Lebanese Chafe as Economic Blues Begin to Bite
For Mazen Rahhal, a shop owner in a bustling district of Beirut, Lebanon’s economy has seldom felt more precarious. In one store, he sells clothes at a fraction of their previous price. Another, which he rented to a rival business, now lies empty.
Years of gradual stagnation have in 2018 merged with several newer trends: high interest rates, falling house prices, and questions about the currency at a moment of profound uncertainty as politicians wrangle over forming a new government.
For Lebanese businesses and people, economic unease and the lack of a government to take firm control over policy — some three months after they voted in a general election — have become ceaseless sources of worry.
“We are struggling just to manage the costs we have to pay: from electricity, employee wages, everything,” said Rahhal. His family has owned shops on Hamra Street, the main business thoroughfare of west Beirut, since the 1970s.
As Lebanon rebuilt after its 15-year civil war ended in 1990, there was a period of economic growth, and as in its 1950s and ’60s heyday, it drew Gulf Arab tourists ready to open their wallets as they escaped the stifling summer heat of home.
But problems were never far away.
In 2005 former Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri was assassinated, opening up wide divisions over the roles of the Iran-backed Hezbollah group, and of powerful neighbor Syria.
Syria’s own war since 2011 has aggravated those rifts, while cutting off much of Lebanon’s overland trade and scaring off the mostly Sunni Muslim Gulf tourists, who feared the growing power of the heavily armed Shi’ite Hezbollah movement.
Sclerosis ensued. After Hariri’s death, the government did not pass another state budget until last year. Parliamentary elections in 2009 were not held again until this May.
Economic growth, which averaged 8-10% before the Syria war, has averaged 1-2% since it began, and a purchasing managers’ index for Blom Bank has shown business activity in decline every month since 2013.
The state owes about 150% of the gross domestic product, much of it to local banks, whose own business is partly based on remittances paid into them by Lebanese working abroad, in turn partly drawn by attractive interest rates.
Khoury Home is a major business in Lebanon. Its shops, a familiar sight across the country, sell home appliances.
Romen Mathieu said he had told his staff every year since becoming the company’s chairman in 2013 that the coming year would be more difficult than the last.
“Now we reached 2018, and this year is disastrous, and I think we still didn’t see the tough part of this year,” he said. “If I have to say it in 2019, there won’t be anyone listening to me any more.”
Compounding Mathieu’s difficulties, the government last year scaled back a series of incentives to banks for home loans, which contributed to a dip in the housing market. As fewer people bought houses, fewer wanted new fridges or televisions.
“Let’s not make fools of each other. There is no money in the market and we need to adapt to this situation and get used to it,” said Mathieu.
Not all businesses are suffering. Supermarket chain Spinneys has increased sales volumes because many of its goods are imported from Europe, and currency fluctuation has brought prices down, said chief executive Michael Wright.
“We are selling more, our volumes are going up. But that’s balanced by a price drop,” he said.
Since May’s election the rival political parties have squabbled over forming a new national unity government — one that contains enough of the major parties to ensure political backing across the country.
Without a new government, Lebanon cannot institute the fiscal reforms needed to get its debt under control or unlock billions of dollars in pledged foreign investment in infrastructure to get the economy moving.
Everybody Reuters interviewed said it was critical for Lebanon to form a government soon.
Meanwhile, interest rates have risen as the authorities increasingly try to attract higher levels of the bank deposits on which government debt relies.
Those high rates are hurting too.
Jessy Kojababian has been engaged for two years. Her wedding was fixed for September. But as interest rates rose, and the government incentives for banks to offer housing loans were scaled back, she and her fiance could no longer afford to buy a house.
They have now canceled the wedding.
“We were already booking everything for the wedding. The roses, the restaurant, the church. Everything. We paid a deposit of $6,000, so how can we get it back?” she said.