Oman Daily Observer

Lebanon faces long road to recovery

- TOM PERRY & MAHA EL DAHAN — Reuters

ORDINARY LEBANESE HAVE PAID THE PRICE AS THEY WATCHED SAVINGS EVAPORATE, THE CURRENCY CRUMBLE AND BASIC GOODS DISAPPEAR FROM THE SHELVES

In its bid for IMF support, Lebanon must address a question it has evaded since the economy imploded two years ago: how should it distribute the huge losses caused by its financial collapse?

Till now, the answer has been brutally simple: ordinary Lebanese have paid the price as they watched savings evaporate, the currency crumble and basic goods disappear from the shelves.

When a plan was drawn up last year that identified a $90-billion hole in the financial system, it was shot down by

banks which complained it made them foot too much of the bill.

Since then, Lebanon has sunk deeper into trouble with no plan and no government until its fractious sectarian politician­s ended a year of bickering and agreed a new cabinet this month.

The new prime minister, billionair­e tycoon Najib Mikati, and his government need to acknowledg­e the scale of losses and work out how to share them out to deliver on a promise to secure Internatio­nal Monetary Fund assistance with economic reforms.

The financial system collapsed in 2019 because of decades of corruption and waste in the state and the unsustaina­ble way it was financed. The trigger was slowing inflows of hard currency into the

banking system, which lent heavily to the government.

Mikati may have a better shot in IMF talks than his predecesso­r partly because there is now broader political recognitio­n that an IMF deal is the inescapabl­e path to aid.

From crippling shortages of fuel and other basics to a de facto “hair cut” of up to 80 per cent on the value of savings in a zombie banking system, many argue the crisis has inflicted more pain than even the toughest imaginable IMF adjustment programme.

Several reforms the IMF would likely seek, including cutting subsidies and unifying the numerous exchange rates in Lebanon’s chaotic cash economy, are already becoming realities as hard currency dries up, political sources say.

‘CRITICAL OBSTACLE’

Yet many analysts are deeply sceptical about whether the government can embark on significan­t reforms, even if it can start IMF negotiatio­ns, or fix problems like the fuel shortage.

The government was picked by the same elite that led Lebanon into its mess and allowed it to fester. The World Bank has criticised Lebanon for “a deliberate” lack of policy.

Moreover, the government has just eight months before elections that will preoccupy the main parties.

The World Bank says the depression is one of the most severe since the mid19th century: gross domestic product shrank by 40 per cent between 2018 and 2020. Even during Lebanon’s 1975-1990 civil war, the banks remained solvent and functional.

Clearing the first hurdle to an IMF deal — agreeing on the distributi­on of losses — will be tough. Last year’s plan encountere­d opposition from stakeholde­rs including the banks.

In a report, Goldman Sachs said reaching an agreement on the issue would likely “prove difficult to achieve, representi­ng a critical obstacle along the path to recovery”.

A financial source familiar with the

IMF process in Lebanon said there was room for compromise on the losses and significan­t momentum for an IMF deal, which meant there was a “much higher” likelihood of reaching an agreement.

While some banks still hoped their debts would evaporate by converting US dollar deposits into pounds, the source said banks were more ready to acknowledg­e the need for “a proper restructur­ing”.

“We don’t have to turn into Finland or Sweden to conclude an IMF programme,” the source said. “We have to do the minimum required, including acknowledg­ing losses in the banking sector and central bank and agreeing a fair allocation of these losses.”

A capital control law must also be passed and the exchange rates unified, the source added.

READY TO ENGAGE

The IMF has said it has had courtesy calls with members of the new government and stands ready to engage.

The government has said it will renew and develop last year’s plan, which included figures endorsed by the IMF.

That plan had enraged the banks, partly because of provisions for a shareholde­r bail-in that would wipe out their capital.

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