As the minister in charge of Turkey’s $800 billion economy in 2013, Zafer Caglayan was facing a series of numbers that didn’t bode well for coming elections. Inflation was up, growth was slowing and the lira was weakening.
One key measure of financial health was particularly worrisome: the country was importing far more goods, services and capital than it was sending abroad. By October, when he was interviewed by a local CNBC affiliate, Caglayan described the gap as unsustainable and said the government would take steps to improve it.
What he didn’t mention was a clandestine export-boosting operation started up more than a year before that was helping to solve the trade imbalance.
At the time of the television appearance, it was still underway. Three weeks before, Caglayan had been secretly taped by national-police investigators telling his collaborators to find a way to increase exports by at least $1 billion a month. His orders came from the top in a two-hour meeting with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, he told an associate.
The operation featured an Iranian-born businessman who liked fast horses, faster cars and the fastest planes. His unique skill: Getting gold into sanctions-encircled Iran. Enough gold that for a time he became the government’s key instrument in improving Turkey’s irksome economic imbalance.