Erdogan’s new dove: Five questions for Turkey’s central bank

For many analysts, Erdogan’s latest intervention has left the bank’s credibility in tatters. (AFP)
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Updated 15 April 2021

Erdogan’s new dove: Five questions for Turkey’s central bank

  • Erdogan fired latest governor last month
  • Dismissed two days after he raised interest rates

ISTANBUL: Turkey’s fourth central bank chief in less than two years will oversee his first policy decision on Thursday, after President Tayyip Erdogan rocked financial markets by firing a well-respected governor who had hiked rates just last month.
Erdogan replaced Naci Agbal, a policy hawk, with Sahap Kavcioglu, who has openly criticized Turkey’s tight monetary stance and who shares the president’s unorthodox view that high interest rates cause inflation.
The shock decision on March 20 raised expectations that the policy rate, now at 19 percent, would soon be cut and sent investors fleeing, knocking the lira 12 percent lower. For many analysts, Erdogan’s latest intervention has left the bank’s credibility in tatters.
Here are five questions ahead of the bank’s policy decision this morning:

1. WHAT HAS HAPPENED SINCE LAST MONTH’S RATE HIKE?
On March 18, the bank under Agbal raised rates by 2 percentage points — more than had been expected — to address inflation that was headed beyond 16 percent, and to reinforce his hawkish rhetoric. Two days later, early on a Saturday morning, he was fired.
Minutes after trading began the following Monday, the lira had plunged as much as 15 percent, to 8.485 versus the dollar, leaving it just above the record low hit the day before Agbal was appointed in November 2020.
Stocks had their worst selloff since the 2008 global financial crisis as foreigners dumped nearly $2 billion in Turkish assets in a week. The cost of insuring investments using credit default swaps jumped by 150 basis points to 450 bps.
“Because the whole change of governor has come in such a surprising fashion, the market is quite skeptical,” said Reza Karim, assistant fund manager, emerging markets debt, at Jupiter Asset Management, which has CDS insurance on an already “underweight” Turkish position.
“If they stay put ... and maintain the hawkish policy then that’s a positive sign,” he said of Thursday’s rates meeting.

2. WHERE DOES THE NEW GOVERNOR STAND?
Kavcioglu, a former banker and lawmaker in Erdogan’s ruling party, wrote in a newspaper column as recently as February that high rates do not help the economy and “indirectly cause inflation to rise.”
Since taking the job, he has downplayed those views and promised tight policy for a while given high inflation.
Asked on a call about his past columns, he told investors he would now act in line with his “institutional task” and urged them to “judge me after” the April policy decision, according to sources who took part in the call.
The assurances have resonated — for now.
All but two of 19 economists polled by Reuters expect Kavcioglu to hold rates this week. Oyak Securities said the lira could weaken if the bank’s post-meeting statement removes a reference to raising rates if needed, while Morgan Stanley warns a surprise cut would trigger a 15-20 percent plunge.

3. HOW IS POLICY LIKELY TO CHANGE?
Beyond this month, Kavcioglu is expected to cut rates sooner than would have happened under Agbal, whose hawkish moves sparked a brief lira rally that reversed a years-long exodus of foreign funds.
Five of 14 poll respondents predicted policy easing before mid-year, while seven forecast a move in the third quarter. Yet over the next two years, money markets appear to be betting rates will end up higher due to inflation pressure.
Premature rate cuts that further weaken the lira could, in turn, prompt Turkey to consider adopting some form of capital controls, some analysts say. The government has firmly dismissed this option.
“If you can’t raise rates and you don’t have sufficient reserves, then you don’t have any other choice if you want to limit exchange rate depreciation,” said Morgan Stanley’s chief economic adviser Reza Moghadam, a former IMF regional head.
“A lot of central banks that have reserve difficulties get into those (controls) but it doesn’t usually end well.”

4. WHAT ARE THE RISKS FOR INVESTORS — AND FOR TURKEY?
Investors were drawn by higher yields as Agbal adopted one of the tightest monetary policies in the world. After he was fired, sparking some big losses, some investors said they would not come back.
Ratings agencies say the reaction to Erdogan’s decision — and the harm it does to monetary policy independence — raises the risk of a balance-of-payments crisis given Turkish banks and companies have some $160 billion in short-term foreign debt.
The buffer against such a crisis is thin: a costly and unorthodox policy in 2019-2020 of selling some $128 billion in dollars to support the lira has depleted the central bank’s FX reserves by about 75 percent.
The lira’s slide, along with higher oil prices, has meanwhile raised import prices and pushed inflation up to 16.2% in March. Wall Street banks predict it will reach as much as 19 percent this quarter, keeping basic living costs high for Turks hit by the pandemic and joblessness.

5. WHAT DOES ERDOGAN WANT?
Reuters reported that Erdogan ousted Agbal for two reasons: his long-held aversion to high rates, and politics.
Erdogan was uncomfortable with Agbal’s investigation into the $128 billion in FX sales undertaken during his son-in-law Berat Albayrak’s stint as finance minister, sources said.
Agbal had promised to rebuild the FX buffer and the government has promised to stick to free-market principles. But analysts say the bank could revert to FX interventions under Kavcioglu.
Erdogan — who has shoved out three central bank governors in two years — called for single-digit rates again this month.
“Comments from Erdogan confirm his desire to cut rates rapidly and so there is clear risk of a dovish surprise this week,” said Win Thin, global head of currency strategy at Brown Brothers Harriman.
“The economy is suffering greatly from the pandemic and Erdogan is desperate to inject some stimulus quickly,” he said.


Bitcoin drops after report Binance under US probe, Tesla move

Updated 14 May 2021

Bitcoin drops after report Binance under US probe, Tesla move

  • Bitcoin dropped to $45,700, the lowest since March 1, then steadied at $49,312 in Asia morning trade on Friday
  • The world’s largest cryptocurrency fell 17 percent on Wednesday following Elon Musk’s remarks

NEW YORK/LONDON/TOKYO: Bitcoin slid to a 2-1/2-month low on Thursday after a regulatory probe into crypto exchange Binance added to pressure from Tesla Inc. chief Elon Musk’s reversing his stance on accepting the digital currency.
Bloomberg reported on Thursday that as part of the Binance inquiry, the US Justice Department and the Internal Revenue Service have sought information from individuals with insight into its business.
Bitcoin dropped to $45,700, the lowest since March 1, then steadied at $49,312 in Asia morning trade on Friday.
The world’s largest cryptocurrency fell 17 percent on Wednesday following Musk’s remarks that Tesla would stop accepting the digital token as payment for its electric cars for environmental reasons.
“Environmental matters are an incredibly sensitive subject right now, and Tesla’s move might serve as a wake-up call to businesses and consumers using bitcoin, who hadn’t hitherto considered its carbon footprint,” Laith Khalaf, an analyst at AJ Bell, said.
Bitcoin remains about 70 percent higher for the year and is more than 1,000 percent higher than its 2020 low of $3,850.
Binance did not immediately respond to a request for comment. A Binance spokeswoman told Bloomberg that the company doesn’t comment on specific inquiries but takes its legal obligations seriously and engages with regulators in a collaborative fashion.
Ethereum, the second-largest cryptocurrency, dropped to a session low of $3,543.62 and last changed hands at $3,656, down about 4 percent. On Wednesday, ethereum hit a record high of $4,380.64.
Tesla’s announcement on Feb. 8 that it had bought $1.5 billion of bitcoin and would accept it as payment for its electric vehicles has been one factor behind the digital currency’s surge this year.
Musk has faced pressure over bitcoin’s environmental impact. The cryptocurrency relies on computers competing to solve elaborate math problems, which use huge amounts of electricity.
“We are concerned about rapidly increasing use of fossil fuels for Bitcoin mining and transactions, especially coal, which has the worst emissions of any fuel,” Musk tweeted.
Musk’s comments roiled markets even though he said Tesla would not sell any bitcoin and would resume accepting it as soon as “mining” for it transitioned to more sustainable energy.
In a second tweet on Thursday, Musk denounced the “insane” amount of energy used to produce bitcoin, which pushed bitcoin lower.
Jeffrey Wang, Vancouver-based head of Americas at Amber Group, a cryptocurrency service provider, said broader selling of risk assets in traditional markets was another factor behind Wednesday’s bitcoin plunge.
“I don’t think everything is selling off just because of this news. This was kind of the straw that broke the camel’s back in terms of adding to the risk sell-off,” Wang said.
Bitcoin has struggled since hitting a record $64,895.22 in mid-April, dropping to the cusp of $47,000 just 11 days later before hovering around $58,000 since the start of May.

Environmental concerns
At current rates, bitcoin mining devours about the same amount of energy annually as the Netherlands did in 2019, data from the University of Cambridge and the International Energy Agency showed.
Tesla shares were down 2.4 percent, while the biggest US cryptocurrency exchange, Coinbase, tumbled nearly 9 percent. Smaller cryptocurrencies were less affected by the news.
“The reason given in the tweet is fossil fuel use for the mining of BTC, but most cryptocurrencies have already found more efficient ways to do that and therefore outperformed.”
Cryptocurrency dogecoin lost more than a third of its price on Sunday after Musk, whose tweets had stoked demand for the token earlier this year, called it a “hustle” on the “Saturday Night Live” comedy show.
By Tuesday, however, he was asking his followers on Twitter if they wanted Tesla to accept dogecoin and it jumped on Friday in Asia after Musk tweeted about it again and said he was working on improvements to its transaction systems.
Dogecoin rose 20 percent to 52 cents on Friday according to Binance and last traded at $0.4825.


As Saudi construction sector recovers, price of building materials rises

Updated 14 May 2021

As Saudi construction sector recovers, price of building materials rises

  • While steel made the biggest surge, the growth slowed as the year progressed, going from 40% to 28% in March

RIYADH: The price of building materials, especially steel, rose in the first quarter (Q1) of this year, as construction activity began to recover from the slowdown caused by the coronavirus disease pandemic last year.

According to the latest data from the General Authority for Statistics (GASTAT), the price of steel surged to SR3,514.73 ($937.26) per ton in Q1 of 2021, a 33 percent increase year-on-year and the highest price since 2008.

The cost of ready-mix concrete rose 14 percent year-on-year to SR203.9 per cubic meter during the same timeframe, while cables rose 21 percent year-on-year to SR38.33 per meter.

In addition, wood prices rose 15 percent year-on-year to SR3,067.49 and cement was up 5 percent to SR14.03 per 50kg bag in Q1.

While steel made the biggest surge, the growth slowed as the year progressed, going from 40 percent growth in January to 28 percent growth in March.

The increase in prices for materials comes as construction activity increased in Q1, according to a new report by real estate consultancy firm JLL.

“From a supply perspective, the first quarter recorded an increase in construction activity,” the JLL report said. According to its figures, in the residential sector in Riyadh 7,700 units were handed over in Q1, bringing the total to 1.3 million units in the capital. In Jeddah, around 2,000 units were added, bringing the total to 838,000 units.

The report estimated that 36,000 units in Riyadh and 12,000 units in Jeddah are due to be delivered this year.

FASTFACT

The report estimated that 36,000 units in Riyadh and 12,000 units in Jeddah are due to be delivered this year.

In addition to the increased activity in the residential sector, Riyadh is also set to see an additional 386,000 square meters of office space, 240 square meters of retail space and 2,800 new hotels rooms built this year.

In Jeddah, the city is forecast to gain an additional 43,000 square meters of office space, 200,000 square meters of retail space and 2,700 new hotel rooms.

However, JLL said that while it remained “cautious about the timely delivery of future projects” it believed that going forward “the government initiatives that are pushing Riyadh to be the business hub of the region are expected to spur local and international demand.”

Announced in January this year by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the ambitious Riyadh Strategy 2030 aims to create 35,000 new jobs for Saudi nationals, pump up to SR70 billion into the national economy and double the size of the capital city’s population to as many as 20 million by 2030.

The increased development in the first quarter is a welcome change from 2020, when construction activity declined in the wake of restrictions due to the pandemic.

According to the Contract Awards Index produced by the US-Saudi Business Council (USSBC), the total value of construction contracts awarded in Saudi Arabia during the third quarter of 2020 declined by 84 percent year-on-year.

However, Albara’a Alwazir, an economist at the USSBC, told Arab News that he was confident the sector would rebound, just as it had done after the downturn between 2016 and 2018. “While numerous projects have been delayed because of the pandemic, the government has stated that there will be a continued focus on megaprojects especially those that relate to Vision 2030,” he added.

This was already evident in the USSBC’s Q4 report, which found that the total value of contracts rose 115 percent quarter-on-quarter in the last three months of 2020.


World Bank: Saudi Arabia among biggest sources of remittances in 2020

Updated 14 May 2021

World Bank: Saudi Arabia among biggest sources of remittances in 2020

  • Remittances from Saudi Arabia have been slowly declining since 2015 as oil prices have moderated and the government has encouraged the hiring of Saudi nationals

RIYADH: Saudi Arabia was the third largest source of remittances globally in 2020, just behind the UAE and the US, according to the latest report from the World Bank.

The US was the biggest source country, sending $68 billion abroad last year, while foreign workers in the UAE sent home $43 billion and those in Saudi Arabia transferred $35 billion, said the report, published Thursday. Among middle-income countries, immigrants to Russia were the biggest remitters, sending $17 billion.

Remittances from Saudi Arabia have been slowly declining since 2015 as oil prices have moderated and the government has encouraged the hiring of Saudi nationals. For instance, foreign workers sent $1.8 billion to the Philippines in 2020, down 36 percent from 2015.

Despite the large drop in foreign workers in Gulf Cooperation Council states, remittances from Saudi Arabia held up in 2020 thanks in part to the cancelation of travel to Saudi Arabia, which diverted funds set aside for the Hajj pilgrimage to remittances to Bangladesh and Pakistan, according to the report. Both of those countries offered tax incentives last year to boost remittances from migrant workers abroad, while a devastating flood in July 2020 also led to an increase in payments.

Remittances to the Middle East and North Africa rose by 2.3 percent to about $56 billion in 2020, following a 3.4 percent increase in 2019, the report said. The gains came amid unexpectedly strong inflows to Egypt (up 11 percent to a record $30 billion), the fifth-largest recipient of remittances globally, and to Morocco (6.5 percent to $7.4 billion). Tunisia saw a 2.5 percent increase, while other countries, including Lebanon, Iraq, Jordan, and West Bank and Gaza all experienced double-digit declines.

Globally, remittances to low and middle-income countries fell 1.6 percent to $540 billion, a smaller decline than expected, the World Bank said. The figure is forecast to increase to $553 billion this year and to $565 billion in 2022.

In December, analysis by Arab News of the monthly remittance levels in Saudi Arabia during 2020 showed some big fluctuations throughout the year, as the impact of the coronavirus pandemic began to take hold.

Figures from the Saudi Central Bank (SAMA) showed the biggest spike was in June when the monthly amount surged 60 percent compared with June 2019.

July also witnessed a rise of 32 percent, while August, September, and October saw monthly levels increase 24.7 percent, 28.5 percent, and 19.2 percent, respectively, compared with the equivalent months last year.

Mazen Al-Sudairi, head of research at Riyadh-based financial services company Al Rajhi Capital, told Arab News: “Debt to GDP (gross domestic product) ratio in emerging economies has increased up to 70 percent recently, and the unemployment rate led by (the coronavirus disease) COVID-19 has also increased in countries such as India and the Philippines, which are the countries forming the majority of the expat population in the Kingdom. Therefore, we believe that increased remittances are due to rising unemployment and difficult economic conditions back in the home countries of expats.”

He said another reason why expats may have been sending more funds home was because their surplus income had increased as a result of being unable to travel or spend as much as normal due to COVID-19 restrictions. “Once the unemployment risks recede for expats in Saudi Arabia, as well as in home countries, this level should normalize in our view,” Al-Sudairi added.

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US stocks rebound following inflation scare

Updated 14 May 2021

US stocks rebound following inflation scare

  • Rebound comes despite worries that soaring inflation could trigger interest rate rises

LONDON: US stocks rebounded on Thursday, a day after slumping on worries that soaring US inflation could trigger interest rate rises sooner than expected, and in turn harm global economic recovery.

Focus was also on bitcoin, which resumed sharp falls after Tesla’s Elon Musk stopped allowing people to pay for his electric cars with the cryptocurrency.

While US stocks opened higher, with the Dow adding 0.3 percent, their sharp losses on Wednesday pulled Asian and European stocks along with them on Thursday.

Tokyo’s main stocks index closed down 2.5 percent and European stocks also suffered sharp losses but recovered as the opening bell in New York approached.

With little in the way of news to spur the reversal, this invites “the notion that the scope of recent losses has gone far enough to whet the appetite of buy-the-dippers who have successfully feasted over the last year or so on down moves like the one that has recently unfolded,” said analyst Patrick J. O’Hare at Briefing.com.

Stock markets were already awash with red this week owing to growing fears that the blockbuster global economic recovery and vast stimulus measures will see cashed-up consumers go on a pent-up spending spree that will strain supplies and push up costs.

And those concerns were given oxygen Wednesday by figures showing US consumer inflation spiked at 4.2 percent in April, far higher than estimates and the highest since 2008 just before the global financial crisis kicked in.

That was followed on Thursday by data showing that producer prices jumped by 6.2 percent in April, the highest pace since 2010.

The advances were driven by a rally in commodity prices such as widely used copper, iron and lumber, which are sitting at record or multi-year highs.

“For stocks this might be an even tougher moment, given that companies may find themselves struggling to pass on price increases to customers, hitting profitability and putting the year-long earnings recovery in jeopardy,” noted Chris Beauchamp, chief market analyst at IG trading group.

Tech firms, which blossomed during lockdowns as people were forced to stay home, have led the share-price losses as they are more susceptible to higher interest rates.

The Fed has repeatedly insisted it expects such sharp price spikes but they will be transitory owing to last year’s low base and policymakers will not make any adjustments until they are happy unemployment is under control and inflation is running hot for some time.

However, investors are not convinced and there is growing unease that the central bank could lose control of the situation if it does not act in time, with analysts warning it could risk people’s confidence in the institution.

Tai Hui, at JP Morgan Asset Management, remained broadly upbeat about the outlook for equities, saying that while the sell-off was heavy, the gain in US Treasury yields — a gauge of future interest rates — was less severe.

“The market’s reaction ... (was) mild, reflecting the belief that this jump in inflation will eventually calm and revert closer to the Fed’s long-term target,” he said.

Regarding Bitcoin meanwhile, after Musk cited the environmental impact caused by the computing-intense mining process of creating new units, the cryptocurrency slumped around 16 percent.

It later recovered before trading down around 10 percent at $50,400 on Thursday.


How big is Bitcoin’s carbon footprint?

Updated 14 May 2021

How big is Bitcoin’s carbon footprint?

  • Concerns mount about the way bitcoin is ‘mined’ using fossil fuels

LONDON: Tesla boss Elon Musk’s sudden u-turn over accepting bitcoin to buy his electric vehicles has thrust the cryptocurrency’s energy usage into the headlights.

Some Tesla investors, along with environmentalists, have been increasingly critical about the way bitcoin is “mined” using vast amounts of electricity generated with fossil fuels.

Musk said on Wednesday he backed that concern, especially the use of “coal, which has the worst emissions of any fuel.”

So how dirty is the virtual currency?

Power hungry

Unlike mainstream traditional currencies, bitcoin is virtual and not made from paper or plastic, or even metal. Bitcoin is virtual but power-hungry as it is created using high-powered computers around the globe.

At current rates, such bitcoin “mining” devours about the same amount of energy annually as the Netherlands did in 2019, data from the University of Cambridge and the International Energy Agency shows. Some bitcoin proponents note that the existing financial system with its millions of employees and computers in air-conditioned offices uses large amounts of energy too.

Coal connection

The world’s biggest cryptocurrency, which was once a fringe asset class, has become increasingly mainstream as it is accepted by more major US companies and financial firms. Greater demand, and higher prices, lead to more miners competing to solve puzzles in the fastest time to win coin, using increasingly powerful computers that need more energy.

Bitcoin is created when high-powered computers compete against other machines to solve complex mathematical puzzles, an energy-intensive process that often relies on fossil fuels, particularly coal, the dirtiest of them all.

Green Bitcoin?

Bitcoin production is estimated to generate between 22 and 22.9 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions a year, or between the levels produced by Jordan and Sri Lanka, a 2019 study in scientific journal Joule found.

There are growing attempts in the cryptocurrency industry to mitigate the environmental harm of mining and the entrance of big corporations into the crypto market could boost incentives to produce “green bitcoin” using renewable energy. Some sustainability experts say that companies could buy carbon credits to compensate for the impact. And blockchain analysis firms say that it is possible in theory to track the source of bitcoin, raising the possibility that a premium could be charged for green bitcoin. Climate change policies by governments around the world might also help.

Alternative energy

Projects from Canada to Siberia are striving for ways to wean bitcoin mining away from fossil fuels, such as using hydropower, or at least to reduce its carbon footprint, and make the currency more palatable to mainstream investors.

Some are attempting to repurpose the heat generated by the mining to serve agriculture, heating and other needs, while others are using power generated by flare gas — a by-product from oil extraction usually burned off — for crypto mining.

China crisis

The dominance of Chinese miners and lack of motivation to swap cheap fossil fuels for more expensive renewables means there are few quick fixes to bitcoin’s emissions problem, some industry players and academics warn. Chinese miners account for about 70 percent of production, data from the University of Cambridge’s Center for Alternative Finance shows. They tend to use renewable energy — mostly hydropower — during the rainy summer months, but fossil fuels — primarily coal — for the rest of the year.