Lebanon banks should 'go first' in absorbing losses, caretaker deputy PM says

Lebanon banks should 'go first' in absorbing losses, caretaker deputy PM says
Lebanon's caretaker deputy PM Saade Chami said banks should absorb losses stemming from the country's financial loss.
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Lebanon's economic downturn began in 2019 but accelerated in the spring of 2020 [Getty]

Lebanon's banks should "go first" in absorbing losses stemming from the country's financial collapse through their capital, caretaker deputy prime minister Saade Chami said on Thursday, denying the state would rely on a sovereign fund or gold reserves to reimburse depositors who had lost their savings.

Shami is the architect behind a recovery roadmap that Lebanon's cabinet passed just before it went into caretaker status last month and which includes several measures that are required to unlock relief funding from the International Monetary Fund.

It includes a full audit of the Central Bank's forex financial standing by consultancy firm KPMG in the next two months and a subsequent write-off of a "large part" of its foreign currency obligations to banks.

The Associations of the Banks of Lebanon has rejected the plan, saying it would force depositors and banks to bear the brunt of $72 billion in estimated losses.

Shami stood his ground on Thursday, telling Reuters that "banks should go first in terms of their capital before we can touch any depositors".

"We are not going to do a Robin Hood principle in reverse, taking from the poorer to give to the richer – this is not acceptable," he said, calling on banks to "make sacrifices" to protect depositors.

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Shami said the government would aim to return up to $100,000 of depositors' savings over time, which he said Lebanon's banks had the foreign currency assets to cover through "reserves of the central bank, liquidity in the banking system, deposits of correspondent banks, loans to the private sector, among other things".

He could not say whether the banks' physical assets could contribute to this but denied media reports the government had decided to use gold reserves to reimburse depositors.

Shami said he was open to the idea of a sovereign wealth fund to broadly manage state assets but said he was against incorporating those revenues into the reimbursement scheme as it would not be enough to plug the hole in losses.

Instead, the government would contribute $2.5 billion in long-term bonds that could be added to the Central Bank's balance sheet, he said.

Inaction not an option

Shami's plan was also opposed by ministers allied to powerful Iran-backed group Hezbollah, which voted against the roadmap in cabinet last month.

Hezbollah deputy chief Naim Qassem hinted to Reuters in an interview on Monday that a fresh plan would have to be negotiated since parliamentary elections in Lebanon in May had triggered a new government formation process..

Shami said it would "not make much sense" to change the plan given the backing it had already received from the IMF and the international community.

Lebanon's economic downturn began in 2019 but accelerated in the spring of 2020 when it defaulted on a $1.2 billion Eurobond. Since then, the Central Bank has spent about half of Lebanon's foreign exchange reserves to stand up the collapsing local pound and subsidising goods, including wheat and medication, Shami said.

"Judging by the amount of reserves we have right now, which are $10, $11 billion, and if you assume an average spending of $400-500 million a month then you can do the math – probably a few months you would run out of reserves," he said.

He said the only way to recover would be for Lebanon's parliament to quickly pass a "package of laws" – among them capital controls, a reformed banking secrecy law, and a banking restructuring plan – that would grant it access to IMF funding.

Shami said he would start meeting with lawmakers soon to urge them to push the laws through quickly, saying "inaction is not an option anymore for us".