During the first quarter of 2009, Lebanon braced itself for a steep fall in remittances. The logic held that the global financial crisis would severely affect remittance inflows from outside the country, as Lebanese working abroad saw their own budgets tighten. The Lebanese government even prepared its 2009 budget proposal, which was never ratified, “on a very strict assumption of a 20 percent decrease in the level of remittances,” according to Lebanon’s Minister of Economics and Trade Mohammad Safadi.
It was a reasonable fear since, according to the International Monetary Fund, 70 percent of Lebanon’s remittance inflows are from the Gulf Cooperation Council and the United States, both of which were badly exposed to the crisis.
A few months into 2009, however, a less gloomy picture emerged with the IMF predicting a drop in remittances of 12 to 15 percent. Today the picture has brightened further, with Safadi saying that the predicted decline “has not yet materialized,” and pointing out that Standard & Poor’s ratings agency, who had expressed concerns that a fall in remittances could hurt Lebanon’s ability to pay its debts, had actually improved Lebanon’s credit rating.
In fact, in November 2009 the World Bank released its updated figures predicting that Lebanon would only experience a 2.5 percent drop, from $7.18 billion to $7 billion in remittance inflows for the year as a whole.
Projecting in the dark
The numbers are even more significant considering Lebanon’s remittance to gross domestic product ratio has also dropped, from 24.8 percent of GDP, using official figures, to a projected 21.4 percent, according to data provided by the World Bank, the IMF and Bank Audi.
The decrease can be attributed to the IMF’s forecast that Lebanon’s GDP will grow by 7 percent to reach $32.7 billion by the end of 2009. It should be noted, however, that many debate the methodology used to calculate Lebanon’s GDP [see page 58]. The Economist Intelligence Unit, for instance, expects Lebanon’s GDP to grow at a rate of 5.1 percent to reach a total of $30.2 billion by the end of 2009, resulting in markedly different figures.
Nassib Ghobril, head of research and analysis at Byblos Bank, is quick to point out the inexact nature of such predictions. “[At this stage] they’re not even forecasts, they’re expectations,” he says. “It’s very difficult to put your finger on a forecast given the lack of regular data… there simply are no figures since the end of 2008, and that’s exactly where we need greater transparency from the authorities.”
Ghobril frequently bemoans this lack of information.
“There are no remittance figures from local authorities here,” he says. “In Jordan, we have figures on remittances every month.”
Ghobril sees this lack of information as a major problem given how important remittances are to the economy, and he advocates that it be addressed immediately.
When contacted by Executive, the Banque du Liban, Lebanon’s central bank, said that they publish remittance results quarterly on their website. However, as Executive went to press, no data for 2009 had been published.
Not yet a science
The significance of remittances to development and world capital flows only became a fashionable part of economic calculations in the last decade, so even the figures that are released are somewhat questionable.
“The calculation of remittances is not a science yet,” says Ghobril. He points out that there are major methodological issues not yet settled. For example, the World Bank includes deposits (as opposed to transfers) of less than $10,000 made by expatriates into Lebanese banks in its calculations of remittances, despite the fact that in many cases these expatriates may simply be taking advantage of Lebanese banks’ high interest rates to maximize their savings and not directly contributing to actual economic activity.
The decision to include these deposits was part of a shift in the World Bank’s method for calculating remittances in 2003.
That year the World Bank reported that Lebanon received around around $4.7 billion in remittances, nearly doubling the 2002 figure of $2.5 billion — a jump Ghobril asserts was more a result of the change in methodology than an actual increase.
There has not been major methodological change since then, however, meaning that the growth from $4.7 billion in 2004 to $7.18 billion last year can be regarded as an authentic increase. The IMF also recently suggested including remittances in Lebanon’s GDP, which would significantly improve its debt-to-GDP ratio.
As around $1.4 billion per month continue to flow into Lebanon’s banking sector from abroad, many believe that remittances must be doing well. It is also possible though that, in these uncertain economic times, a significant amount of this money is arriving from investors who have turned to Lebanon’s trusted banking sector as a safehaven to stash their cash, rather than true remittances, which would be Lebanese sending money home to be spent.
Kamal Hamdan, economist and managing director of the Consultation and Research Institute, says that a significant though unknown part of this year’s figure can be attributed to the liquidation of fixed and non-fixed assets from non-resident Lebanese.
“You liquidate once and for all so I don’t know if this $7 billion is a sign of strength or rather an ultimatum,” says Hamdan. He expects, however, that remittances will remain relatively steady in terms of their ratio to GDP “because a decrease of a few percentage points is not enough to affect its weight with respect to GDP.”
Another (and perhaps more meaningful) indicator that remittances can be expected to stay fairly stable is the lack of an influx of returning expatriates, tens of thousands of whom were predicted to return home as a result of the crisis — though in Hamdan’s view, the absence of repatriation figures constitutes “the worst example of the lack of accurate data.”
There was “no reversal of the brain drain phenomenon witnessed so far, despite the fact that local demand for skilled labor has been rising,” says Safadi.
While this return of talented expats would have presented positive opportunities, the fact that it hasn’t occurred also has a positive dynamic, as it means that those who have lost their jobs have likely taken up other employment, or moved from city to city or country to country seeking work in markets where wages are high and from which they can continue to send remittances.“We didn’t see thousands of Lebanese returning here, so that means they’re still working somewhere,” says Ghobril.
Perhaps the strongest indicator of the continued strength of remittances, however, is data coming from the remittance sending countries. Saudi central bank data estimates that total remittances — to all countries — from Saudi Arabia reached $15 billion in the first eight months of 2009, an increase of 12 percent compared to 2008.
While this growth, probably fueled by the kingdom’s massive development plan, is a slowdown from the 26.7 percent growth in remittances that took place between 2007 and 2008, it certainly paints a brighter picture than many predicted when the financial crisis first kicked off.
Resilient but not immune
Other Gulf states have also dug into their remarkably deep pockets and ploughed ahead with their own long-term strategies for infrastructure development. This was reflected in the IMF’s Regional Economic Outlook report for October 2009, which said that counter-cyclical government spending had helped protect economies in the Middle East from the worst effects of the global economic downturn.
Overall, according to the World Bank’s latest data, outward remittance flows from the Gulf have dropped only 3 percent this year relative to last year. Remittances from the Gulf to other countries in the Middle East have dropped from $34 billion to $32.2 billion, according to data from the World Bank, IMF and Bank Audi, and the IMF outlook report predicts that remittances will stabilize at $34 billion next year and grow to $36 billion in 2011.
However, there are negative signs as well. In Jordan, (where data on remittances is more readily available than in Lebanon) there has been a decline of 6 percent in remittance inflows, and Egypt, the biggest recipient of remittances in the region, has announced a decline of 8.8 percent.There are reasons to believe that remittances from the US may have suffered a more serious decline, with remittances to Mexico having dropped 15 percent year-on-year in the year to August, as reported by The Wall Street Journal.
With the region expecting to have a better year in 2010 and the US officially out of a recession, there is reason to be optimistic.
However, as Ghobirl says: “There is no way not to be effected…The Lebanese economy has shown that it is insulated from the crisis but not isolated. It is resilient but not immune.”