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Lebanon 'immune' to financial crisis

An employee at Lebanon's Central Bank stacks notes
Banking rules dictate that Lebanese banks keep 30% of their capital in cash

By Natalia Antelava
BBC News, Beirut

The world maybe in meltdown but Beirut is booming. The country best known for wars, turmoil and instability has not just survived the global financial crisis, it seems to be thriving because of it.

Deep down in the basement of Lebanon's Central bank treasury vaults are full. Cash has been flowing in like never before, Lebanese banks are posting record deposits and bankers say this is the best year in Lebanon's financial history.

According to the country's chief banker all of this is because while the world was shocked when in September the banking giants began to wobble, Lebanon was prepared.

"I saw the crisis coming and I told the commercial banks in 2007 to get out of all international investments related to the international markets", says Riad Salameh, the governor of Lebanon's Central Bank.

You could have thought they had a crystal ball
Edward Gardner
International Monetary Fund

There is a tradition of conservative regulation at the Central Bank in Lebanon, which kept the banks safe.

Banks weren't allowed to take on too much debt and they had to have at least 30% of their assets in cash.

They were not allowed to speculate in risky packages of bundled up debts.

And weak banks were forced to merge with bigger ones before they got into trouble.

"You could have thought they had a crystal ball. It was very wise of the Lebanese regulators not to get involved in all these risky international investments that turned out to be the doom of many banking systems," says Edward Gardner of the International Monetary Fund.

Well tested system

But Lebanon's conservative policies are not just thanks to the wisdom of its chief banker. Mr Salameh says that in Lebanon's high risk political environment he did not have much choice.

Riad Salameh, the governor of Lebanon's Central Bank
I think I've proved my point... I believe that this wild extension of credit, these high leverages in order to get more profits into financial institutions were against the very nature of banking
Riad Salameh
Governor of Lebanon's Central Bank

"The system we created has been tested against wars, against instability, against political assassinations. And our sector would be much more developed if Lebanon did not have political and security risks, but it has also induced us to have a conservative reflex because we were always getting ready for the worst case scenario," says Mr Salameh.

This conservative reflex has also spared Lebanon the housing crash that the rest of the world is going through.

Commercial property developer Karim Basil showed me around one of his latest projects - a spectacular ultra-modern and brightly lit apartment in the heart of Beirut's historic district.

Mr Basil says that getting loans here is never easy. The banks will only lend him 60% of what he needs and they want cast iron guarantees that he can repay.

"Its not always good for business," says Mr Basil, "but it does eliminate speculation and it also keeps prices stable."

Government debt

But the tight reign on borrowing does not apply to the government.

Over the years, Lebanon has taken on loan after loan for post war reconstruction. Today, per capita, Lebanon owes more than any other country in the world.

On paper this makes it vulnerable, but the political realities of the Middle East mean that danger is unlikely ever to materialise.

When I went to get my first mortgage in London, I never met my bank manager. Banking should once again become a personal relationship between the customer and the bank manager
Faddy Abboud
Lebanon's Industrialist Association
"This level of public debt has created serious problems for other countries, but the difference is that there is a perception that Lebanon has friends with very deep pockets who will not let it go down financially," says Edward Gardner of the IMF.

"This was demonstrated in 2006 war with Israel, when both Kuwait and Saudi Arabia were very quick to deposit large sums of money into the Central Bank to help it to remain stable," Mr Gardner added.

But Lebanon could still feel the aftershocks of the credit crunch.

Every year, thousands of highly educated young people from Lebanon go to work abroad. With some 12 million Lebanese overseas and only 3.5 million in the country, remittances make up a vital third of the economy.

Remittances hit

There are concerns that as recession bites elsewhere, Lebanese abroad will start sending less money home. But unlike elsewhere, the savings they have already deposited should be safe.

"We know that our savings are safe, and this strength of the banking sector is a great push for the industry here," says Faddy Abboud, the head of Lebanon's Industrialist Association.

Mr Abboud has many complaints about the government handling of the economy, which he describes as a web of monopolies riddled by corruption. But when it comes to banking, Mr Abboud says Lebanon got it right.

"When I went to get my first mortgage in London, I never met my bank manager. Banking should once again become a personal relationship between the customer and the bank manager and I think there are many lessons for the world to learn from Lebanese banks," Mr Abboud says.

Riad Salameh of the Central Bank, who in the past was often criticised for his conservative approach, feels vindicated.

"I think I've proved my point," he says. "I have personally been stubborn about keeping a very conservative approach to banking, as I believe that this wild extension of credit, these high leverages in order to get more profits into financial institutions were against the very nature of banking."

As the night falls, the dance floor of the Casino, one of Beirut's many glitzy nightclubs, is full.

The rest of the world is now being forced to sober up after the wild excesses of the global markets, but here the party's on.

The Lebanese are a nation of survivors, who have paid a heavy price for the fortunes they are reaping now. Through their troubles they have learned how to party as if tomorrow will never come, but also, against the odds, how to bank for their future.

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SEE ALSO
Timeline: Lebanon
16 Oct 08 |  Country profiles
Country profile: Lebanon
07 Nov 08 |  Country profiles

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