- posted: May 06, 2020
In many ways, Lebanon’s international financial footprint is negligible. In mid-2019, the International Monetary Fund classified Lebanon as an emerging market developing economy, with an estimated GDP of approximately USD$60 billion. Most of its bonded debt is held by local banks, including Banque du Liban (the Lebanese Central Bank) and its stability has faced economic challenges from a variety of domestic, regional, and global events – for example, the 2006 Lebanon War, the 2008 financial crisis, and the 2011 Syrian Civil War. In October 2019, after years of unrest, these issues finally came to mass international attention when prolonged protests erupted across the country with local commercial banks as the symbolic focus. Protesters voiced their concerns over national financial stability and government corruption. These concerns have grown as confidence in the banking sector has dropped, businesses have closed, and unemployment rates increased. The crisis is further magnified as the spread of COVID-19 continues and its economic fallout deepens.
The policies and practices – past and present – of Banque du Liban; Association of Banks in Lebanon (ABL), a membership-based consortium of Lebanese commercial banks; and local commercial banks are at the center of the crisis. They swiftly reacted to the protests in the interest of the local banking sector. During the first two weeks of protests in October, local commercial banks completely closed and banking customers were unable to make transfers or withdrawals. As the situation somewhat stabilized, banks reopened, but customers faced several restrictions on their ability to access funds. They faced restrictions on withdrawal amounts, transfer of funds, and foreign currency transactions. Experts describe these restrictions as de facto capital controls, apparently implemented by local commercial banks, but coordinated and overseen by ABL to prevent “capital flight.”
These restrictions have seemingly been implemented by necessity, to retain liquidity in Lebanon’s ailing economy. But this does very little to ameliorate banking customers’ pressing financial concerns. They are rightfully frustrated and forceful demands at local branches are increasing. It seems banking restrictions and public dissatisfaction are far from over. The controls imposed by Banque du Liban and ABL have made it impossible to transfer money abroad or convert Lebanese pounds into other currencies at the official rate. Many businesses are unable to import goods, a key element of the Lebanese economy. In recent weeks, protesters have defied public health-related government lockdown orders to participate in demonstrations about the banking sector, with violent incidents increasing.
These mass protests have been driven by local banking customers, but foreign banking customers have also been harmed. They share concerns with the local population. They want access to their account deposits and face the added challenge of trying to access the funds abroad. Ironically, these same foreign customers provided cash flows that in recent years were a major source of Lebanon’s financial stability. Few commentators have focused on these foreign banking customers, who find themselves unable to access their monetary deposits and caught within a web of highly sensitive and crucially important local economic concerns.
In a new article for The World Financial Review, Charles H. Camp and Kiran Nasir Gore apply their years of specialized experience in international disputes and international banks to provide guidance to foreign banking customers impacted by Lebanon’s financial crisis. They first explain the historic context for the foreign funds held by Lebanese banks; and then, explore examples of possible legal solutions available to foreign customers – both private individuals and corporations.
Charles and Kiran’s article is available on The World Financial Review‘s website as a “Critical Analysis” feature in the “Trending Now” section and in the forthcoming May/June print edition.
Please be in touch if you would like to speak with Charles and Kiran about possible claims arising from this crisis.