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Soaring bad debts sound alarm in Turkey

Political uncertainty and conflict with the PKK are taking their toll on the Turkish economy, with the number and value of bounced checks on the rise, threatening company bankruptcies and fresh woes in the banking sector.
A 20 lira banknote is seen through a magnifying lens in this illustration picture taken in Istanbul January 28, 2014. Turkey's central bank governor raises hopes of emergency rate hike in face of opposition from Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, denying he is hostage to political pressures and vowing to fight rising inflation and tumbling lira. REUTERS/Murad Sezer (TURKEY  - Tags: BUSINESS POLITICS) - RTX17YSG

The deterioration in Turkey’s real economy is accelerating, with political uncertainty, early elections and bloody conflict with Kurdish militants taking their toll on the economy in general. Statistics by the Banks Association of Turkey Risk Center show a dramatic increase in both the number and value of bounced checks, especially in August, when the Kurdistan Workers Party stepped up its terror attacks. The problem seems to be particularly rife in the predominantly Kurdish provinces in the east and southeast, where since August 2014 the number and value of bounced checks increased by up to 115%, well above the national average, with local economies struggling amid the simmering unrest.

In the first eight months of 2015, the overall number of bounced checks rose 21% compared to the same period in 2014, while their total value was up 49%, according to the RIsk Center. Some 15 million checks worth 429 billion Turkish lira were presented to banks for clearance, with legal action launched in regard to 490,000 bounced checks worth 17.6 billion Turkish lira ($5.8 billion; 1 Turkish lira = $0.33).

The regional breakdown for August indicates how political uncertainty and the rekindled Kurdish conflict have put a serious strain on businesses across Turkey, including the country’s economic powerhouses in the west. In the southeast, the trend is even gloomier. In August, five southeastern provinces topped the list of regions with the worst rate of bounced checks in terms of value. The rate was the highest in Bitlis and Bingol, at 11.1%, followed by Van at 10.6%, Hakkari at 9.3% and Mardin at 8.4%.

Another alarming signal from the real economy stems from the number of protested promissory notes, which stood at 646,229 in the first eight months of the year. The figure is expected to reach some 1.5 million by year's end, up from 1 million in 2014. In terms of value, the protested notes were worth 6 billion Turkish lira for the eight months. As a result of the accelerating downturn, the figure is expected to hit 10 billion Turkish lira by the end of the year, up from 8 billion Turkish lira in 2014. Bounced checks worth 17.6 billion Turkish lira and another 6 billion Turkish lira in protested promissory notes signal that payment chains in the economy have begun to break.

A 2012 legal amendment lifted the jail sentences faced by issuers of bad checks since 1985. The new law only bans offenders from issuing checks for at least three years, should they become the subject of an official complaint. Banks, on the other hand, were handed more obligation to deter fraud, including a payment guarantee of 10,000 Turkish lira for each check leaf of more than 10,000 Turkish lira. Thus, the soaring number of bounced checks is now increasing the financial burden of the banks.

Meanwhile, banks were already struggling under an increasing amount of unpaid consumer loans and credit card debt. According to the Banking Regulation and Supervision Agency, as of the end of July, more than 2.5 million people faced litigation over unpaid loans and credit card debt. The amount of litigated debt totaled 15.1 billion Turkish lira ($5 billion), including 8.9 billion Turkish lira in consumer loans and 6.2 billion Turkish lira in credit cards. The litigated loan and credit card debts had stood, respectively, at 7.4 billion and 5.4 billion Turkish lira at the beginning of the year, meaning they swelled by 20% and 14.5%, respectively, in seven months.

Small tradesmen and small and medium-size enterprises are also increasingly failing to repay loans. In this category, the amount of unpaid arrears to banks stood at 42 billion Turkish lira ($14 billion) in July, up from 36 billion Turkish lira ($12 billion) at the end of 2014.

All these figures of swelling bad debt illustrate how fast the woes of the Turkish economy are spreading, harming the income and repayment capacity of individuals, enterprises and companies alike. The increase in bounced checks, both in number and value, is bound to have a particularly damaging impact on trade and exports, with many companies likely to go bankrupt as a result.

The hardships in the banking sector, too, are growing. Banks have already taken a hit from the dramatic depreciation of the Turkish lira this year, significantly swelling their foreign currency debt. Unpaid loans and bouncing checks are only adding to their burden.

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