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Turkey's banks move to appease Erdogan after 'treason' threats

Turkey's banks have leaped into action aft President Recep Tayyip Erdogan attacked lenders and the country's central bank, warning them against high borrowing costs in the wake of the failed attempted coup in July.

In a speech on Wednesday, Erdogan said he would consider it "treason" if the nation's banks did not "pave the way for investors" and went "the wrong way" on interest rates and their lending policies.

"We will not shy away from noting down and questioning banks where we see banks go the wrong way on interest rates and credit policies," he said in a speech to members of Turkey's exporters' assembly which was broadcast on television and reported by Reuters.

"If the banking sector tries to turn this into an opportunity they will deal with us" Erdogan warned.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan greets the people gathering at the Presidential Complex to protest July 15 failed military coup attempt before addressing them in Ankara, Turkey on August 10, 2016.
Turkish Presidency/Murat Cetinmuhurdar/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Erdogan called on banks to ease lending conditions in the spirit of "fraternity and solidarity" and the news agency noted that there were signs that banks were already starting to "toe the line," with reports that several state-owned and private lenders had decided to cut interest rates on mortgage loans.

In the political sphere too, there were moves to shore up the country's economy. Late on Wednesday, the Turkish parliament approved a reform to the pension system requiring workers to be enrolled automatically in a private pension plan in a bid to boost domestic savings.

High treason

It's not the first time that the strongman president of Turkey - who thwarted a failed military political coup last month - has taken aim at the country's banks, but it is perhaps the most vociferous attack on them so far.

It comes during a time of fervent domestic support for Erdogan as well as international misgivings about the post-coup crackdown.

Erdogan is seeking to strengthen his authority in the wake of the overthrow attempt with around 60,000 people arrested, suspended or detained in alleged connection with the coup, prompting fears of more unrest and political oppression among the international community.

Erdogan has taken aim at the financial system before, however, with the country's central bank under pressure to drop interest rates for some time.

Erdogan would like to see borrowing and consumption rise in order to boost the Turkish economy – once an emerging market darling but, like others such as Russia and Brazil, hit with high inflation, a global economic slowdown and political pressures over the last few years.

The central bank is stuck between a rock and a hard place, however, with inflation stubbornly high - in July, the annual rate of inflation stood at 8.79 percent. Still, the central bank cut its main interest rate for the fifth time in a row in July, lowering its marginal funding rate by 25 basis points to 8.75 percent and maintaining its overnight borrowing rate at 7.25 percent.

Senior emerging markets economist at Capital Economics, William Jackson, told CNBC that Erdogan's latest comments aimed at the financial system were difficult to interpret although they could inadvertently mean that less pressure was exerted on the central bank alone.

"It's always difficult to know quite what to make of these comments, although there are reports already of banks trying to lower their lending rates in response," Jackson said in an email to CNBC.

"There are two more general points that can be made though. First, in so far as banks do lower lending rates in response, that will damage their profitability which could in time make them less willing to lend," Jackson said.

"The second point is that it seems Mr. Erdogan's attention has shifted from demanding that the central bank lower interest rates to demanding that commercial banks lower rates. It's unclear how long that situation might last for, although it does suggest the threat to central bank independence may have eased a little."

That doesn't mean that the central bank is about to take a back seat, however. Earlier this week, the central bank cut its requirement for the reserves that banks must hold also in a bid to boost liquidity in the economy.

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