"Made in Turkey" - but for how long?

During a flight from Istanbul to Europe, this observer had the great fortune to strike up a conversation with a gentleman named Mehmet. Mehmet and his wife, along with half of the economy section of the plane, were on their way to a two week tour of South America. All of the tour participants were of retirement age or older, wore gold watches and jewelery, and lived in some of the nicer residential areas of Istanbul. They collectively represent a sort of golden generation of Turks, who were born toward the beginning of the Turkish Republic. Ataturk's reforms have influenced the entirety of their personal and professional development. They are accordingly some of the staunchest defenders of secular and westernized Turkey, since it is they who largely realized Ataturk's vision and have been its greatest beneficiaries.

Mehmet began his career in the navy as a cadet at Turkey's naval academy and ultimately served as a electronics technician. He spoke with great pride about the technical training he received from the US Navy and also boasted that his daughter completed a masters in electrical engineering from a major American university. When Mehmet left the Turkish Navy, he started a manufacturing business with the technical expertise, which he had acquired during his career. His factory, which is located on the Asian side of Istanbul, has a vibrant business producing electronic components used in televisions made by Turkey's largest household electronic goods manufacturer, Vestel.

Mehmet's manufacturing business serves as a microcosm of Turkey's economic renaissance, which has particularly bloomed during the past few years of the AKP leadership. No longer dominated by state-owned businesses, agriculture and textiles, Turkey's economy emerged from a politically tumultuous period in the 1990s with an aggressive approach and strong support from foreign investors. According to the president of the
Turkish Confederation of Businessmen and Industrialists, Rızanur Meral, 60% of Turkey's exports are purchased by European Union members. Turkey's historically weak currency, lower wage levels, emerging domestic economy, long-time NATO membership and proximity to Europe have made it a logical location for manufacturing growth.

While the lure of these conditions continues to prevail for the most part, Mehmet's forecast for the future of his business would appear to have great relevance to the prospects of the Turkish economy in general. "In three years I will have to close my production line," Mehmet predicted. In order to compete with Chinese manufacturers vying for Vestel's supply contracts, Mehmet's business has been forced to cut the price of its electronic components. These cuts will eventually render his domestic production operations completely unprofitable - a phenomenon that is relevant to many of the world's emerging market economies including Turkey.

Mehmet's story exposes one of the many vulnerabilities of the Turkish economy, which this observer views as an increasingly visible theme for 2008. While Turkey's labor costs may be low compared to Western Europe or even most of Eastern Europe, it offers little advantage when compared to India or China. Moreover, raw material costs in India and China benefit from substantial state subsidization. Due to Turkey's considerable trade with Europe, local Turkish suppliers of raw materials have raised their prices to European levels and the Turkish market furthermore does not feature nearly the same level of raw material subsidization.

Throughout 2007 the great strength of the Turkish lira, buoyed by record levels of foreign investment covering Turkey's growing deficit as well as by substantial foreign exchange trading, kept pace with the rising price of oil. Unlike in the US economy, which has felt the effects of higher energy costs, the Turkish economy was relatively buffered. Despite this situation,
the following analysis from a Bloomberg article references a chronic fault in Turkey's manufacturing system.
“The essential problem for Turkey is the fact that manufacturers rely on imported goods to make products,” said Şengül Dağdeviren, economist for Oyak Bank in Istanbul. “Whenever exports increase, imports go up accordingly.” Exports rose 30 percent to $11.3 billion in November, a record for a single month, the statistics agency said Monday. Imports increased 29 percent to $16.6 billion in November from the year-earlier period, the agency said.
The Turkish government has responded to this situation by calling for Turkish manufacturers to pursue more value-added products. However, this observer wonders how moving up the value chain for manufactured products will alleviate Turkey's troublesome import-export cycle. Value-added products will make the country's exports worth more, but they will still require Turkey to import the necessary inputs - perhaps even at greater levels of cost.

The Turkish economy thrives on political stability and it appears unlikely that the magicians in the AKP will be able to ensure such conditions for 2008. The political calendar in 2008 will be marked by the inevitably heated battle over the series of constitutional reforms desired by the AKP. In addition, Prime Minister
Erdoğan has demonstrated considerable resolve to overhaul the country's social security system, which is a key sticking point for Turkey's relationship with the IMF and with the European Union to a certain extent. At the moment, roughly 8m Turks directly receive social security payments and "90 percent of the Turkish population is directly or indirectly a part of the social security system" according to this article in Today's Zaman.

The legacy of last year's drought, the potential for military activity related to the PKK and interruptions in energy cooperation with Iran and Russia could also contribute to the brewing storm, which will hamper Turkey's economy in 2008. With slower levels of growth predicted for the coming year, Turkey and its AKP-led government must be extremely sensitive to the social and ethnic tensions that will most likely rise as the general climate of economic prosperity dissipates. It is this potential for unrest in Turkish society, which ultimately represents the greatest threat to the near-term progress of the Turkish economy, in addition to the nation at large.

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