The two-week closure of Lebanon’s banks during historic protests that prompted the resignation of Prime Minister Saad Hariri Oct. 29 has restricted the movement of finances within and out of the country. But despite the enormity of the political and economic crisis, banks proved competent in managing fear upon their reopening Nov. 1.
“Banks in Lebanon managed a huge challenge very effectively, making what was expected to be a catastrophic day, [relatively] benign,” Dan Azzi, former CEO of Standard Chartered in Lebanon and Harvard fellow, told Al-Monitor.
“Among big banks, the champion was Banque Libano-Francaise, which used reverse psychology, demonstrating liquidity and using it wisely by allowing any type of transfers including overseas. This actually relaxed many of their clients who ended up either not withdrawing funds or withdrawing much less than they had intended,” he said.
According to Azzi, Banque Libano-Francaise also showed equal treatment to clients across the financial spectrum. Reports of banks offering privileges to clients with significant capital, he noted, were true even during the revolution when the average banker was unable to access their accounts to the full extent.
“The central bank clearly helped by injecting liquidity into the market. It was an impressive effort by everyone,” he added.
The decision to close bank operations starting Oct. 18 was not a result of the protests, but rather the expected consequence of years of poor economic policies creating a 152% debt to gross domestic product ratio — a key grip for demonstrators.
“For a long time we were aware that the central bank was not doing anything to solve the crisis,” a risk management analyst at a leading Lebanese bank told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity. “The central bank was absorbing all the dollars to stabilize the Lebanese pound for over a year. Subsequently our foreign currency reserves diminished. This crisis is not a result of what has happened on the streets, it’s been a long time coming."
During the shutdown, each bank enforced a daily maximum withdrawal amount in Lebanese pounds roughly the equivalent of $1,000 depending on the bank. The withdrawal of US dollars was highly limited, and for most banks halted altogether in an effort to control liquid reserves.
On Oct. 30, bank receipts littered on a Beirut street showed account holders maxing out their daily cash extraction of the Lebanese pound. Prior to the banks reopening, there was a widespread fear that branches would be flooded with clients attempting to withdraw the full amount in their accounts.
Speaking to Al-Monitor, bank employees expressed both surprise and relief after Friday’s reopening. While clients still arrived distressed, the expected chaos and mass withdrawals did not occur. Outside the Association of Banks in Lebanon, however, police were caught using excessive force in breaking up a protest criticizing the country’s banking policies. Four demonstrators were arrested.
While the country experienced an unexpected relative calm, the situation remains precarious as no one is certain of the exact extent each bank will be affected in the long-term without proper leadership. Across the board, withdrawal limits are still being enforced, ranging from an equivalent of $5,000 per day to $2,500 per week.
On Oct. 31, a day prior to the banks' reopening, a client relations manager at a leading investment bank told Al-Monitor that senior managers decided to temporarily freeze all outgoing transfers in dollars. Given the number of corporate clients dealing with foreign imports at the bank, she said the decision has put many on edge.
Exceptions would be made for those importing essentials including wheat, medicine and fuel in order to ensure that the country does not see a shortage of these necessities. Clients expecting a substantial incoming transfer in dollars, she noted, would be afforded the right to make an outgoing transfer of dollars in the same or lesser amount outside the country.
“We’re doing this because if withdrawals exceed the available funds, this would result in a bigger problem. The economy will completely collapse if account holders withdraw everything and send their cash abroad,” she said. While the move has been enforced to mitigate total crisis, she noted that it would certainly have strong repercussions.
She added, “Our corporate clients have been unable to pay their international vendors for raw materials for the past two weeks. This will result in them paying penalties [to those vendors]. International suppliers will have difficulty trusting our customers again during these uncertain times if they cannot continue to pay.”
Given that Lebanon relies on its foreign imports, a splintered relationship between Lebanese companies and their foreign suppliers will surely produce a negative butterfly effect.
“This will exhaust the already devastated economy,” she said.
Following the resignation of the prime minister, political leadership has not announced a short-term economic road map. While it would not be the first time the central bank operated in the absence of a government, the stakes are at an all-time high. It is not clear whether special provisions will be afforded during this unprecedented time.
In particular, financial analysts and economists have called for capital control — an action decreed by the government onto the central bank to limit the flow of foreign money in and out of the country. With capital control enforced, it would be mandatory for all banks to comply rather than creating their own plans to alleviate the crisis.
However, on Nov. 2, Central Bank Gov. Riad Salameh, announced that capital controls were not being considered given the positive response to the banks reopening.
The Lebanese pound has been pegged to the US dollar at a rate of 1,500 pounds to $1, and the foreign currency is used across the country. This has been crucial for traders who pay international suppliers in dollars.
Accordingly, the dwindling flow of foreign wealth proved to be disastrous, creating a “dollar crisis.” By early October, key commodities, including fuel, could not be paid for due to the scarcity of the US currency. Before the demonstrations began, ATMs — which previously allowed the open withdrawal of dollars — began enforcing restrictions on the currency.
For small businesses, the announcement that banks would resume operations was bittersweet. On the one hand, the fear of unpaid salaries has been alleviated.
“Of course our employees are worried,” a managing director at an engineering supply company told Al-Monitor on Oct. 29, before the confirmation that the banks would reopen. “We have petty cash, but it’s certainly short of meeting the salaries at the end of the month,” he added, speaking on condition of anonymity given his business relationships abroad.
However, starting operations also entails that both businesses and individuals no longer have an excuse in delaying payments. With hundreds of thousands of citizens taking to the streets for two weeks, the country has seen a stark interruption of business across all sectors.
“Looking at the account book for this month, it’s scary,” Joseph Aoun, a restaurant owner, said. “I am happy for the country, but scared for my business.”