Economic Crisis

‘Financial surrealism’: Lebanese opt for beer over banks

The headquarters of the Association of Banks in Lebanon. (L'Orient Today/Omar Tamo)

BEIRUT — Faced with the choice of leaving their savings stuck in the bank or investing them at a huge loss, some Lebanese people are opting to punt. For them, it’s the only sensible option in a financial system warped by crisis.

Largely locked out of their dollar accounts since late 2019, when the lira began crashing and the banking system buckled amid widespread political protests, some savers see investments in export-focused companies as a way to access hard currency and get something for their “lollars,” the nickname for US dollar-denominated deposits “trapped” in Lebanon’s banks.

Alcohol exporters, including craft brewers and gin merchants, are a popular choice.

“If you invest with me today trapped dollars, I’ll give it back to you in fresh dollars,” said Kamal Fayad, the chief executive of 961 Beer, a Lebanese beer exporter.

Under informal capital controls, depositors can still write checks on their US dollar-denominated accounts, but those checks cannot be used abroad, and if sold at local exchanges, they lose at least 75 percent of their value.

The steep discount reflects the predicament of having dollars parked at Lebanese banks. Starved of dollar funding, the banks limit customers’ access to their funds and currently pay out at a rate of LL3,900 to the greenback, about a quarter of the value of dollars on the black market.

Fayad said he was in talks with investors to raise the equivalent of more than $1 million, which would include $3 million–$4 million in lollars.

“Investors prefer to take the risk on me rather than keep money in the bank. At least I’m doing something good for the industry. I’m safer today to them than a bank,” he said.

The willingness to take the financial hit reflects despair over Lebanon’s path out of crisis, which has been blocked by political infighting compounded by a devastating explosion at the capital’s port last year.

Economic meltdown has driven more than half the population of 6 million into poverty, wiped out savings and slashed consumer purchasing power.

International donors have said they will help only if major reforms are implemented to fight widespread corruption, but a nearly yearlong standoff over the makeup of a new government means they are nowhere near being introduced.

“It’s really political and financial surrealism,” said Toufic Gaspard, an economist who has worked as an adviser at the International Monetary Fund and an adviser to a former finance minister.

“If a patient refuses to take any medications for 20 months, what do we expect will happen? Of course the health of the patient will deteriorate. This is exactly what we are witnessing in Lebanon — the dwindling of reserves, more depreciation of the currency and more shortages of basic commodities,” he said.

The offices of the finance minister and the economy minister did not respond to a request for comment.

Import shortages

Lebanon depends on imports, and for years the central bank helped finance the trade deficit by offering high interest rates on dollar deposits at commercial banks. The banks passed these rates on to clients, attracting a flood of deposits and hefty profits for a banking system with assets that swelled to as much as 167 percent of the country’s economic output in 2015.

The system imploded when the government defaulted on its debt last year. Foreign reserves at the central bank dropped from more than $30 billion prior to the crisis to about $15 billion in March, and an expensive subsidy program for imports is pushing usable reserves to the point of exhaustion.

Import shortages are now impacting the daily life of ordinary Lebanese. Long queues for fuel recently led to clashes in north Lebanon, while pharmacies went on a two-day strike last week as medicines ran out.

Many importers are facing delays in subsidy payments from the central bank, straining cash flows, said Hani Bohsali, the head of the Syndicate of Importers of Foodstuffs, Consumer Products and Drinks.

“From just speaking to traders, I can tell you that there are $50 million to $100 million of unpaid invoices for food imports. The goods have come — they have been sold — but they have not been covered by the central bank,” he said.

He said such delays had become a real threat as importers did not know when they would be paid and could not rely on banks to finance imports.

“You need to finance your purchases from your own financial strength, using money from your own personal accounts, or fresh dollars you take from foreign accounts,” he said.

The central bank did not respond to a request for comment.

The government is looking to reform the subsidy system, but it has stopped short of ending it until an alternative cash subsidy system is approved by Parliament.

Further depression

Trust in the banks, once seen as a pillar of stability, has evaporated since the government defaulted and bank branches, barricaded with metal plates, have become a target for protests.

The financial sector, the state’s biggest creditor, is estimated to have losses in excess of $80 billion, according to estimates by the outgoing government last year, a figure that dwarfs Lebanon’s annual economic output.

Fearing for their savings, many Lebanese have tried to move their money out of banks by repaying individual and company debt.

An executive at a Beirut-based financial services firm, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said he had seen a spike in investor demand to finance exporters and manufacturers, resulting in some of those companies closing their bank credit facilities.

Andre Malak of The Three Brothers, a Lebanese gin producer, has seen a 30 percent jump in outside investment since the crisis.

“We started seeing an increase in interest since the beginning of the recession, when people wanted to remove their money from the bank and put it in free space,” he said.

Mike Azar, a Beirut-based financial adviser, said Lebanon’s financial system had seen a deleveraging of more than $20 billion since October 2019, and the use of trapped dollars to repay outstanding debt contributed further to devaluing the currency, as selling checks in exchange for US dollars was lifting demand for an already dwindling supply.

The central bank, meanwhile, is planning to allow depositors to withdraw some of their trapped dollars through a new scheme with a limit of $800 per month, half of it in dollars and the rest in lira at a government rate of about 12,000.

This would mean a haircut to depositors given that the black market rate is about 15,000 and shooting up by the day.

“The central bank wants to reduce dollar liabilities in the system, but is doing it in such a way that doesn’t reduce the loss but only causes it to materialize in the form of currency devaluation, further impairment of remaining deposits and further depression of the real economy,” Azar said.

BEIRUT — Faced with the choice of leaving
their savings stuck in the bank or investing them at a huge
loss, some Lebanese people are opting to punt. For them,
it’s the only sensible option in a financial system warped by
Largely locked out of their dollar accounts since
late 2019, when the lira began crashing and the banking system
buckled amid...