April 30, 2020 / 8:30 AM / a month ago

UPDATE 3-Turkish central bank chief defends crisis-era drop in reserves

* Bank cuts inflation forecast, teeing up more easing

* Turkey so far unable to secure funding from Fed, others

* Chief says central bank not defending lira levels (Adds U.S. ambassador comment on Fed swaps, updates reserves data)

By Ali Kucukgocmen and Ezgi Erkoyun

ISTANBUL, April 30 (Reuters) - The head of Turkey’s central bank mounted a defence of its crisis-era policies on Thursday, playing down a sharp drop in foreign currency reserves and dismissing concerns that it was defending the currency from falling past key levels.

In an online presentation, Governor Murat Uysal said the coronavirus pandemic brought on "extraordinary circumstances" in which temporary volatility was expected in the bank's financial buffer tmsnrt.rs/3bOJYmo.

Yet in a nod to the growing cash crunch, Uysal said he continued to hold talks on foreign swap lines with several central banks. He declined to give details and said no attempt had been made with the International Monetary Fund, an option President Tayyip Erdogan has dismissed on political grounds.

The central bank also lowered its inflation forecast for end-2020 to 7.4%, from 8.2% earlier, opening the door to more rate cuts. Steps taken to slow the outbreak are expected to tip the economy into its second recession in less than two years.

“Volatility is normal ... and in our reserves it is due to extraordinary circumstances,” Uysal told journalists and economists in the presentation.

The central bank is backstopping much of Turkey’s financial response to the pandemic, including buying a record of some $5 billion of government bonds since the end of March, most of it from an unemployment insurance fund.

The money-printing has pressured the lira, which has fallen 14% so far this year, slowing the expected drop in inflation.

At the same time, the central bank has aggressively burned through its foreign reserves to fund, via swaps, unorthodox efforts by Turkey’s state banks to prop up the lira, which has hovered just below 7 versus the dollar since mid-April.

Based on reserves data and the calculations of traders, the state banks have sold at least $32 billion in dollars this year, already matching the value of last year’s market interventions.

The result has been a dramatic fall in the central bank’s net FX reserves to $25 billion as of last week, from more than $40 billion at the beginning of 2020. Excluding the swaps with state banks, some economists say the net reserves may have already fallen into negative territory.

Uysal said it was a “temporary” drop in the buffer, and added the lira’s decline in recent months shows the bank is not targeting certain levels.

“We are not acting to defend the exchange rate,” he said. “There might be periods in which we cannot manage merely with the interest rate, so we value exchange rate stability.”

The lira dipped 0.6% to 6.989 on Thursday.

CALLING THE FED

Analysts say stretching the central bank’s reserves too thinly could in a worst case result in Turkey failing to service some of its relatively high external debt costs of some $170 billion this year.

“One country we remain bearish on is Turkey,” said Sara Grut, Goldman Sachs emerging markets (EM) strategist in London.

“They have a pretty large funding gap. A lot of that is corporate debt and the risk is that this spills over to the sovereign, which has very limited reserves.”

In its search for funds, Ankara has appealed directly to Washington for a swap line from the Federal Reserve, which has facilities with some other emerging markets.

But it is far from clear the Fed would agree given questions over the central bank’s policy independence, and because such lines are meant to support big foreign dollar markets and not serve as a credit facility.

U.S. ambassador to Turkey David Satterfield said on Thursday Turkey would need to meet the Fed’s financial and monetary conditions for support, not political conditions.

If foreign funding falls through, Erdogan may have to seek IMF support or implement capital controls, analysts say.

The central bank’s inflation downgrade leaves the door open for Turkey to extend an aggressive easing cycle that began in July, when the policy rate was 24%, and has seen the bank cut rates eight straight times to 8.75%.

The bank cut its oil price assumption to $32.6 per barrel from $60, which would boost the energy-import dependent country.

The bank continues to expect inflation will fall to 5.4% at the end of 2021, from 11.86% last month. A Reuters poll showed economists expect inflation to fall to 10.88% in April.

Additional reporting by Nevzat Devranoglu, Can Sezer, Daren Butler and Tom Arnold; Writing by Jonathan Spicer; Editing by Dominic Evans, William Maclean

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