Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 5 December 2020

Eight steps to pull the Lebanese economy back from the brink

A statue of a woman made out of glass and rubble that resulted from the Beirut port mega explosion August 4, is placed opposite to the site of the blast. AFP
A statue of a woman made out of glass and rubble that resulted from the Beirut port mega explosion August 4, is placed opposite to the site of the blast. AFP

Lebanon is engulfed in a long list of overlapping and connected problems –fiscal, debt, banking, currency and balance of payments crises – that together have created an economic depression and a humanitarian crisis. People are going hungry: food poverty has affected some 25 per cent of Lebanon's own population. But the fiscal and monetary instability has caused more than just a shortage of bread.

Confidence in the banking system has collapsed. The Lebanese pound has depreciated by 80 per cent over the past year.

Inflation is at 120 per cent and hyperinflation – a runaway increase in prices – is on the horizon.

Unemployment has risen to 50 per cent, leading to mass emigration and depleting Lebanon of its main asset: its human capital.

The explosion at the Port of Beirut, combined with the Covid-19 lockdown, created an apocalyptic landscape.

It aggravated the country’s economic crises. The cost of rebuilding alone exceeds $10 billion – more than 35 per cent of the this year's GDP – which Lebanon is incapable of financing.

Prospects for an economic recovery in Lebanon are dismal. The new government must recognise the economy’s large fiscal and monetary gaps and implement a comprehensive, credible and consistent reform programme.

The immediate priorities are economic stabilisation and rebuilding trust in the banking and financial system.

Lebanon desperately needs a recovery programme – akin to the Marshall Plan that helped rebuild Europe after the Second World War – of about $30-35bn, in addition to the funds to rebuild Beirut's port and city centre.

To achieve this, the new government will have to implement rapidly an agreement with the International Monetary Fund, based on a national consensus. The confidence-building policy reform measures over the next six months must include:

A credible capital controls act to protect deposits, restore confidence and encourage the return of remittances and capital back into the country. Credit, liquidity and access to foreign exchange are critical for private sector activity, which is the main engine of growth and employment.

The restructuring of public, domestic and foreign debt to reach a sustainable ratio of debt to GDP. Given the exposure of the banking system to the debt of the government and central bank (known by its French acronym, BDL), public debt restructuring would involve a restructuring of the banking sector, too.

A bank recapitalisation process that includes a process of merging smaller banks into larger banks. Bank recapitalisation requires a bail-in of the banks and their shareholders (through a cash injection and the sale of foreign subsidiaries and assets) of some $25bn, to minimise a haircut on deposits. This will require passage of a modern insolvency law.

Monetary policy reform is needed to unify the country’s multiple exchange rates, move to inflation targeting – that is, price stability – and shift to greater exchange rate flexibility. Multiple rates create market distortions and incentivise more corruption. The BDL will have to stop all quasi-fiscal operations and government lending. Credible reform requires a strong and politically independent banking regulator and monetary policymaker.

Without the immediate implementation of these comprehensive reforms, Lebanon is heading for a lost decade

Reform the Electricite du Liban (EDL), the country's largest utility, and appoint a new board to improve governance and efficiency.

Reform the inefficient subsidies regime that covers electricity, fuel, wheat and medication. These generalised subsidies do not fulfil their purpose – only 20 per cent goes to the poor.

All that the subsidies do is benefit rich traders and middlemen and they are the basis of large-scale smuggling into sanctions-ridden Syria. Subsidies reform should be part of a social safety net to provide support for the elderly and vulnerable.

Pass a modern government procurement act. This would help prevent corruption, nepotism and cronyism.

Restructure and downsize the public sector. Start by removing the 20 per cent of public sector "ghost workers" – people on payrolls who don't actually work for the government – and establish a National Wealth Fund, a professional holding company that would independently manage public assets. These include basic public utilities like water, electricity, public ports and airports, Lebanon's carrier Middle East Airlines, the telecom company Ogero, the Casino du Liban, the state-run tobacco monopoly and others, in addition to public commercial lands.

These assets are non-performing, over-staffed by political cronies and suffer from nepotism. In most cases, they are a drain on the treasury.

A comprehensive IMF programme that includes structural reforms is necessary. It is the way to restore trust in the economy and win back the trust of the private sector, the Lebanese diaspora, foreign investors and aid providers. This would then attract funding from international financial institutions and Cedre Conference participants, including the EU and the GCC.

Such measures, if properly executed, would translate into financing for reconstruction and access to liquidity. They would also stabilise and revive private sector economic activity. Without the immediate implementation of these comprehensive reforms, Lebanon is heading for a lost decade.

Nasser Saidi is a former Lebanese economy minister and first vice-governor of the Central Bank of Lebanon

Updated: October 28, 2020 01:03 PM

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