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Turkey's central bank kept its benchmark interest rate unchanged Thursday, pausing a cycle of rate cuts and launching an "open-ended" policy review after inflation surged to its highest level since the beginning of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's 19-year rule.
The Monetary Policy Committee, led by Governor Sahap Kavcioglu, held its one-week repo rate at 14% as forecast by all 20 analysts surveyed by Bloomberg, in its first meeting since inflation hit a record 36.1%. Soaring prices have caused an outcry among Turks who've seen the value of their earnings plummet in the space of a few months.
While most emerging markets have begun tightening monetary policy to head off global price pressures, Turkey cut rates by 500 basis points in four consecutive meetings before Thursday's, an aggressive easing cycle demanded by Erdogan's high-stakes bid to boost growth and reorient the economy toward manufacturing and exports.
In Thursday's statement, the central bank did not reinforce its December pledge to avoid rate cuts during the first quarter of 2022. It said, however, that it would conduct a comprehensive review of its policy framework to prioritize the Turkish lira, battered by the rate cuts that have pushed real yields deep into negative territory.
Market reaction to Thursday's decision was muted, however, with investors welcoming the pause but complaining that Turkish monetary policy had become more tethered to Erdogan's political whims than the central bank's official guidance.
After the jump in inflation and slide in the lira, "a rational decision should have been a rate hike," said Piotr Matys, an analyst at InTouch Capital Markets Ltd. "Trying to decipher the overall message embedded in the statement seems to be a pointless exercise as the market seems to listen more to what President Erdogan has to say on monetary policy than the central bank."
The lira was trading 0.8% higher against the dollar at 13.3194 as of 2:54 p.m. local time after advancing as much as 1.2% on the heels of the decision. Those moves were relatively restrained in comparison to the sharp depreciation and wild swings the currency has witnessed in recent months.
The fact that the central bank dropped its earlier pledge to maintain the hold policy for the first quarter suggests the central bank could "keep the interest rates unchanged for longer," according to economist Haluk Burumcekci, founder of Burumcekci Research and Consulting in Istanbul. He described the new phase as an "open-ended, indefinite and mysterious review process."
Keeping rates unchanged might have carried risks for the governor, as Erdogan has fired three governors since 2019 amid disagreements over the direction of Turkey's monetary policy. But the president has softened his tone in recent comments, saying borrowing costs would fall gradually in 2022 and the lira would slowly strengthen.
Erdogan's comments echoed those of Treasury and Finance Minister Nureddin Nebati, who told Bloomberg last week that policymakers would wait to see how the economy responds in the first quarter to the last round of easing. The central bank had signaled last year that December's rate cut would likely be the last of the current cycle.
A self-described "enemy" of high interest rates, Erdogan's intense pressure for lower borrowing costs last year unleashed an unprecedented rout in the lira.
The Turkish currency lost as much as half its value in three months before stabilizing after the government introduced emergency measures in December, including a program to compensate lira holders for major currency declines.
But the lira depreciation, combined with surging global energy prices, has already translated into soaring prices and a worsening outlook.
The inflation rate hit 36.1% in December. Inflation expectations for the next 12 months jumped to 25.37% from 21.39%, according to the central bank's January survey of market participants. Some Wall Street banks predict last year's currency crisis could push inflation beyond 50% although Nebati argues that it will peak early and at a far lower rate.
Kavcioglu will update the bank's base-case scenario for inflation through 2022 and the following two years on Jan. 27. The central bank currently sees consumer-price growth ending 2022 at 11.8% according to its latest inflation report published in October.
The statistics agency will publish January inflation data on Feb. 3.
(Recasts with analyst quotes in the fifth and seventh paraghraphs)
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