It has been a difficult year for the Lebanese banking sector. While deposits are only marginally down on 2010, Arab uprisings have affected banks’ regional operations and the Lebanese economy is feeling the ongoing global financial crisis. But by and large, these are the sorts of issues Lebanese bankers are used to handling; risk management is a hardwired Lebanese specialty. What has presented unusual concern this year is the black cloud lingering over the sector following the listing in February of Lebanese Canadian Bank (LCB) by the United States Department of the Treasury as a “financial institution of prime money laundering concern.”
The designation left LCB’s reputation in tatters and, after a limited run on the bank, shareholders opted for LCB to merge with Société Générale de Banque au Liban (SGBL) rather than to appeal the charges. For the banking sector, the LCB designation was a well-aimed kick to the nether regions. Banks are still “paranoid” 10 months later, a senior member of Banque du Liban (BDL), Lebanon’s central bank, recently told me.
The concern is that other banks could find themselves in the US Treasury’s sights — a worry compounded by the apparent political motivation of Washington’s decision, as LCB was accused of laundering money on behalf of Hezbollah, the steward of the current Lebanese government and designated as a terrorist organization by the US. The US decision looked on the surface to be a warning to the banking sector — and Lebanon generally — to play ball. Not helping the sense of paranoia is the failure to release results of the investigation into any wrong-doing on the part of LCB by either Washington or BDL.
There was an upside from a regulatory point of view, however, to the taking down of LCB. Due diligence has suddenly taken on special importance, compliance officers’ voices are better heard in the board rooms and those in need of screening software to detect suspicious transactions have quickly placed orders. Rumors of further LCB-style designations have persisted, while additional pressure has been heaped on Lebanon following multiple rounds of US and European Union sanctions on Syria in response to Damascus’ crackdown on protestors. For the sanctions to have bite, Lebanon cannot be a financial conduit for the Syrian regime; Lebanon is not required to abide by US and EU sanctions — only United Nations resolutions are binding — but it has pledged to cooperate.
With around 60 percent of Lebanese banks’ deposits in American dollars, and the lira pegged to the greenback, Lebanon, as the BDL source put it, is effectively part of the US financial system — Beirut must respect US decisions whether it likes them or not. Indeed, Beirut’s compliance on this matter is so crucial that it was the first item on the agenda in talks between Prime Minister Najib Mikati and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in September. In November, Daniel Glaser, the Treasury Department’s assistant secretary, visited Beirut to push the issue further. Yet while bilateral meetings were underway in late September, another black cloud loomed on the horizon. A second bank — which shall go unnamed — was suspected of money laundering, according to sources in the financial sector and within BDL, although officially BDL would neither confirm nor deny this.
Yet what seems to have happened behind the scenes is an arrangement whereby in exchange for Lebanese cooperation on Syria there would be “no more LCB surprises,” as the BDL source put it. Beirut is in a form of “partnership” with Washington, and BDL is under pressure to deliver by making sure no money laundering or terrorist financing (by American definitions at least) is occurring within the banking sector. If another bank is in the firing line, the US may point its finger, and BDL will investigate rather than merely getting a day’s warning from Washington — as happened with LCB.
Some may call it a Faustian pact, and it goes against the grain of supposed transparency in the financial sector that is being pushed worldwide, but as a diplomatic move it suits both Washington and Beirut nicely, for the time being at least. Lebanese banks are right to be paranoid and to keep in line with US regulations in order to avoid the devastating blow to the sector’s credibility that an LCB redux would mean.
Paul Cochrane is the Middle East correspondent for the International News Services, and a regular contributor to Money Laundering Bullettin