Lebanon, pushed to the brink, faces reckoning over graft
By Jonathan Spicer, Tom Perry and Samia Nakhoul
BEIRUT (Reuters) - Lebanon is closer to a financial crisis than at any time since at least the war-torn 1980s as allies, investors and this week nationwide protests pile pressure on the government to tackle a corrupt system and enact long-promised reforms.
Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri's government on Thursday hastily reversed a plan, announced hours earlier, to tax WhatsApp voice calls in the face of the biggest public protests in years, with people burning tyres and blocking roads.
The country - among the world's most indebted https://tmsnrt.rs/2OUN93n and quickly running out of dollar reserves - urgently needs to convince regional allies and Western donors it is finally serious about tackling entrenched problems such as its unreliable and wasteful electricity sector.
Without a foreign funding boost, Lebanon risks a currency devaluation or even defaulting on debts within months, according to interviews with nearly 20 government officials, politicians, bankers and investors.
Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil said in a televised speech on Friday that he gave a paper at an economic crisis meeting in September saying Lebanon needed "an electric shock".
"I also said that what little remains of the financial balance might not last us longer than the end of the year if we do not adopt the necessary policies," he said, without describing what he meant by financial balance.
Beirut has repeatedly vowed to maintain the value of the dollar-pegged Lebanese pound and honour its debts on time.
But countries that in the past reliably financed bailouts have run out of patience with its mismanagement and graft, and they are using the deepening economic and social crisis to press for change, the sources told Reuters.
These include Arab Gulf states whose enthusiasm to help Lebanon has been undermined by the growing clout in Beirut of Tehran-backed Hezbollah, and what they see as a need to check Iran's growing influence across the Middle East.
Western countries have also provided funds that allowed Lebanon to defy gravity for years. But for the first time they have said no new money would flow until the government takes clear steps toward reforms it has long only promised.
Their hope is to see it move towards fixing a system that sectarian politicians have used to deploy state resources to their own advantage through patronage networks instead of building a functional state.
A crisis could stoke further unrest in a country hosting some 1 million refugees from neighbouring Syria, where a Turkish incursion in the northeast this month has opened a new front in an eight-year war.
"If the situation remains, and there are no radical reforms, a devaluation of the currency is inevitable," said Toufic Gaspard, a former adviser to Lebanon's finance ministry and former economist at its central bank and the International Monetary Fund.
"Since September a new era has begun," he added. "The red flags are large and everywhere, especially with the central bank paying up to 13% to borrow dollars."
The first reform on Beirut's agenda is one of the most intractable: fixing chronic power outages that make private generators a costly necessity, a problem many see as the main symbol of corruption that has left services unreliable and infrastructure crumbling.
Hariri, in a televised speech to the nation, said he had been struggling to reform the electricity sector ever since taking office. After "meeting after meeting, committee after committee, proposal after proposal, I got at last to the final step and someone came and said 'it doesn't work'," he said.
Presenting the difficulties of implementing reform more widely, Hariri said every committee required a minimum of nine ministers to keep everyone happy.
"A national unity government? OK, we understand that. But committees of national unity? The result is that nothing works."
Underscoring the pressure from abroad, Pierre Duquesne, a French ambassador handling so-called CEDRE funding, is traveling to Lebanon next week to press the government on the use of offshore power barges, a banker familiar with the plan said.
Duquesne wants the barges included in the electricity overhaul plan, the person said, requesting anonymity.
Duquesne could not immediately be reached for comment.
The contents of the 2020 budget will be key to helping unlock some $11 billion conditionally pledged by international donors under last year's CEDRE conference. But a cabinet meeting on the budget set for Friday was cancelled amid the protests.
Hariri's government, which includes nearly all of Lebanon's main parties, had proposed a tax of 20 cents per day on calls via voice-over-internet protocol (VoIP) used by applications including WhatsApp, Facebook (NASDAQ: FB) and FaceTime.
In a country fractured along sectarian lines, the protests' unusually wide geographic reach may be a sign of deepening anger with politicians who have jointly led Lebanon into crisis.
Fires were smoldering in central Beirut, where streets were scattered with glass of several smashed shop-fronts. Tear gas was fired on some demonstrators.
The newspaper an-Nahar described it as "a tax intifada", or uprising. Another daily, al-Akhbar, declared it "the WhatsApp revolution".
"With this corrupt authority, our kids have no future," said protestor Fadi Issa, 51. "We don't just want a resignation, we want accountability. They should return all the money they stole. We want change."
As confidence has faded and dollars have grown scarce, new cracks have emerged between Lebanon's government and its private lenders, according to several of the bankers, investors and officials who spoke to Reuters.
After years of funding the government with the promise of ever higher rates of return, the banks - sensing the country is approaching collapse - are pressing for it to finally deliver reforms to win over donors.
Most said Lebanon would likely feel more economic and financial strain in the months ahead but avoid haircuts on deposits or a worst-case sovereign default.
Yet Beirut's years of failure to deliver reforms and the new determination among its traditional donors to press for them has left even top officials, bankers and investors divided over whether a devaluation is in store for the Lebanese pound.
"You need a positive shock. But unfortunately the government thinks reforms can happen without touching the structure that benefits them," said Nassib Ghobril, head of economic research and analysis at Byblos Bank.
Lebanon must promote reforms to increase capital inflows, he said.
"We can't keep going to the Emirates and Saudis. We need to help ourselves in order for others to help us."
This month, Moody's put Lebanon's Caa1 credit rating under review for a downgrade and estimated the central bank, which has stepped in to cover government debt payments, had only $6 billion-$10 billion in useable dollars left to maintain stability.
That compares with some $6.5 billion in debt maturing by the end of next year.
The central bank says its foreign assets stood at $38.1 billion as of Oct. 15.
An official told Reuters Lebanon has only $10 billion in real reserves. "It is a very dire situation that has five months to correct itself or there will be a collapse, around February," he said.
Hariri's government may have only a few months to deliver fiscal reforms to convince France, the World Bank and other parties to the CEDRE agreement to unlock $11 billion in conditional funding.
The head of regional investments for a large U.S. asset manager said Lebanese officials are privately saying a plan that addresses short- and long-term electricity shortages will be announced before year end, after which the government will raise tariffs.
But critics say no concrete steps have been taken despite energy ministry statements that the plan is on track.
Hariri left Paris last month with no immediate cash commitment after visiting French President Emmanuel Macron. Likewise this month he left Abu Dhabi empty-handed after meeting Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan.
Lawmakers in Beirut struggled to explain what happened in Abu Dhabi after Hariri claimed the United Arab Emirates had promised investments following "positive" talks.
EYES ON HEZBOLLAH
Investors, bankers and economists say at least $10 billion is needed to renew confidence among the Lebanese diaspora whom for decades have underpinned the economy by maintaining accounts back home.
But so far this year, deposits have shrunk by about 0.4%.
The government has sought a smaller cushion from Sunni Muslim allies to buy some time. But to secure funding from the UAE or Saudi Arabia, Beirut would likely have to meet conditions meant to weaken Shi'ite Hezbollah's hand in Lebanon's government, said several sources.
Hezbollah, which faces U.S. sanctions, is seen to be gaining more control over state resources by naming the health minister in January after last year's elections brought more of its allies into the legislature.
Some say Saudi Arabia, UAE and the United States are motivated to hold out on Beirut as part of their wider policy seeking to weaken Iran and its allies which have been fighting proxy wars with Gulf Arab states on several fronts.
"Their tolerance of Iran and Hezbollah has lowered significantly. The 'Lebanese exception' is gone," said Sami Nader, Beirut-based director of the Levant Institute for Strategic Affairs.
"The balance has tilted and we are now at odds with our former friends because Hezbollah now has the upper hand politically."
The former regional head at a major Western bank put it bluntly: "People have lost patience with the corruption in which a frozen Parliament with no authority is simply divvying up the pie among politicians."
"But at the end of the day the Lebanese political class usually succeeds in convincing allies that they should not let the system collapse and bring civil war again," he added.
Lebanon, straddling the Middle East's main sectarian lines, was historically the region's foreign-exchange hub into which deposits flowed, especially since 1997 when its currency was pegged to the dollar at 1,507.5 pounds.
But after a reckoning in August and September in which the cost of insuring Lebanon's sovereign debt surged https://tmsnrt.rs/2MORZfM to a record high, things have changed.
Depositors, including the diaspora drawn by rates much higher than in Europe or the United States, are pulling funds in the face of Lebanon's swelling twin deficits, inability to secure foreign funding, and unorthodox central bank efforts to attract dollar inflows.
Among Lebanon's 6 million citizens, trust has worn thin.
Depositors can no longer easily withdraw dollars, and most ATMs no longer provide them, forcing people to turn to so-called parallel FX markets where $1 is worth more than the official peg.
"I am with the protesters," said Walid al-Badawi, 43. "I have three children, I am a taxi driver, I work all day to get food for my kids and I can't get it."
Gaspard, the central bank's former research head, said foreign exchange was easy even through Lebanon's 15-year civil war. There was also always a balance of payments surplus - until 2011 when deficits began to grow, reaching $12 billion last year.
LOST RESOLVE AT BANKS
Three events precipitated the crisis of confidence that for years seemed inevitable: a series of central bank efforts since 2016 to keep growing deposits with rates of more than 11% on large deposits; a public sector pay hike last year that raised the budget deficit to more than 11% of GDP; low oil prices in recent years that have weakened Gulf allies.
In a report on Thursday the IMF described Lebanon's position as "very difficult," adding "substantial new measures" are needed to protect it and reduce large deficits.
As dollars have dried up, banks have effectively stopped lending and can no longer make basic foreign-exchange transactions for clients, one banker said.
"The whole role of banks is to pour money into the central bank to finance the government and protect the currency," he said. "Nothing is being done on the fiscal deficit because doing something will disrupt the systems of corruption."
The resistance from banks has been subtle but telling given their central role in financing the government.
When Beirut proposed a $660 million reduction in debt service costs in its 2019 budget, banks never signed up to the idea. They have also been less enthusiastic about subscribing to Eurobonds including a planned $2-billion issuance later this month, officials said.
Without reform, "banks agree we can no longer support the public sector," said Byblos Bank's Ghobril.
(Reporting by Jonathan Spicer, Tom Perry and Samia Nakhoul; Additional reporting by Yara Abi Nader and Ellen Francis in Beirut and John Irish in Paris; Editing by Hugh Lawson)