Turkey’s Halkbank sells dollars on the cheap, prompting public outcry

Turkish state-owned Halkbank sold dollars on the cheap on Friday night in what the bank said was a failure of third-party foreign exchange software, according to a report by online news outlet Ahval.

The bank, run by Turkey’s sovereign wealth fund, offered dollars at 3,88 Turkish lira in late night trade on Friday before its website went offline. The US dollar had closed the week at 6,58 Turkish lira.

Halkbank said in a statement that the trading at these erroneous levels had been limited in scope and occurred for only a short period of time. “Prices have now been corrected,” it added.

The event prompted heated discussions on social media. Some Twitter users accused the Turkish government led by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of organizing the trades to covertly help indebted companies facing heavy repayments of foreign currency loans in September. Others said the bank had failed to prevent an apparent cyber-attack, pointing the finger at hacker groups.

The Cumhuriyet newspaper called on the bank to fully disclose the trades and who had made them.

Halkbank became the focus of controversy in Turkey after Mehmet Hakan Atilla, a deputy CEO of the bank, was arrested and convicted in the United States of involvement in a scheme to evade US sanctions on Iran. Atilla is now in a Manhattan jail awaiting an appeal hearing, while Halkbank is the subject of a US Treasury investigation that could result in hefty fines.

Social media users also pointed to erroneous dollar buying and selling prices by Dutch bank ING late on Friday that lent credence to a cyber attack taking place. ING, which hasn’t made a statement explaining the price discrepancies, was offering dollars at 4,88 Turkish lira at one point, clips published on Twitter showed.

Over a thousand customers of Turkish state-run Halkbank made trades worth $4’6 million at nearly half price on Friday evening due to a software fault, the bank’s general manager Osman Arslan announced on Sunday.

The software fault allowed 1,763 customers to buy the dollars between 10:01 p.m. and 10:39 p.m. on Friday at a rate of around 3,75 Turkish lira, when the dollar had, in fact, closed the week at 658. The fault emerged as a result of a faulty data entry related to international interest rate cuts, Arslan claimed, adding that this had been the first time such a fault emerged.

Economist Uğur Gürses commented on his personal blog that it was unlikely the fault had been exploited by anybody for profit. However, such speculation was the “worst side” of the incident sparked by the fault, said Gürses, adding that the money lost in the faulty trades would likely be recovered.

On Sunday, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan claimed that “currency manipulations aim to cast doubt on Turkey’s strong and solid economy.” Speaking at the Turkey-Kyrgyzstan Business Forum in the Kyrgyz capital of Bishkek, Erdoğan said, “They are trying to cast doubt on Turkey’s strong and solid economy by means of currency manipulations,” without elaborating.

Defying the attacks targeting the Turkish economy, Erdoğan said Turkey is resolved to establish independence in the economy, mainly in the defense industry.

Erdoğan pointed out that dependence on the dollar in international trade had become a bigger problem. “We need to gradually end the monopoly of the dollar once and for all by using local currencies among us,” Erdoğan said.

Turkey’s state-owned Halkbank’s selling dollars on the cheap on Friday night was the result of a cyber attack, and suspicions have focused on Bloomberg, the exchange rate data provider of Halkbank, the pro-government Güneş newspaper claimed on Sunday.

According to Güneş, Halkbank was the victim of a foreign attack and, since Halkbank uses the financial data provided by Bloomberg as do other banks in Turkey, there are suspicions about the financial, software, data and media company’s role in the error that affected only the state-owned bank.

Güneş claimed that Halkbank had been targeted by the United States with investigations launched based on documents allegedly provided by the Gülen movement.

Güneş said Halkbank executive Atilla had been unlawfully jailed and that the United States had been attacking Turkey by imposing sanctions on two Turkish ministers and doubling tariffs on Turkish aluminum and steel imports in retaliation for the continued detention of American pastor Andrew Brunson, who, according to Güneş, is a spy. The downgrading of Halkbank’s credit rating by credit rating agencies was also a part of the US attacks against the bank, Güneş said.

Turkish government starts punishing firms for price increases

Meanwhile, Turkey’s Trade Ministry started punishing some firms for unfair price increases. The measures came after inspectors tightened controls across Turkey on Friday, the pro-government NTV reported on Saturday. In Ankara, the inspectors walked into retailers selling furniture, white goods and food, the news channel said, adding that proceedings have been launched against some companies.

The move comes after the ministry published a decision in the government’s Official Gazette saying firms would be charged with “commercial deception” should they be found to be hiking prices without good reason. Ministry officials are studying whether businesses are raising the price of goods that are unaffected by a recent collapse in the Turkish lira’s value.

A board within the ministry has been given responsibility for swiftly determining such behavior and taking action, according to the decision.

Inflation in Turkey is surging after the lira plunged against major currencies. Losses against the dollar so far this year total about 50 percent. Consumer price inflation was 15,9 percent in July and is expected to accelerate further in August, led by food costs. Data for last month are due on Sept. 3.

The Turkish government has also warned businesses against hoarding goods, a practice common in the 1990s when inflation had briefly exceeded 100 percent. Meanwhile, the central bank is now refraining from interest rate hikes that economists say would pare inflation. It had raised its benchmark rate by 500 basis points to 17.75 percent in the first half of the year. It hasn’t increased it again since early June despite the lira diving to fresh record lows.

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