Eager to turn the page on money laundering scandals and rumors that hounded the industry at the beginning of 2011, Lebanese banks have gone on a summer retail advertising binge. From the refurbished and repackaged classic loans to the downright quirky new ones, Lebanon’s summer banking products are certainly putting on display the country’s on-credit conspicuous consumption.
In 2004, Byblos Bank made the first move away from classic retail loans [housing, car and personal loans] when it introduced both wedding and travel loans. “The big wedding trend took off in 2000, and people started spending more on event planners, large venues, caterers and such. They were in need of huge budgets,” says Georgina Eid Dinar, head of group consumer loans at Byblos Bank. The bank’s $15,000 wedding loan ceiling far from covers lavish ceremonies, but Dinar says accompanying benefits, such as zero percent file and insurance fees outside the monthly installments, a three-month grace period and a slightly discounted interest rate — around 1 percent less than the regular personal loan — add value to an otherwise common personal loan.
Ronald Zirka, head of marketing and retail divisions at Banque Libano-Francaise (BLF), says the bank’s wedding package is the newest addition to an extensive retail product line, part of BLF’s somewhat recent strategy to divest from corporate banking and go into more consumer lending. “In 2009, we decided we wanted to dig into retail because we wanted to diversify the risk. We wanted equilibrium between corporate, small-to-medium enterprises and consumer loans,” he says. BLF’s wedding package offers a preferential interest rate of 9.99 percent on the wedding loan, compared to 13 percent for the usual personal loan, with the installments spread over a range of 18 to 24 months. Zirka says the package offers instant cash collateral to the bank. “We usually advise the customer to place the wedding list against the loan. That way no money will be spent nor lost. And if they do that they can go up to five years [for the reimbursement period], because we will have secured our guarantee.”
For Dinar, plush honeymoons that followed big weddings called for having a travel loan on the side. “At the time , trip organizers and travel agencies started arranging for cruises and small trips. We went through the travel agencies and came up with packages for the [travel loan],” she says. There are currently seven banks that offer a travel loan in Lebanon, most of which allow for some sort of grace period and generally restrict the repayment time frame to a year. The rationale behind these terms and conditions, according to BLF’s Zirka, is that customers who take out a travel loan will usually want to settle it over a period of nine to twelvemonths, but need some breathing time first.
“It will be two to three weeks of vacation, and when they come back they will have spent a considerable sum of money. All in all, that is around a month and a half of no productivity. So we gave them a two-month grace period,” he says. Interest rates on these loans, however, are either generally the same as those on classic personal loans or cleverly embedded in extra charges. “The travel loan is at a zero percent interest rate and it is a true zero percent,” says Byblos’ Dinar, adding that customers are only charged a file fee, which adds up to 5 percent of the total loan amount.
With the exception of a one-year repayment period, Bank of Beirut’s “Safar” [travel] loan is no different from the bank’s personal loan, ranging between $500 and $15,000, and offering around a 7 percent interest rate on the total amount.
Mira Raham, head of sales and marketing units at Credit Bank, says the push for travel loans was initiated some 15 years ago by travel agencies and cruise organizers to facilitate deals with their own customers. “The travel agency cannot install to the customer because after all, it’s not a bank,” she says.
BLF’s Zirka agrees that targeted retail products have helped bring suppliers and banks closer together to service both sides’ clients, which particularly benefited home appliance and electronics retailers. It was back in1999 that Bank Audi launched the first ever personal computer (PC) loan in Lebanon. Soon after, others followed. “We implemented our consumer/PC loans about three years ago. We have the lion’s share in this market,” says George Aouad, head of the retail banking division at Bank of Beirut. While the bank’s consumer/PC loan doesn’t diverge a great deal from their personal loan in settlement terms, Aouad says the interest rate on such a loan can fluctuate depending on the risk associated with certain appliance and high-tech retailers and distributors. “When I have the personal guarantee of the retailer the rate could be lower. That’s why we apply sometimes between 5.5 and 6 percent[interest rate]. But it’s usually 7 percent,” he says.
Credit Bank’s Raham says that it is the bank’s own clients that have paved the way for loans such as those for furniture and home appliances. “Many of our clients own galleries, furniture and home appliance stores. So we capitalize on that and try to cross-sell the banks’ products with those of our client-suppliers,” she says. BLF is slated to add an appliance loan to its current retail portfolio, but had previously introduced an iPad loan for a limited time in the summer of 2010, and plans to repeat this for theiPad2 soon. “We went into the iPad loan because it was a partnership with L’Orient Le Jour. The customer got a two-year print and iPad application subscription to L’Orient Le Jour along with the tablet itself,” says Zirka.
Home sweet home
But while travel, wedding and appliance loans could well be considered marketing ploys and gadgetized versions of the personal loan, it is summer housing loans, particularly those that target Lebanese expatriates, that largely prop up the season’s lending activity. “Housing loans are most demanded in summer because the expats come to Lebanon during that time, apply [for loans] and do their paperwork,” says Dinar, adding that Byblos Bank’s expat housing loan offers vary from the regular housing loan in services and conditions rather than in payment terms. “There is no difference in amounts, or down payments. The focus is the service [of availability] because some banks do not lend to non-residents,” she says.
But Zirka says that expatriates bring in higher incomes as well as more risk, both of which should be taken into account when lending to this particular segment. BLF’s expat housing loan requires a minimum 25 percent down payment of the house’s total value, compared to 15 percent asked of residents. “Expats make and spend much more money [than residents], especially during summer time. Every time they come to Lebanon they spend most of the money they put aside,” he says. “That’s why we finance a little bit less in terms of percentage out of the loan amount requested. The down payment is a bit greater than the one requested of residents,” says Aouad.
What’s in a name?
When asked about the need for banking products that can be easily replaced by the classic personal loan, Byblos’ Dinar says it is the way these targeted loans are packaged as on-the-shelf products that attracts a bigger customer base. “At the end, whether the interest is 12 or 7 percent, customers are only interested in how much they have to pay at the end of each month,” she says. But Zirka says that loans such as those for home appliances and electronics are necessary to facilitate consumers’ on-the-spot big purchases. “It saves the hassle for a customer who, let’s say, wants to purchase from Khoury Home. It makes the purchase a one-stage transaction instead of two,” he explains.
But some banks have taken niche marketing to extremes, introducing products that are borderline gimmicks. Both Bank of Beirut and the Arab Countries (BBAC) and Credit Bank offer a jewelry loan, with Credit Bank’s “Bijou” loan imposing a 20 to 62-years-old age bracket for beneficiaries who can borrow up to $10,000, and settle the amount over a maximum of two years. “It’s mainly young ladies or men who would like to offer [jewelry to] their wives; usually the young generation,” says Credit Bank’s Raham, who admits that the “Bijou” loan falls under the bank’s marketing, rather than product strategy.
“[Summer loans] all fall under the umbrella of a personal loan. You can make up an infinite list of products, but it goes to the same place [on the balance sheet]. It’s good marketing though, to address certain segments for a specific purpose,” says Bank of Beirut’s Aouad. But Zirka is cautious about bombarding clients with too many products. “First National Bank has a plastic surgery loan and a fertility loan. It’s a normal consumer loan but repackaged. It’s not wrong what they’re doing. We want to offer targeted products but still respect the banking image,” he says.
On managing credit risk that comes with tailoring loans on which people can easily default — Banque du Liban’s Centrale des Risques, the entity that assesses loan applicants’ eligibility, only requires such a process for personal loans above $5,000 — Zirka says that some of the targeted products offer relief for the banks. “What we are concerned about normally when we give out a personal loan is: Is the customer using the money for gambling? As an example. But someone who is getting married has priorities,” he says in reference to BLF’s wedding package.
For Aouad, adding some preventive conditions and terms to these products is key. Bank of Beirut’s taxi car loan, which Aouad says is a best seller during summer time, finances either taxi cars’ red license plates, which can cost $18,000 to $20,000, or the new and used cars themselves.
“Taxi cars are most prone to accidents so we included total loss insurance. The interest rate was also put in a logical way [around 5percent on new cars and 6.5 percent on used ones, compared to 3.9 percent and 4percent for the regular car loan], because we know that the car will depreciate very quickly,” explains Aouad.
Still, banks find comfort in setting low ceilings for these targeted loans. “We could adopt a no-limit policy with loans, but this is not good neither for them [the customers] nor us,” says Byblos’ Dinar. Aouad says customers could drown in debt if they take on more than what they can handle. “But it’s only risky if the bank’s lending policy is loose,” says Credit Bank’s Raham.