Monday, June 29, 2020

The 2019-2020 Lebanese Financial Crisis - Causes, Implications, & Possible Solutions


Part 1: Causes

Even though economics is not my profession, I’ve had the privilege of having some economic training in my undergraduate pursuit, and it was highly relevant when I practiced management consulting and still is highly relevant to me as an entrepreneur and a business owner. I felt like writing about the current economic situation, in order to help my friends and family form a better opinion of what’s going on, especially information relevant to the crisis is disseminated on the news in a scattered and reductionist manner, which doesn’t allow people to form a holistic idea of what is going on.

The past year was bleak in terms of what has went on in Lebanon from popular uprising, devaluation of the national currency, siphoning of depositor funds, sovereign debt default, blatant corruption and incompetence, and the cherry on top was the global Coronavirus pandemic, which has made our already horrible economic situation worse. Before going into how all that affected the devaluation of the Lira, it is important to go over a few concepts and definitions.

What is currency/money? (Webster, 2020)

                According to classical economic theory, currency or money is anything that fulfills the following requirements:

1.       Medium of exchange

2.       Store of value

3.       Unit of account

Does the lira fulfill all of the above requirements?

The Lira is used in circulation and can be exchanged for anything in Lebanon, so it is a medium of exchange, it also used to be a store of value until it started devaluating, as for unit of account, here is where it gets tricky. The Lira in itself has no intrinsic value because it wasn’t measured relative to how well the economy was producing/doing, instead it simply derived its value by pegging/fixing it to the US dollar, Therefore, in essence, the “real” unit of account was the US dollar, even before the crisis. So does it fulfill all the requirements of a currency? Hardly and it’s the fault of those who have set our weak monetary policy (Furness, 020).

Moreover, the concept of value is abstract, psychological, and difficult to quantify. How can you really know what anything is worth what? Whether its economic value or psychological value, it all breaks down to usefulness/utility (Baumol, 2020). For example, if you are a cyclist, a bicycle will likely be more valuable to you than a pair of skies, especially if you don’t ski. Same principle applies to money, if you are an importer or manufacturer of goods, and can’t use the currency to purchase what you require, your perceived value of that currency will diminish.

How are national monetary policies set?

Simply put, monetary policy is how a country’s central bank manages money supply in order to stimulate domestic economic growth (Economic Times , 2020). There are two other variables that are linked to monetary policy which are the free flow of capital and fixed exchange rates, however they are mutually exclusive to each other and to monetary policy, resulting in what economists deemed as a Trilemma or Impossible Trinity. This means that countries can only choose two at a time. The options are follows: a) free flow of capital b) fixed exchange rates c) independent monetary policy.

 

 

How did the Lebanese government take into account the Trilemma?



(Majaski, 2020)

Lebanon imposes minimal restrictions on the flow of capital in and out of the country, and even after the financial crisis hit, depositor accounts were frozen, but whomever has paper international currency such as USD, EUR, GBP, etc. can freely transfer the money abroad with no questions asked (TDS, 2020). As for the exchange rate it’s officially pegged i.e. fixed at 1507.5 Liras to 1 USD while maintaining and independent monetary policy where the central bank is issuing and managing government bonds, lending to the government, managing bank reserves, managing exchange rates, etc. In other words, the Lebanese state gave its citizens the illusion that it had resolved the trilemma, but in reality our exchange rates were not fixed and were backed by foreign currency reserves that belong to depositors and not the central bank.

Lebanese monetary policy

Ideally, monetary policies are set to stimulate domestic economic growth (Economic Times , 2020). In other words, they are macro financial tools to aid in building a stable, productive and self-sufficient domestic economy that is able to compete and survive in the international economy. Instead of building a strong domestic economy by using those tools to finance productive sectors such as agriculture and industry. The government instead gave the illusion of financial stability by fixing the exchange rate of the Lira, in order to encourage the remittance of expatriates, in order to finance government spending plagued by embezzlement and corruption through central bank lending, where the central bank itself borrowed money from local banks that used depositor’s funds for lending and payment of profits made by accrued interest. Therefore, the current Lebanese monetary policy was designed to siphon depositor funds, making it the largest and most scandalous heist in history.

So what devaluated the Lebanese Lira and amplified the financial crisis?

There are multiple variables that have influenced the devaluation of the Lira, almost all of them were caused by the government.

1.       The Lebanese Lira was pegged to the US dollars since 1997 and the central bank was backing up this peg with foreign currency reserves that belong to Lebanese depositors.

2.       The government has been operating at a deficit for the past 30 years and was borrowing money to cover that deficit, then it was borrowing money to cover its maturing loans and interest payments, and eventually defaulted with no plan of how to move forward.

3.       The main creditor of the government was the central bank which borrowed money from the banks, which used their depositor’s funds, which the government defaulted on paying.

4.       Lebanon has a negative balance of trade, meaning we import more than we export, in other words the dollars that we transfer out of the country are more than what we get in.

5.       The Lebanese economy is a consumer economy rather than a productive one, that is due to the government’s focus on tourism and services sectors to bring in foreign currency rather than relying on productive sectors, such as agriculture and industry.

6.       Aside from lending to the government, in the past 10 years, the banking sector investments were focused on a non-productive sector, real-estate.

7.       The government has transformed the Lebanese economy from a regulated economy reliant on banking transactions into a deregulated and untraceable cash based economy that facilitates corrupt financial activities, money laundering and capital flight.

8.       Corruption, embezzlement, and incompetent public administration is probably the main reason that is behind all of the above.

2: Implications

 

How did the government deal with the financial crisis that it caused?

The Lebanese government appears to be colluding with the banking sector instead of regulating it, which is further amplifying the crisis. Since the banks lent the government from depositor’s funds and the government spent it, instead of addressing the situation head on and allocating responsibilities and losses, they decided to leave the nominal values of the depositor accounts in foreign currencies intact, but froze them indefinitely while allowing them to only withdraw at reduced rates of 3,900 LL of the actual dollar at a certain limit and the rest at 1500 LL to the dollar (TDS, 2020), while the exchange rates have been rising beyond 8000 LL to the dollar (at the time of writing) in the cash market. Therefore, if you take the limits on withdrawal at the 3900 LL rate and the rest at 1507 LL rate, in reality, this results in a haircut above 80% on withdraws from depositor dollar accounts when you withdraw above the set limit by the bank that permits withdrawals at 3800 LL.

Moreover, the shift from a banking economy into a cash economy is also forcing depositors to withdraw cash from banks at undesirable rates, which is accelerating the haircut on their foreign currency deposits (Schneider, 2019), which in turn is leaving the bank shareholder assets intact and richer since they are reducing their liability in actual/real currency.

Shifting into a cash economy has more dangerous implications, which is deregulation of financial transactions. Banking transactions are easily regulated because they are traceable, whereas cash transactions are much more difficult to trace. The main beneficiary of a cash economy is anyone that is complicit in an illegal activity of any kind. The main loser is the government in lost tax revenuelegitimate businesses which have decreased access to international currencies and shrinking markets, the consumer in price inflation in Lebanese Lira, and employee layoffs and devaluation of salaries. This is an explosive cycle which is reducing productivity, shrinking the market and raising unemployment and poverty.

Moreover, a cash economy with the current framework where outbound international transfers require cash currencies without any regulatory limitations is facilitating capital fight and money laundering activities, transforming Lebanon into a money laundering hub, where anyone that has cash, especially corrupt politically exposed people, can easily transfer his or her laundered cash abroad. In addition to that, the central bank is siphoning depositor’s funds from its reserves and injecting it into domestic cash circulation under the pretext of stabilizing exchange rates (Yassine, 2020), which eventually end up sold in the domestic economy at higher black market rates, shorting the Lebanese Lira and devaluating it, transferred abroad, funding illicit activities or stashed in people’s safes as long-term savings, which in turn makes the dollar a scarcer commodity in the domestic market and devaluates the Lebanese Lira further.

What are the implications of the devaluation of the Lebanese Lira?

As mentioned earlier, a currency is a medium of exchange, store of value, and unit of appraisal. In lay terms currency is the facilitator of economic, social, psychological, biological, and political transactions. So, since we are having this facilitator drying out from the market, the following implications are certain to arise.

1.       Economic implications:



This model is reductionist in order to simply explain what is happening in Lay terms, there are other variables that influence this model, such are expat remittances, emigration, political spending, conspiring bankers, just to name a few, can influence this cycle in many ways. However, putting aside the multiple causes and influences that can and possibly are occurring, we are currently stuck in an explosive cycle where the lira devaluation is reducing purchasing power. Most consumer goods, even commodities like wheat and refined sugar are imported, which means they are imported in foreign currency, and people will have to pay for it in Lira. When the lira is devaluating, prices will inflate in local currency and deflate in foreign currency at the same time, this means that it becomes too expensive for the Lebanese consumer to buy while at the same time erode the margins of businesses. So people are buying less of goods that are becoming less profitable, hence the local market shrinks and business close down due to both eroding sales and margins. Also, when margins shrink, inefficient businesses close down, and those that are attempting to survive will cut their fixed expenses, and a huge chunk of their fixed expenses are payroll, so unemployment will rise. As businesses close and businesses are understaffed, productivity in the economy goes down, there are less business and less employees in the market, so the chances of bringing in more export revenues will go down, and that’s without factoring in a global economy disrupted by Coronavirus. Less exports means less influx of foreign currency into the domestic market, which means that foreign currencies become an even more scarce commodity, which would drive their prices up if left unchecked, and the explosive and vicious cycle goes on and on (Amadeo, 2020).

2.       Social and Political Implication

 

This crisis has dire consequences on both, people’s psychological wellbeing and on the fabric of society as a whole. Psychologically, when people are threatened with their livelihood, it is normal to feel negative emotions (Jost, 2020), but it doesn’t mean that its healthy mentally and physically. Negative emotions such as fear and anger can make people distrustful and unwilling to collaborate with each other. Anxiety is another dangerous negative emotion that is brewed by uncertainty stressors, eroding one’s sense of control over one’s life, which also can result in loss of hope and motivation to move forward.  Not to mention the multitude of psychological disorders that can arise from negative emotions, and worse is the high correlation of negative emotions with chronic disease, such as diabetes, hypertension and heart disease (Rob-Drove, 2020).

A poor society with a high incidence of negative emotions will surely result in an atmosphere where people will compete for resources. When people that hate and distrust each other compete for resources, it is sure bound to result in increased violence and crime (Jost, 2020). Not to mention a deranged political class that is willing to do anything to stay in power, who knows what evil they might concoct?

 

Part 3: Possible Solutions

Full Disclosure: This is by no means the only or complete solution for the economic crisis, there are a multitude of variables that need to be addressed, however this essay is only intended to demonstrate that there are practical solutions to this financial crisis that can halt the collapse and pave the way into economic growth.

How can this crisis be dealt with immediately and efficiently?

                Left unchecked, Murphy's law will surely run its course, if it can get worse, it will. However, there is much that can be done. Let’s look at the situation from a macro perspective. To do so, we’ll revisit the economic Trilemma that was explained in part 1. It states that countries can choose from three options, and every two options are mutually exclusive, so you can only choose two at a time. The options are: a) free flow of capital b) fixed exchange rates c) independent monetary policy (Majaski, 2020).



So the options are as follows:

1.       People can transfer their funds in and out on the country freely with fixed exchange rates but can’t have an independent monetary policy.

2.       Have fixed exchange rates and an independent monetary policy but financial transfers in and out of the country have to be regulated.

3.       Money can be transferred freely while having an independent monetary policy while having fluctuating exchange rates.

Like anything in life, there is no such thing as one size fits all, each option should have its circumstances, because each variable has its benefits and drawbacks, however, to summarize we’ll go over the most important pros and cons, which are as follows:

a.       Free-flow of capital

Pro: attracts foreign investment and facilitates international trade

Con: less control over monetary policy and easy capital flight

b.      Fixed exchange rates

Pro: stabilize domestic markets and reduce domestic poverty

Con: reduce international competitiveness and political accountability

c.       Independent Monetary Policy

Pro: more control over the domestic economy, less exposure to foreign liabilities

Con: less control over domestic economy, exposure to foreign liabilities and control

Since Lebanon is suffering from hyper-devaluation of the Lebanese lira versus hard currencies, especially the US dollar, which is disintegrating our economic, social, and political fabric; for the very least in the short run, the indispensable variable is fixed exchange rate. This leaves us with a question of which is better for the coming period to be coupled fixed exchange rates, controlled flow of capital or forfeiting our independent monetary policy to third party multinational institutions or governments?

To answer this question, we have to look back at the root cause of the crisis, which is a banking crisis resulting from the banking sector lending a kleptocratic regime from depositor’s accounts.  Then it becomes obvious that you want to limit capital flight and tackle the causes one at a time until we have a healthy governance and economy.

The solution starts with capital control (regulating the flow of capital in and out of the country). There was a lot of talk by governing bodies in late 2019 and 2020 that capital control was being implemented in order to protect bank depositors. In reality, depositor’s accounts in foreign currencies were illegally frozen, and the free flow of capital in and out of the country was further liberated by allowing cash transfers. What should happen is the exact opposite, heavily regulate outbound international transfers, and liberate domestic financial transactions.

Another major reason why outbound transfers need to be regulated is due to the fact that the banking sector is insolvable and needs to be addressed by the government and the legal system. It is essential that whatever is remaining from depositor funds not to be transferred out by those who caused the crisis. How the banking sector is addressed is a subject on its own, however it can be summarized in the following example:

The banking sector behaved like a business that owed money and had bad debt in the market with managers and owners that were embezzling from the business.  The first thing the legal system does is remove the executive managers and owners and restrict their movement in territories under its jurisdiction, it then installs legal guardians to manage and audit the company to determine what had happened, quantify the losses, what does the company owe, who owes the company, and if there was any illegal activity going on. The legal system then decides what to do, usually some of the legal financial options are (Wex, 2020):

-          Company owners personally paying company debt

-          Company’s accounts receivable is distributed among creditors

-          Company is liquidated or auctioned off and proceeds go to its creditors

-          Creditors become its new owners

The above example demonstrates what could and should be done to the banking sector because a healthy banking sector is essential for a quick and healthy recovery.

As for choosing an independent monetary policy versus forfeiting it to international third parties has political and economic causes. Having an independent monetary policy gives the local government more control over the tools that it can use to stimulate growth while minimizing liabilities, and minimizing liabilities is essential since what has led the country to where it is now having to do with over exposure to liabilities and international markets (FT, 2020)

Moreover, an independent monetary policy facilitates implementing the following temporary measures:

1.        Address the insolvency of the banking sector, distribute losses equitably and restructure the sector (bail-in, haircut, liquidation) in a manner that makes it liquid again.

2.        Restructure failed institutions like EDL, sewage treatment, railway management, etc.

3.        Transform the economy from a cash based economy into a banking / digital economy.

4.        Abolishing the “fresh money” requirement for international transfers, all cash currency in circulation in Lebanon will be valued by a fixed exchange rate set by the government.

3.       Regulate and tax outbound cash transfers.

4.       Facilitate inbound cash transfers via any money transfer business in any currency.

5.       Reduce the amount of physical cash in circulation.

7.       Any funds that are transferred abroad should be traceable and taxable.

The idea is that if you can’t transfer cash dollars or any currency abroad freelyit will diminish its function as an international medium of exchange and lose its inflated value. Moreover, money in the banking sector is traceable, which makes illicit activities easier to stop and gives legitimate businesses a chance to access funding for essential import. As for inbound transfers, they should be facilitated by the government by reducing fees and lowering taxes on financial activities that encourage remittances. As for outbound transfers, they should be heavily regulated and categorized

There should be one exchange rate, but an incremental direct taxation policy that depends on what the government wants to prioritize or decrease its import/consumption. The government can tax outbound transfers or it can levy incremental taxes on imports.  The below charts can serve as an example:

Outbound Transfer Tax Example

Basic foods

0%

Energy requirements

5%

Agricultural and Industrial Raw materials

0%

Consumer goods

50%

Education & Family Aid

20%

Foreign workers

50%

Luxury Goods

300%

 

Import Tariff Example

Basic foods

0%

Energy requirements

5%

Agricultural and Industrial Raw materials

0%

Essential Consumer goods

25%

Non-Essential Consumer goods

100%

Private Cars 

100%

Buses & Public Transport

10%

Luxury Goods

300%

 

Implementing such measures on a macro scale will stabilize the Lira because it will transform the economy from a consumerist into a productive economy, where the value of the lira is derived from its utility and the productivity of the country relative to the international market. Moreover, such measures restrict speculative devaluation because it will fulfill the three requirements of currency.

To summarize and reiterate, the monetary policy set by the government should halt the devaluation and boost the domestic economy by managing the flow of capital in and out of the country. Restructure the banking sector in order to shift the economy from a cash based economy into a banking / digital economy that is traceable and manageable by the government. Also, investments should be directed into productive sectors that can cater to the needs of the domestic market while exporting goods and services, which results in a sustainable and positive balance of trade.

 Even though this is one direction that can be taken to salvage the economy and put it on a growth path, I don’t believe that anything can be achieved if serious political reforms happen, especially since the people that caused the crisis in the first place are still running the show.

 

References

Amadeo, K. (2020). Hyperinflation: Its Causes and Effects With Examples. Retrieved from The Balance : https://www.thebalance.com/what-is-hyperinflation-definition-causes-and-examples-3306097

Baumol, W. (2020). Utility & Value . Retrieved from Britannica: https://www.britannica.com/topic/utility-economics

Economic Times . (2020). Monetary Policy . Retrieved from The Economic Times : https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/definition/Monetary-Policy

FT. (2020, May 4). Bankrupt Lebanon’s turn to IMF is overdue. Retrieved from Financial Times : https://www.ft.com/content/ae2484c4-8bc1-11ea-a01c-a28a3e3fbd33

Furness, V. (020, May 7). Lebanese pound sees end of dollar peg. Retrieved from Euromoney: https://www.euromoney.com/article/b1lj8l1twpn8zh/lebanese-pound-sees-end-of-dollar-peg

Jost, J. (2020). Frustration Aggression Hypothesis. Retrieved from Britannica: https://www.britannica.com/science/frustration-aggression-hypothesis

Majaski, C. (2020). Trilemma . Retrieved from Investopedia : https://www.investopedia.com/terms/t/trilemma.asp

Rob-Drove, K. (2020). How negative emotions affect health. Retrieved from FHE Health: https://fherehab.com/learning/negative-emotions-health

Schneider, F. (2019, August ). Restricting or Abolishing Cash: An Effective Instrument for Eliminating the Shadow Economy, Corruption and Terrorism? Retrieved from The European Money and Financial Forum : https://www.suerf.org/policynotes/6951/restricting-or-abolishing-cash-an-effective-instrument-for-eliminating-the-shadow-economy-corruption-and-terrorism

TDS. (2020, April 24). Bank Audi offers clients option to double fresh dollars if converted to local account. Retrieved from he Daily Star: https://www.dailystar.com.lb/Business/Local/2020/Apr-24/504877-bank-audi-offers-clients-option-to-double-fresh-dollars-if-converted-to-local-account.ashx

Webster, M. (2020). Money . Retrieved from Meriam Webster : https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/money

Wex. (2020). Insolvency . Retrieved from Legal Information Institute: https://www.law.cornell.edu/wex/insolvency

Yassine, H. (2020, June 17). Central Bank Injecting 5 Million Dollars a Day . Retrieved from The 961: https://www.the961.com/central-bank-injecting-5-million-dollars-a-day/

 

 

 

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