Cemal Mulazimoglu had always wanted to go into real estate. Last year, at the age of 45, he retired from teaching and used his $3,600 severance pay to open a real estate office in Ankara.
He could not have chosen a worse time. The real estate business in Turkey was going through a disastrous period as a result of the government's tight money policies.
Mulazimoglu discovered this in the first three months in business when not a customer knocked on his door. His money was running out. He could have sold out at a loss, but he was afraid of his wife's reaction. So, Mulazimoglu reminisced from jail, he decided to change his line of business. He became a "banker."
He advertised in newspapers, offering 96 percent annual interest on deposits, 46 percent higher than banks. Soon his business was booming.
In four months he collected $714,000. He moved into a plush office and bought two apartments and a color television set (despite the fact that Turkish television broadcasts only in black and white).
"Then one day the dam burst," Mulazimoglu said. Last month he was mobbed by depositers demanding their money back. But he had nothing to give them. He had lent it all out. "Banker," in Turkish, has become a euphemism for moneylender.
The profession was born after July 1980, when the government gave banks freedom to determine deposit interest rates. The move, part of the economic austerity program, was intended to attract consumer funds away from the marketplace and slow down inflation, which was running at 100 percent.
It succeeded. In less than a year banks raised rates on savings deposits to 50 from 12 percent. The cost of short-term commercial loans shot up to 65 from 25 percent.
The inflation-fueled national shopping spree halted and was replaced by an unprecedented drop in consumer demand. Money, which traditionally had been the cheapest and most abundant factor of production, almost overnight became the scarcest and most expensive. The result was a monetary earthquake that is still rocking the Turkish economy and is likely to swallow many businesses, big and small, before it stops.
"We found ourselves out in the open in winter wearing summer clothes," said Rahmi Koc, a leading Turkish industrialist, describing the situation.
Many others found themselves with no clothes at all, and it was apparently their screams that brought out the "bankers." The scream was for money at any price, and it came from businesses so close to financial collapse that no bank or broker would lend them money.
Suddenly last summer, Turkish newspapers were filled with page-long "banker" ads offering up to 144 percent interest on deposits. "Banker" bureaus mushroomed in business districts of large cities such as Ankara, Istanbul and Izmir. Their founders included a fashion model (now in prison), a group of gangsters, a high-school student and an ex-waiter at a hamburger stand.
People started selling their dowries, gold, furniture and flats and lined up outside "bankers" to deposit their funds in exchange for what later turned out to be worthless pieces of paper. Some people even borrowed from the banks to invest with the moneylenders.
Millions poured in. It was a gold rush fueled by greed, gullibility and the gambling instinct. But probably the most common motive was desperation. Many in the crowds outside the "bankers" were middle-class civil servants, retired people and Army officers who were crushed between low salaries and the high cost of living.
Most of them probably did not know or care about the correlation between risk and high returns or that no business that borrowed at 170 percent could hope to survive. But a few thousand dollars at the "banker" brought twice the average civil servant's salary.
Dusk fell on the market last September, when the government, probably afraid of how big the market had grown, introduced legislation to control the bankers.
Finance Minister Kaya Erdem warned that "those who have invested their money with the bankers have gambled." Some big brokerage firms and banks that were becoming irritated with the moneylenders' competition intensified the panic created by the minister's words. They joined in the attack that last month brought the "bankers" down.
Crowds again formed outside "bankers' " offices, this time to demand their money, but very few bankers were in. Once the money stopped pouring in there was no way they could service their debts. Two brokers committed suicide. One, in Izmir, was nearly lynched by his depositors.
Angry crowds set fire to one moneylender's office in Ankara. Many disappeared or, like Mulazimoglu, who calculates that he will be sentenced to 600 years in jail (four months for each of his 1,800 bounced checks), were arrested. Others declared bankruptcy.
From the screams of agony, one could deduce that much of the staff of the Central Bank and the Finance Ministry and many Turkish diplomats had invested in the "bankers."
In one state-owned bank, nearly all the staff had borrowed from the bank at lower rates and deposited the money with the moneylenders.
Now, with the market almost completely collapsed, nobody, including the Finance Ministry, knows the extent of the damage. Nobody knows how many bankers there were, how much money they collected or where the money went. The estimates vary from $40 million to $180 million.
Most of the money came from the savings of middle-class people whose income averages between $40 and $180 a month. Apart from the misery it has caused thousands of families, the "bankers" fiasco has undermined the public's confidence in government economic policies and may be the most severe blow yet to 16-month-old military government.