Lebanon has spent the last 20 years juggling an excessive level of debt and current account deficits. Apparent financial wizardry by the central bank (Banque du Liban) helped keep the exchange rate fixed, inflation low, and debt service flowing until 2020. But these efforts merely postponed the inevitable, at a high cost. Repeated shocks to the Lebanese economy and governance weaknesses pushed the financial contraption over the cliff before the COVID-19 outbreak. The explosion that ripped through the Port of Beirut in early August added to the disarray. The Lebanese pound has crashed, the government has defaulted on some of its debt, and restrictions have been placed on deposit withdrawals and access to foreign exchange. Lebanon faces an uncertain future of uneven suffering. It will need foreign assistance, but such assistance will not extend to covering the losses of the banking system. How the losses are distributed will set the scene for Lebanon’s future development. Policymakers should aim for fairness, predictability, and stability without overindebtedness.
The data underlying this analysis are available here.