It was never going to be an easy year for Lebanon. The economy entered 2012 with the International Monetary Fund pegging growth at only 1.5 percent for the previous year, war and economic crisis flanked the country, and among the only indicators rising in the face of falling growth was inflation.
Now as the year draws to a close and we survey the prospect for 2013 there is little reason to cheer; the economy is most likely slumped in stagflation, Syria boils more violently than ever and Lebanon’s politicians have effectively squashed hopes of meaningful reform and leadership from parliament.
One event that was lauded as a success was the cabinet’s passing of a new budget. Admittedly, in most countries this is considered a bare minimum the citizens can expect from their elected leaders, but in Lebanon is has become something of an exceptional occurrence.
Since the political crisis that descended in 2006, the government has not passed a budget and as such the nation is suspended in a state of “continual illegality”, according to legal attorney and lecturer in constitutional law, Wassim Manssouri. Of course this government and its predecessors haven’t stopped spending, far from it, but rather they have racked up more than $20 billion (over LL30 trillion) in extra-budgetary expenses.
When the cabinet actually managed to agree on a budget there was a fair amount of backslapping and self-congratulation. However, the felicitations were premature and unjustified. The budget had been sheared of any of the meaningful reforms or progressive initiatives that had been included in a previous draft, and what is more, although the cabinet agreed on the budget and passed it on to Parliament, it has since been stuck in the legislative mud.
Debating and agreeing upon a fiscal plan for the nation is not a priority, it would seem. For those among us that actually want to analyze the details, as that is surely where the devil lies, the budget is too vague and opaque. “The structure of the budget does not have the transparency we need in order to see how the budget for each sector is outlined,” explains Yahya Hakim, member of the Lebanese Transparency Association. “Even in the commissions they don’t discuss the individual chapters of the budget and the deputies have no clue how it is prepared.”
The ludicrous failings of Lebanon’s lawmakers to enact a budget for more than six years leaves little room for hope that they will enact the comprehensive reforms that the economy actually needs. “We need to go through a complete administrative and financial reform,” argues Hakim. “If we don’t we will never get anywhere and we will continue to just turn in circles.”
The last real effort to enact such reforms was under the leadership of President Fouad Chehab from 1958 to 1964, which bought him into conflict with the traditional feudal, confessional and clan-based politicians. These same forces have ensured that while some politicians may pay lip service to such reforms, they never see the light of day.
“In Lebanon structural reforms would harm narrow political interests and on top of that, politicians view reforms as a zero-sum game,” explains Nassib Ghobril, head of economic research at Byblos Bank. “If a politician implements reforms then he can score points against his opponent or even his nominal ally so they will do what they can to put barriers in his way.”
And so it is that the public administration remains a hemorrhaging body, rife with clientelism that inefficiently manages a crippled and antiquated national infrastructure.
Paying the public
The changes to the public-sector pay scale, agreed by the cabinet in September, has perhaps been the defining economic debate within Lebanon in 2012. It is also a fine example of how an issue of critical economic importance to the nation can be reduced to the ignominious status of a political football.
Under the proposed scale, ‘category one’ employees will receive a hike of LL2.9 million ($1,933), with monthy scaled increases of LL1.7 million ($1,133) for ‘category two’ employees, LL940,000 ($626) for ‘category three’ employees and LL210,000 ($140) for the state’s lowest-level clerks. In addition to this, public high school teachers, the main advocates behind the new scale, will receive around LL1 million ($667) in raises, while public elementary school teachers will receive LL789,000 ($526).
While the government reached a consensus on the pay scale it did so without reconciling how they would actually pay for it, and herein lies the foil that has scuppered the implementation of the policy. The specter of tax increases to fund the multi-billion dollar increase in expenditures has drawn cries of impending economic catastrophe from the private sector, and the government has tussled between different proposals without offering anything suitable.
“There are other sources such as fighting tax evasion and improving tax collection, which by my conservative estimates could raise an additional $1 billion in revenues,” argues Ghobril. “Then of course, long overdue reforms reducing waste and inefficiency could go a long way to cutting the government’s expenditures.”
The need to increase the purchasing power of Lebanon’s low-income households is a necessity in the face of high inflation, which is both internally and externally driven; while there are currently no reliable or comprehensive official statistics to precisely gauge inflation in Lebanon, FFA Private Bank reported that the country’s consumer price index rose 11.1 percent in October year-on-year. Rising prices for nearly all tradable goods are imported, as Lebanon is such a small player on the global stage, both in terms of consumption and production. However for any non-tradable goods or services the spiraling costs can to a large degree be explained by a structural imbalance in the economy.
Lebanon enjoys huge inflows of capital, such as remittances from expatriate Lebanese and oil money from the Gulf, which, along with easy credit from the banks, boost the local money supply. It is these large inflows of capital that drive up prices for anything that is non-tradable on international markets, such as real estate or a meal at your favorite restaurant. This phenomenon is further compounded by Lebanon’s ruinous disregard for its productive sectors.
Neighbor from hell
Throughout 2012 the shadows cast by the Syrian crisis across Lebanon have only grown more menacing. So much so that it could perhaps be considered a success that the nation has, in the main, stayed aloft from the violence ripping its neighbor apart. However, while violence has been confined to sporadic and localized clashes or targeted assassinations the economy has taken a battering, with no sectors passing unscathed.
Tourism spending in the third quarter of 2012 was down 24 percent on the same period in 2011 and deposit growth in the banking sector has been on a downward trend recently; growth of 7.6 percent annually in August 2012 is off from an annual increase of 10 percent in August 2011 and pales compared 18 percent in 2010.
In many regards the effects on the economy from the turmoil in Syria are beyond the control of Lebanon’s business leaders and politicians, but nonetheless there has been a woeful lack of leadership. Stepping back from the picture it also makes sense for Lebanon to have prepared itself for any disturbances and shocks to its economy when times were good. Had Lebanon made hay while the sun was shining then it would not be so vulnerable to the current instability.
“We live in a rough neighborhood that is in one way or another unstable and has been for decades,” explains Ghobril. “We had opportunity in 2008 to put up buffers and increase our strength and to improve the immunity of the economy.”
Indeed, those were very different days in 2008. The Doha Accords had reinstated security in the country, Lebanon’s banking sector emerged as a safe haven from the global financial crisis attracting a huge inflow of capital, the central bank increased its foreign currency reserves to unprecedented levels, growth rates were comparable to China and global interest rates were near zero.
Had Lebanon reduced its public finance vulnerabilities, cut public expenditure and the borrowing needs of the government, improved tax collection and implemented reforms then, the nation’s house would have been standing on much stronger foundations now. However, content to persevere with a dysfunctional status quo the government missed the boat. “They did absolutely nothing,” says Ghobril.
Looking at this missed window of opportunity through the lens of Lebanon’s public debt burden, which is the third highest in the world when viewed as a proportion of gross domestic product, is particularly illuminating. The public debt to GDP ratio dropped from 180 percent in 2006 to 135 percent by the end of 2010. While this was a welcome move in the right direction, it was on account of bullish growth in the nation’s economy as opposed to any effort to reduce the borrowing needs of the government.
Now it is a very different scenario. Lebanon’s real GDP growth throughout 2012 has struggled along between zero and 2 percent and the government is still spending well beyond its means; the total fiscal balance registered a deficit of LL1,708 billion ($1.13 billion) in the first half of 2012 compared to a lower deficit of LL1,304 billion ($865 million) over the same period in 2011. What’s more, the gross public debt increased by LL2,436 billion ($1.62 billion) in the first half of 2012 to reach LL83,313 billion ($55.28 billion) against LL80,887 billion ($53.67 billion) at the end of 2011.
The global investment bank JP Morgan observes that bank deposit growth is likely to remain below the 5 to 6 percent necessary to finance both the private and public sectors this year. The central bank will therefore likely have to intervene with its large stock of foreign exchange reserves — hardly a sustainable long-term solution. As Charles Arbid, president of the Lebanese Franchise Association, states, “This current system is not working anymore. We need the support of politicians and everyone needs to be involved. We need to work and produce more and spend less. We need to move away from a culture of debt.”
But alas, it is likely to be a long wait before any of the necessary policy changes or reforms are implemented. It is going to be a bleak winter for Lebanon’s economy. With the elected leaders locked in a battle of attrition, the nation’s business owners, workers and traders are going to have to navigate the treacherous landscape of 2013 alone.