has been unprecedented in recent global history. While the economic depression of 2007-08 proved disastrous for the world economy, the toll   emanating from Covid-19 pandemic and consequent   economic stagnation has surpassed all the previous   economic plunge .In fact, some analysts have gone to the extent of   comparing the Covid-19 induced economic depression with the great depression of the 1920s.However, whether the far reaching repercussions of the Covid-19 on the global economy will be as momentous is still remains to be seen. Nevertheless, the   profound   economic jolt triggered by the Covid-19 pandemic is poised to reverberate across the world through shaping socio-economic and political events

The scar inflicted by a protracted economic recession owing to Covid-19 is apparent in the arduous path of economic rejuvenation in the western countries and eastern countries alike. Virtually every country is grappling with the toll that Covid-19 has incurred in the economy. The western countries are finding it   difficult to retrieve the losses that Covid-19 has precipitated. Although the swift vaccination of the western countries at the expense of the developing countries has provided a fleeting lull in their battle against Covid-19,it seem however the virus has resurfaced with increasing virulence in order to offset whatever gain these embattled countries managed to garner in their fight against Covid-19.

The skyrocketing and unprecedented inflation of the western countries coupled with a plummeted consumer confidence has meant a prolonged period of stagnation of their economies. However, in the wake of vaccination induced temporary respite in the viral cases, the economies rebounded strongly from the pits of economic recession. However, these hard-earned   gains will be reversed in the event of the advent of any new strand of the virus. Already, the delta variant which originated in India had triggered a spate of Covid-19 flare-ups in the United   States and United Kingdom. Against this backdrop, the Omicron variant is set to aggravate the   economic woes of the western countries and in turn the world.

While the western countries are reeling from economic stagnation, the developing and underdeveloped countries are confronting many abysmal realities due to their prevailing economic backwardness. Their economic plight has been lingering in want of adequate vaccination due to the apathetic stance of the western countries and global governance institutions .Therefore, while the western countries has rebounded from the Covid-19 induces economic predicaments, the difficulties confronted by the developing countries has continued unabated. While the influence of advanced countries and their less advanced counterparts in world-economy is inextricably tied, the callous attitude of the developed countries to the vaccination of countries in Asia and South Asia turn out to   be sheer lack of economic prudence.

While western countries are considered as the economic hub of the world, it is however the developing countries on which the vital supply chains of the world economy hinges on. Therefore, the tardy pace of vaccination in these countries is prejudicial to the global economic stability. The economic ramification of the slow pace of vaccination is twofold for the world economy. Firstly, the slow vaccination hinders the revival of the economic activities in the developing countries thereby obstructing the supply chain of the commodities .This supply chain crisis has ripple effect in the western economies. The recent predicament of inflation and attending macroeconomic woes in countries like the United States and United Kingdom is manifestation of the supply chain crisis plaguing the world economy. Due to the paucity of commodities and raw materials, the prices of necessary goods has escalated in the western countries which has plummeted consumer confidence and triggered a vicious cycle of stagflation in the economy that is reminiscent of the 1970s when a similar crisis in oil supply has  precipitated economic downturn in the western economies.

Secondly, the slow rate of vaccination also run the risk of allowing the virus to mutating to newer and much virulent variants and due to the unfettered communication as a result of globalization the emergence of any new variant doesn’t remain in the confines of any border rather proliferate like wildfire and precipitate global crisis. Therefore, the lack of vaccination or slack pace therefore has global repercussions. Therefore, it is judicious of the developed countries to concentrate efforts in contributing to the vaccination of the less developed countries which will yield good results for their economy.

The ubiquitous mechanism in battling Covid-19 remains one of containment that entails halting economic and other activities and insulating the countries from other countries through imposing border controls, curbs on air communication and other stringent measures echoing protectionist attitude. However, these measures are antithetical to the spirit of the globalization and global trade. While lockdowns and other protectionist measures yield temporary improvement in the Covid  cases, it is not viable in the longer term. Besides, lockdowns have deleterious ramifications on the economy and further aggravate economic rebounding of the developed countries and developing countries alike. Therefore, efforts should be aimed at preventing the Covid cases rather than grappling with the Covid with a knee-jerk policy of improvisation. .

Moreover,Covid-19 has already occasioned far-reaching economic fallout in the world economy. Indications abound regarding the fact that the world economy is verging on profound and prolonged recession. Against the backdrop of ominous predictions and slackening growth and painful inflation of the world economy, the prospects of the world economy due the advent of a new variant remain mired in obscurity. It can be concluded that the economic repercussions of yet another novel variant will be momentous and will offset hard-earned growth of the countries .Unlike previous precedent of haphazard policy and knee-jerk policy solutions, this time around the countries need to undertake challenge much prudently and should concentrate all of their efforts aiming at universal vaccination of all countries so as to prevent the resurfacing of similar virulent viral strands.

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A Good Transport System Supercharges the Economic Engine

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The infrastructure bill in the U.S. has been signed into law.  At the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), they are celebrating the fruition of a couple of decades, at least, of hard work publicizing the decaying infrastructure and lobbying for a fix-it bill.  Countless delegations have visited the White House and met with staff to present their case.  And something for their efforts is better than nothing. 

They also started a grading system, giving an overall grade — currently C minus, a notch above the previous one.  The bill seeks improvement in roads, bridges and transit although it falls short of the ASCE estimates for what is needed.  For example, the bill contains $39 billion for transit (ASCE grade of D minus) but there is a backlog of $176 billion that is needed.  Given Republican opposition to spending and the compromises made to pass the bill, the administration got what they could — they can always fight for more later. 

This opposition against infrastructure spending is somewhat incomprehensible because it generates jobs and grows the economy.  Too much spending, too fast has inflationary potential but that is caused by too much money chasing too few goods, usually not when there is a tangible product — improved transit, roads and bridges in this case.  And then there are also other ways of checking inflation. 

This bill is a start but still a long way from having high speed cross-country electric trains as in other major industrialized countries.  These are the least polluting and especially less than airplanes which emit six times more CO2 per passenger mile. 

Why is the U.S. so lagging in high-speed rail when compared with Europe and Japan?  Distances are one reason given although these are a function of time.  No one would have thought of commuting 30 miles each way to work in the 19th century but it is not uncommon now for some to be quite willing to sit 45 minutes each way on a train for the pleasure of living in the greenery of suburbia. 

The bill also includes $110 billion for roads and bridges.  Unfortunately the backlog of repair has left 42.7 percent of roads in sub-standard condition costing motorists an estimated $130 billion per year in extra vehicle repair and maintenance.  Some $435 billion is now needed to repair existing roads plus $125 billion for bridges, $120 billion for system expansion and $105 billion for system enhancements like increasing safety — a necessary improvement given a changing environment such as an increase in bicycle traffic.  Allowing for round-off discrepancies, the total amounts to $786 billion (in the funding and future need section of reference).  Increases in severe weather events have also had their effect, causing damage to roadways and further burdening the repair budget.  

New technologies (in the innovation section of reference) like advanced pavement monitoring on key roads, using moisture and temperature sensors embedded in the roadway, now make it possible to assess pavements quickly without impacting road users.  This leads to earlier repair and in addition new materials increase the life cycle.  Much of this requires increased investment up front to take advantage of the new innovations. 

Above all one can never afford to forget that a good transport system acts like a supercharger for the economic engine.

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Another Look at the Prospects of a Eurasian Digital Platform

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In view of the idiosyncratic features of Eurasia with respect to the gravity of distance, a common Eurasian platform for digital economic agreements may allow the region to attenuate the effects of distance and severe economic fragmentation — most notably in the regulatory sphere — emanating from the sheer size of Eurasia and the multiplicity of regional integration arrangements. By consolidating regional, bilateral, as well as corporate alliances, a common Eurasian digital platform would allow its members to introduce greater consistency and compatibility into the existing set of digital economic agreements, thus providing the conditions for multilateralising existing digital arrangements and for creating new digital economic accords.

One of the ways to create a digital “platform of platforms” for Eurasia that is to include platforms for regional integration arrangements, regional development banks and regional financing arrangements (RFAs) of the countries of Eurasia.

  • The platform for regional integration arrangements would work towards advancing greater inter-operability into the digital platforms of Eurasia’s regional groupings such as the EU, the EAEU, ASEAN, RCEP, EFTA, BIMSTEC, SAFTA, GCC.
  • The platform for regional development banks and funds such as EDB, EIB, ADB, EBRD, SDF, CAF would focus on building project portfolios in the area of digital cooperation/digital connectivity/digital inclusiveness and work to advance digital economic agreements (DEAs) on the basis of the existing digital arrangements concluded by countries such as Singapore.
  • The platform for regional financing arrangements (ESM, EFSD, Chiang Mai Initiative Multilateralization, Arab Monetary Fund) would focus on the coordination of anti-crisis measures, the creation of ex-ante anti-crisis response mechanisms based on the use of “big data” and forward looking indicators obtained through digital cooperation and data exchange.

These three platforms can reinforce one another and can be further complemented by country-level and corporate-level platforms to form a Eurasian ecosystem of digital cooperation and inter-operability.

Such a Eurasian “platform of platforms” is:

  • Digital: it advances digital cooperation, including digital trade at the level of countries and regions
  • Regional: it places particular emphasis on building cooperation in areas that have hitherto lacked coordination, namely among regional integration arrangements and their development institutions
  • Scalable: it can be replicated in other parts of the world as well as at the global level via creating a regional layer of global governance

The current economic framework in Eurasia is fragmented and lacks the digital connectivity that would be predicated on cross-country and cross-regional digital agreements. This in turn limits the capability of countries to coordinate policies in areas such as trade, migration, digital economy development. A common platform would address the issue of the “digital gap” across the countries of Eurasia via promoting greater “digital inclusivity”, most notably with respect to the low-income developing economies. Such a common digital platform for Eurasia may prove to be particularly important for land-locked developing countries that face notable geographical/logistic barriers to trade.

Indeed, of all of the different parts of the global economy Eurasia stands to benefit the most from greater digital connectivity and inclusivity, given the prominence of the “distance factor” that constrains the intensity of economic cooperation within the region. The gravity of distance is particularly costly for Eurasia’s land-locked economies — in fact Eurasia harbours 26 out of 44 (59%) of all of the world’s landlocked countries. Moreover, the scale of “inwardness” of some of the regions of Eurasia in terms of geographical location is truly unique, whereby Kazakhstan is the largest landlocked country in the world, while Bishkek is the farthest capital city from the coast in the world (all top-5 of the most distant capitals from the sea coast in the world are in Asia).

Existing research suggests that digital platforms may exert a sizeable effect in reducing the gravity of distance: as noted by Pierre-Louis Vézina, “distance between countries impedes international trade, but it matters 65% less for trade on the eBay platform than for traditional offline trade… The online world is flatter”. Yet another study focusing on the EU evaluated the importance of distance for e-commerce. This study of 721 regions in five countries of the European Union shows that while distance is not “dead” in e-commerce, there is evidence that express delivery in e-commerce reduces distance for cross-border demand.

Ways of measuring the effectiveness of a common platform would include the scale of liberalization and trade facilitation in digital trade across the Eurasian platform; increases in the size of the portfolio of joint investment projects related to the digital economy on the part of the region’s development institutions, increases in cross-border and cross-regional trade and investment associated with the digital economy. The number of multilateral digital economic agreements (DEAs) facilitated by the platform would be a measure of the contribution of the initiative to multilateralism. Another important metric is increases in connectivity arising from the creation of the platform — this would concern increases in digital connectivity/inclusivity, most notably in developing economies.

A common digital platform in Eurasia will serve to improve coordination across countries as well as regional integration arrangements and their development institutions. It will also serve to transform the landscape of trade agreements by facilitating the conclusion of digital economic agreements and multilateralising existing digital accords. The common platform will also advance international cooperation in the digital sphere and other areas pertaining to the Fourth Industrial Revolution to strengthen the response to the Covid pandemic and improve the region’s capabilities in the health care sphere as well as other areas pertaining to the development of human capital. A more cooperative framework for Eurasia that aims to emulate best practices and standards across the platform will also be conducive to longer-term cooperation, a more active use of ESG standards and greater emphasis placed on economic sustainability.

The creation of the Eurasian digital platform may be a step towards building a global network of cooperation on the basis of a “bottom-up” plurilateral cooperation among regional blocs rather than a “top-down” framework devised at the global level. Such an approach conforms with the principles contained in the WEF’s White paper on Globalization 4.0 that advocates the use of flexible plurilateral trade agreements as a way of further advancing trade openness in key areas, including in digital trade and e-commerce: “open plurilateral agreements of this nature are the most promising way available to update the trade rulebook without further fragmenting the world economy and weakening its crucial multilateral foundation”.

The formation of an open digital platform for Eurasia renders it amenable to replication at the level of not only regional arrangements, but also at the level of country-to-country cooperation as well as multilateral corporate platforms. An important aspect of the operation of such a platform is the principle of openness and inclusivity — whereby developing countries benefit from greater “digital inclusion” and the possibility to join digital alliances with advanced economies across Eurasia. In this way, the operation of such a platform contributes to a more sustainable and balanced economic paradigm across Eurasia.

From our partner RIAC

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