BEIRUT: Lebanon is hoping to raise billions of dollars at a France-led donor meeting on Friday to stave off an economic crisis in the world’s third most indebted country.
Growth in the small Mediterranean country has plummeted in the wake of repeated political crises, compounded by the 2011 breakout of civil war in neighbouring Syria.
The Syrian war has sent one million Syrian refugees in flight to Lebanon, a country of only four million before the conflict.
The Paris conference comes as Lebanon gears up for its first general elections in almost a decade in May, after parliament renewed its own mandate three times since 2009.
The Middle Eastern country hopes donor countries and financial institutions at the CEDRE conference will help stimulate the economy through investment.
Lebanon hopes to raise “between US$6 billion and US$7 billion in the shape of credit facilities and funds,” Nadim Munla, an adviser to Prime Minister Saad Hariri, has said.
Parliament last week adopted a 2018 government budget, projecting a deficit of US$4.8 billion — more than double the deficit in 2011, when Syria’s war started.
Economist Paul Doueihy says this growing budget shortfall means “the probability of a systemic crisis is now higher than ever”.
To avoid bankruptcy, the state should “urgently” reduce its spending, he and others say.
‘State keeps’ spending
“But the state keeps increasing its expenses,” Doueihy says.
In July, parliament approved an increase in public salaries, estimated to cost more than US$1 billion per year.
Nassib Ghobril, head researcher at Byblos Bank, says the state has also given jobs to 26,000 new employees over the past three years.
In February, the International Monetary Fund warned that Lebanese authorities needed to address “rapidly rising” public debt.
It stood at 150% of GDP in 2017 — the third highest worldwide after Japan and Greece, the international body said.
With a budget deficit last year equivalent to more than 10 percent of GDP, the IMF signalled a “critical need for a fiscal consolidation plan” and cuts in spending.
On top of budget trouble, fears remain over the devaluation of the national currency.
The central bank in November drew more than US$800 million from its foreign reserves to maintain the fixed exchange rate of around 1,500 Lebanese pounds to the dollar, in place since 1997.
But structural factors behind the currency’s fragility persist, experts say.
With Lebanon importing more goods and services than it exports, the pound is artificially overvalued, they say.
This is likely to continue with the current account deficit “expected to remain above 20%”.
The pound would be worth much less under a floating exchange rate.
And monetary stability has been achieved at the cost of increased interest rates for deposits and loans in pounds.
This will likely affect investment and increase the cost of public borrowing.
On top of this, banks also cannot lend as much money to the state as before because deposit growth has been down.
Deposit growth stood at four percent last year, against 12% in 2010 on the eve of the Syrian conflict.
As for increasing revenues, the state in October adopted fiscal measures including increasing VAT to 11% to fund its new spending on public salaries.
“But in a context of weak growth and the erosion of purchasing power, it’s difficult to increase taxes further,” economist Marwan Barakat says.
The state could however fight tax evasion, which stands at an estimated US$4.2 billion per year.
“If there is serious political will, Lebanon can get back up to half of what is missing — i.e. more than US$2 billion per year,” says Barakat, head of research at Bank Audi.
But corruption remains an obstacle to reforms.
In 2016, more than 92% of Lebanon’s population saw worsening corruption, graft watchdog Transparency International said.
In its last report, the watchdog ranked Lebanon 143rd out of 180 countries it surveyed for its perceived corruption index.