x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

An unlikely oasis of tranquillity

Turkey has emerged from recent reforms with one of the fastest-growing and cheapest markets in the world.

The crowd on Istiklal Avenue, famously thronged since Byzantine times, closely resembles the financial system of Turkey in the late 20th century - hopelessly chaotic. But government reforms in the past 10 years have stabilised the economy and made investing profitable.
The crowd on Istiklal Avenue, famously thronged since Byzantine times, closely resembles the financial system of Turkey in the late 20th century - hopelessly chaotic. But government reforms in the past 10 years have stabilised the economy and made investing profitable.

Turkey and its financial markets are renowned for their bouts of manic depression. Economic conditions have routinely been unsettled, unmanageable and unpredictable, creating swings in share prices that are violent even by the standards of emerging markets. During this period of intense nervousness in economies and markets all over the world, however, Turkey has been a comparative haven of tranquillity. A new-found fiscal prudence, hard to spot elsewhere, has helped to bring inflation and interest rates under control, the perpetual devaluation of the lira has ceased and economic growth seems headed on a steep upwards trajectory, despite the global upheaval.

The unaccustomed calm has been a boon to businesses, consumers and investors. An index of Turkish stocks compiled by MSCI Barra recently showed a 45 per cent gain for the preceding 12 months, more than twice as much as the firm's broadest emerging-market index and three times the return of its most inclusive index of shares in developed markets. Major investment banks have advised clients to bet big on Turkish stocks, relative to the market's size, and they seem to have followed the recommendation. A survey by HSBC found that global fund managers held 2.7 per cent of their portfolios in Turkey, about twice the market's weighting in global indices.

"What surprised people is how defensive Turkey was throughout the turmoil," says Oliver Bell, a manager of emerging-market portfolios for Pictet Asset Management. He notes that when the global economy began to fall apart two or three years ago, some professional investors "hid in Turkey". This seems like a sensible move given the comparative strength of Turkish stocks. Mr Bell attributes it in part to the sound economic policies that used to be in short supply.

The country's leaders "have done a very good job of managing the economy", he says. "Turkey had a lot of crises caused by currency moves and they learnt to control that by mopping up excess trades one way or the other." That's just one of several policy steps that have helped to ensure continued progress, with less volatility, for the economy and markets. "Privatisation is happening and we're starting to hear that this is a true convergence story," Mr Bell says.

He means that Turkey is undergoing a process similar to that of the peripheral European Union countries in the 1990s as they brought their interest rates, foreign-exchange rates and fiscal conditions in line with those of core European countries such as Germany and France. He does not expect Turkey to glide into the EU, but that's not really the point, in his view. "Reforming is much more important," he says.

"Turkey is growing up from an emerging market to a European developed market whether it becomes European or not." Another vote of confidence comes from Komal Sri-Kumar, chief global strategist at TCW Group, a subsidiary of the French bank Société Générale. He expects Turkey to join the EU, although he adds an enormous qualifier. "Whether they allow a Muslim country in has always been an issue," he says.

"But eventually it's going to get integrated into the EU." He agrees with Mr Bell that investors need not wait for EU membership before committing capital. "Take advantage of any weakness in the market. It's a country that should do better in coming years." He emphasises the improved economic conditions, but cautions that officials "need to work on cutting the fiscal deficit", a development that encourages more discipline. He is also looking for signs that the lira is being aligned more closely with the euro.

It looks as though policymakers are getting their work done. Andrew Howell, an emerging-market strategist at Citigroup, expects Turkey's deficit to shrink to 5 per cent of economic output this year and 4.2 per cent in 2011. That's down from 5.4 per cent last year and well below the corresponding figures for the US and Japan and for countries throughout the euro zone. As for the lira, it has been hovering around 1.5 to the dollar.

Turning to other key economic yardsticks, Mr Howell foresees Turkish inflation rising this year and then coming back down to 6.6 per cent in 2011, about where it was in 2009. More troubling is the outlook for Turkey's current account - the amount of money, goods and services coming into the economy versus going out. Turkey runs a deficit that Mr Howell expects to widen steadily through next year. Putting it all together, he anticipates a healthy expansion in economic output of at least 5 per cent beyond the rate of inflation this year and next.

That should help Turkish businesses where it counts. Brett Hammond, the chief investment strategist at the fund manager TIAA-CREF, highlights the positive backdrop for corporate profits. "What's attractive about Turkey is revisions" of analysts' earnings estimates, Mr Hammond says. "They came down and now they're being revised up again." That could be "an interesting indicator right about now" and bode well for the stock market, he says, adding that estimates "are going up in Turkey much faster than in comparable emerging-market countries".

It's not just forecasts that have been going up. "Earnings have been solid," Mr Howell recently wrote to Citigroup clients. "Until recently, the market has been supported by a good fourth-quarter earnings season and growing evidence that a strong cyclical rebound is under way." That troubling "until recently" is an allusion to a 17 per cent decline in Turkish stocks in the space of three weeks beginning in mid-April. That's not much in the context of the huge run-up that preceded it and the plunge in share prices worldwide that occurred about the same time, but Mr Howell has some concerns about Turkey.

"Valuations are not as attractive as they were and the lack of a material improvement in consumer sentiment highlights the challenges in sustaining the recovery, especially in an environment of heightened political uncertainty," he says. Arrests in February of dozens of military figures over allegations of a coup plot persuaded Mr Howell to remove the "overweight" rating he had on Turkey and warn that early elections "could be a major challenge for the market".

Late last month, he reversed his recommendation and again advised being overweight. The U-turn may recall the reputation that Turkey had as a market that was wonderful or terrible and seldom anything in between. That view of Turkey holds for some advisers, and the flare-up of political turmoil won't help. Giles Conway-Gordon, the co-chief investment officer at Cogo Wolf Asset Management, acknowledges that conditions have improved, but he cautions that Turkey "is pretty much a market where you need to get the timing absolutely right".

He encourages investors to seek out "more reliably stable opportunities elsewhere". The ups and downs that characterised the Turkish market for so long help to keep valuations comparatively modest. Investors are willing to hop on the roller coaster, but only if tickets are cheap. Turkey trades at 10.2 times Citigroup's estimate of this year's earnings and 8.8 times 2011 earnings. Both figures are considerably less than for broad indices of emerging and developed markets.

Citigroup has buy recommendations on several stocks listed in the country, including the banks Isbank and Bank Asya, Tupras, an oil and gas concern, the metals producer Eregli, Petkim in chemicals, Turkish Airlines and the beverage suppliers Anadolu Efes and Coca Cola Içecek. Banking is a popular sector among analysts and money managers. Alexander Kyrtsis at UBS also has a buy rating on Isbank and Akbank, while TIAA-CREF holds Garanti Bank in its portfolios.

Mr Howell is concerned that valuations don't account for a prolonged run of political unrest in Turkey, but others suggest that an extended period of economic health isn't factored in, either. "Low nominal and real interest rates create the possibility of a sea change in the credit environment in the country," John Lomax, chief emerging-market strategist at HSBC, said in a recent report. "The market is not currently priced for such a paradigm shift."

Mr Lomax, who called Turkey his top pick among Middle East and emerging European markets, says investors are assigning too much importance to political developments and that "a lot of bad news is currently being discounted". And it's not as if all of the political news is troubling. Mr Sri-Kumar, at TCW, notes that the highly regarded economy minister, Ali Babacan, was promoted to deputy prime minister last year. "It's good that he continues to be the steward of economic policy," he says.

He encourages investors to view economic and investment prospects in Turkey relative to those in other places around the world where the stewardship leaves room for improvement. "You might have a hiccup or two in Turkey, but the US is going to go into a double-dip recession and Europe seems to be going from bad to worse," he says. "Turkey will be affected, so maybe growth comes down from 5 per cent to 3 per cent. That's a lot better than having a crisis of the kind we're talking about for Greece or Portugal.

"There are a lot of reasons why Turkey should do better." Conrad de Aenlle writes from Los Angeles about investment and personal finance issues. His blog on contrarian investing for MoneyWatch.com, "Against the Grain", can be found at http://bit.ly/NjaBa