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Turkish Lira Headwinds and Tailwinds

March 18, 2019 | Multi-Asset

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While macroeconomic forces are favorable for the Turkish lira, we recently reduced our long exposure as geopolitical risks rise.

Monetary Policy Delivers Tailwinds

The Turkish lira is currently one of the two largest long exposures in our currency strategy (along with the Philippine peso). The lira remains very undervalued, but we have concern that geopolitical risks may threaten it going forward.

Turkey experienced sharply rising inflation in 2018 to a peak of 25%. The Turkish central bank belatedly responded to this by sharply increasing its policy interest rate. From the peak late last year, Turkey's inflation rate has fallen back to just under 20%, and so far the central bank has kept the policy rate high.

The lira remains very undervalued, but we have concern that geopolitical risks may threaten it going forward.

When central banks don't immediately cut policy rates in response to inflation, then real interest rates rise. That's exactly what has happened in recent months, and it's been good for our long lira exposure.

Geopolitical Risks Deliver Headwinds

Despite this tailwind, we recently reduced our long Turkish lira position because geopolitical risks against Turkey are rising.

Turkey has signed a deal to buy military equipment, including very advanced anti-aircraft missile systems, from Russia. Payments have already commenced, and delivery might begin in a few months.

That's problematic for the United States because Turkey is a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). By buying a Russian defense system and potentially using it in conjunction with NATO defense apparatus in Turkey, Turkey compromises the security of NATO and, thus, the United States. NATO and the United States are therefore opposed to the deal, and the United States has begun sanctioning Turkey because of it.

We think this may become a larger issue in Turkish-U.S. relations. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan insists that Turkey won't back down from its plans. And we don't think the United States will back down in its opposition to those plans. U.S. President Donald Trump has not intervened directly in this issue to date but may do so. The U.S. doesn't have much to lose from escalating disagreement. So while Trump-Erdogan relations had improved since a year ago, that might not last.

Similar tensions occurred in 2018, and that period coincided with the significant midyear decline in the lira. Although we don't think geopolitics were the primary cause of that decline, geopolitics did coincide with it, so markets are likely to link the two things while seeing the situation as adverse for Turkey without much impact on other countries' markets.

So, while the inflation and monetary policy are favorable for our lira position (unlike during the summer of 2018), there is now a growing chance that geopolitical risks will rise in a repeat of last summer, with a Trump versus Erdogan confrontation on the defense issue.

Our Positioning

With the lira strongly benefiting from the monetary environment in recent months, we recently reduced our exposure. We're still long, but given these geopolitical risks, our position is now reduced. We will watch the situation, and consider increasing our position at more attractive levels if this geopolitical issue creates a bigger opportunity.

Thomas Clarke, partner, is a portfolio manager on William Blair’s Dynamic Allocation Strategies team.