Following an exceptionally tortuous government formation process, Prime Minister Fouad Siniora unveiled a 24-member cabinet on July 19. Among the new faces on the political scene was Sami Haddad, brought in from the International Finance Corporation (IFC) – the World Bank’s private sector arm – to head the ministry of economy and trade. Armed with 24 years of experience in promoting private sector investment in developing countries, Haddad will have ample opportunity to put his arsenal to good use in his battle to restructure the flailing Lebanese economy, further weakened by six months of political upheaval, and to overcome the strong, political resistance to any mention of privatization. Executive met with the new minister soon after his nomination to discuss his plans to spur economic growth, rebalance public finances, privatize and improve the local investment climate.
E The assassination of former prime minister Rafik Hariri dealt a heavy blow to the economy, which has struggling ever since. How would you assess the current state of the country’s economic and financial sectors?
There is no question that the assassination of [former] prime minister Hariri dealt a blow to the country in its entirety: the political system, the people, the economy. To confine myself to the latter, the cost has been extremely high. We don’t have an accurate number for the costs yet, but there is no question that when it comes to the state of the public finances and debt, the situation has worsened. Furthermore, there has been a massive economic slowdown, investors have not been keen to invest, people have been rightly worried about the political situation and more importantly the security situation, and to make matters worse, we seemed to have missed the tourist season. Just look around: you don’t see a lot of people from the Gulf. We are hoping that we in the cabinet will be able to quickly take measures to turn things around. It will be a combination of transactions, i.e. financial transactions, laws and regulations, and a psychological boost. The latter has already taken place to a certain extent: since the formation of the government, the pressure on the Lebanese pound has reversed, the central bank is buying dollars, foreign reserves are increasing – people have more confidence in the Lebanese pound.
E Looking at the chronic imbalance of Lebanon’s public finances, one of the biggest drains on the treasury’s coffers is the servicing of the country’s massive debt. What measures do you see the government taking in the battle to reduce it?
My ministry doesn’t own a lot of public sector assets and it is not, in terms of size, a major player in this. The three ministries that will play a key role in handling the debt will be the finance ministry, telecommunications – which is the largest generator of revenues after fiscal revenues in Lebanon – and power and water, which is the largest drain on the government’s finances.
This level of debt and debt servicing is obviously completely unsustainable. We cannot use almost two-thirds of our fiscal revenues to service debt. No country can sustain this. What needs to be done? We stipulated this very clearly in the Ministerial Declaration, which refers to two key documents: the promises made in Paris II which have not been fulfilled, namely privatization, and the budget law that then finance minister Fouad Siniora presented prior to resigning from the last Hariri government. We need to reduce expenditures as much as possible, knowing that the biggest drain is the electricity sector. What will happen with regards to fiscal revenues, taxes, is a big question mark. You are faced with the dilemma of needing to balance the budget, and thereby increasing taxes, but in so doing, you slow down growth. So ideally, if you can reduce public expenditures further, and avoid raising taxes, or raising them as little as possible, that would be the best outcome.
E Where should the cuts in public expenditure be made?
There are a lot of areas where money is going down the drain. You have subsidies that could be reduced or eliminated. I discovered today to my shock, that the government here is legally obliged to buy wheat. I am a buyer of wheat! We subsidize the wheat, we buy it from the farmers, we store it in silos, and then we sell it. I can’t tell you how powerful the agricultural lobby is here. But the biggest drain is the power sector, in terms of size. Unfortunately, there is no rapid solution to this problem – it has to be a sustained effort through better collection, better technology, privatization of Electricité du Liban’s management, privatization of distribution … Lebanon also spends a lot on social sectors, on health and education. But unfortunately, the figures show that the spending does not hit the right targets. For instance, you have schools in certain areas that are completely underutilized, whereas you have other areas with a lack of schools. A lot of effort can be done to redirect, streamline and make better use of our social spending, without increasing or reducing it.
E Is privatization going to figure prominently on your agenda for rebalancing Lebanon’s deficits?
Privatization is a crucial pillar in this whole public sector restructuring. It’s a necessity – we have no choice. The best way to reduce the principal debt outstanding is to cancel it through privatization proceeds.
E But according to our calculations, privatization could bring in a maximum of $10 billion – that is if everything is sold. Lebanon’s debt at this point, according to economist Toufic Gaspard’s estimates, is close to $50 billion. Is privatization enough?
Anything is better than nothing. Whether our debt now stands at $50 billion I don’t know – my figures say $40 billion, it depends on how you calculate it. But even if you bring in $10 billion, it will make a difference. I am going to be a very vigorous proponent of privatization for three reasons. Firstly, for 24 years of my professional life I worked for the IFC. It’s an investment bank: we make loans, we invest and we have made fantastic returns on some of them. My point with this is that generally speaking, the private sector is much more efficient than the public sector. Secondly, we need to sell because we have no choice. Thirdly, it all depends on how you privatize – it must be done with transparency – and what you privatize. If you are selling an actual monopoly or oligopoly, people will legitimately say why are we giving this group the chance to make all the money? The answer is, if it’s a monopoly or oligopoly, you can regulate it, you can tax it, you will try not to sell more than a certain percentage to one group, with the rest going to the general public. Thereby, you don’t give the group the whole thing, and secondly, you help develop our moribund stock market. If these two mobile phone companies for instance were private and were quoted, [think of] the amount of wealth they could generate! They would also become internally regulated, as they would have thousands of shareholders.
Obviously, privatization is easier said than done. We will have to surmount political opposition, which require an open dialogue. But we have a favorable environment. Despite living in a turbulent region, over which we have little control, we have something we should take advantage of: the enormous capital surpluses that are being generated in the GCC countries. If some of it could trickle down to Lebanon, we will be fine. And this is why we need to privatize now. Time is of the essence.
E Which are the sectors you would want to privatize first?
The telecom sector is the obvious one, due to the size of its proceeds. All countries including centrally planned economies have opted for licenses. We have gone into management contracts – it’s unbelievable! Even Syria and Yemen have gone in a more liberal direction. Lebanon’s policy in telecoms over the course of the last four to five years has been an unmitigated disaster. As a result, today the cost of telecom services are very high, the quality is lousy and the penetration rate is unbelievably low. This sector is a key sector because it generates a lot of money. Privatization will make it more efficient, costs will go down, the public will be happier. And if you could also achieve large public shareholding it would be good.
E Are there other sectors besides telecoms?
Other sectors will not generate as much money, but you have some companies that are owned by the central bank, such as MEA for instance. They are doing very well, and the central bank has done a terrific job. That being said, nowhere in the world do you have a central bank which owns an airline. It’s unhealthy, for good reason. Let it be privatized, let it be owned by a strategic group – be it Lebanese or non-Lebanese – and let it be quoted on the stock market. Another area to look at is Beirut airport, which is a fantastic airport, but it is being significantly underutilized. Yes, MEA is doing well. But it can do much better. We have nine aircraft, we could have 20. And there are other things. In infrastructure you have opportunities. Just look at the port of Beirut, I think it is being privately managed, but its assets could be privatized too. In the old days, there were two port companies quoted on the Beirut stock market. The port was in good health! But while everybody else is moving forward, we are moving backward. We have a military airport in Akkar. We could privatize it on a build-operate-transfer basis. The infrastructure around it is fantastic, the airport apparently is very good, so make it into a cargo airport. Will this generate billions of dollars? No. But all these assets will no longer lie idle. They will generate some money, bring in investments, create jobs, especially outside greater Beirut, and it will tell the rest of the world and the Lebanese public that this government means business.
E Lebanon’s credit rating is very low. One of the main criteria in the rating methodology is economic development, which is an area under your ministry. What are your plans in terms of developing the Lebanese economy?
The main reason for why the credit rating is so low is due to the deficit, the debt service, and all these key indicators – debt to GDP, debt service to fiscal revenues and so on.
E But you can outgrow debt through strong economic growth.
We should do both. We should decrease debt, we should be fiscally more tight, but we should obviously work on economic development. The results will not be seen in a matter of months. But economic development for me has to be private sector led. There is a very strong lobby in this country for traditional sectors, i.e. agriculture and industry. I think we should develop both of them, but we cannot do so by protecting this very small market. We have an interest in opening our markets – I don’t want to close the Lebanese market, the economy to serve the interest of a few people. We are not going to compete in steel making with countries such as Russia or the Ukraine. We simply don’t have a comparative advantage in many areas. Land here is expensive – it is limited, we are a very densely populated country. Energy is very expensive, in part because we messed up policy-wise, but even if we hadn’t, we are not an energy producing country, so energy here will always be more expensive than that of our neighbors who produce oil and gas. The human capital here is mostly highly educated, white-collar workers. It’s worth noting that in these traditional sectors of industry and agriculture, you have a very significant non-Lebanese labor force. This isn’t bad in itself, but people who come crying about the loss of employment in these sectors need to remember that most of these people aren’t Lebanese. So yes to agriculture and industry, but it has to be high value-added, in areas where we have a comparative advantage, and that is in our brain power.
E So which sectors would you like to promote?
At the end of the day – and I know this is going to sound somewhat philosophical – the objective is the well being of the people. This means you need to focus on employment-generating activities. If I open a cement plan, it will require at a minimum $200,000 in investments, which will only create 200 jobs at most! With a $200,000 investment in the service industry, you employ many more people. We have traditionally been a country that provides services, there is nothing wrong with this. We have and we should continue to export more education, health and financial services, where there is still a lot to be done, and then there is the whole knowledge economy – IT has generated so much wealth. This is where we can compete. These service sectors are going to create the largest amount of Lebanese jobs that will cater to the large number of young people who can’t find jobs.
E What kind of incentives should the government provide to promote these industries?
I think the government needs to shrink, it needs to get off the people’s backs, become a regulator, a facilitator. It needs to provide a much better investment climate, which we are going to look specifically in to. The investment climate here is good, but could be much better: the bureaucracy is very heavy with regards to any transaction, the ease with which to open or close a business is not good enough, the courts aren’t working efficiently enough … improving the business climate doesn’t always require new laws, just improving the regulations. We will be working together with the World Bank to do an assessment of the investment climate. The Lebanese tend to think they are the best in the region, but unfortunately we are not. In some cases we are even the worse.
E Where do you stand on international trade agreements? Will Lebanon enter the WTO under your watch?
I will push very vigorously for Lebanon to enter the WTO. Things are at a fairly advanced stage, with laws already before the council of ministers or with parliament, dealing with issues such as intellectual property rights. We are also having discussions with our trading partners on certain trade barriers, import licenses and high duties. My attitude is a liberal one. I appreciate the lobby groups and their political strength, but we are going to have a dialogue on this and it is going to be a tense one. Some people think we automatically stand to lose from economic globalization. No, Lebanon stands to win.
E If we were to join the WTO there will be human costs in the short-run. How do you plan on mitigating the impact it will have on employment?
There will be some costs, but I don’t think they will be very heavy. We definitely have to mitigate them. The hope is, by entering the WTO, we will be able to spur private sector investment, which will create more employment and thereby absorb those who will have lost their jobs. You would hope that sectors that will suffer from our WTO membership will gradually move over to other sectors. That being said, the trade barrier reductions will be gradual – there is an adjustment period. Also, we must look at some of the sectors that will be affected, heavy industries such as cement and steel only employ a very small number of people. And as with some agricultural sub-sectors who are most likely to suffer, a lot of their labor force is not Lebanese. Our task will be to provide technical assistance to agricultural sectors who want to move into producing products with higher value-added.
E You sound like you are not a great believer in government intervention to reduce unemployment levels. Will spurred economic growth take care of the problem?
A government can take short-term measures to tackle unemployment by providing public sector jobs. We will not do this, because we cannot afford it and these public sector jobs are not the best, nor is this [facilitating] sustainable economic growth. The answer lies with the private sector, which will come back very quickly if you have the right business environment and an improved security environment.