BEIRUT: Lebanon needs to receive 12 to 15 billion dollars from its partners to kickstart its economic recovery and shore up fast-diminishing foreign currency reserves, Central Bank Governor Riad Salameh said yesterday. Lebanon is grappling with an unprecedented economic crisis branded by the World Bank as one of the planet's worst in modern times.
More than 80 percent of the population lives in poverty and the currency has lost more than 90 percent of its black market value amid political squabbling that has delayed an agreement with the International Monetary Fund. "Our quota in the International Monetary Fund is 4 billion," Salameh said in an AFP interview.
"If countries add to it, we could reach 12 to 15 billion, an amount that could help start Lebanon's recovery and restore confidence," he said. Lebanon defaulted on its debt for the first time last year but political leaders have continued to resist key reforms demanded by donors to unlock necessary funds.
Meanwhile, the central bank's mandatory dollar reserves have been slashed by more than half, according to Salameh, who is widely viewed as a key culprit behind an economic crash many blame on central bank policies.
"The mandatory reserves are around 12.5 billion dollars," that the central bank can't spend, Salameh said, explaining that an additional $1.5 billion in reserves had been freed up for central bank spending. The mandatory reserves stood at $32 billion before the start of the economic crisis in 2019.
Obsolete exchange rate
Salameh dismissed criticism blaming him for the crisis, saying that "had it not been for the central bank and its reserves, Lebanon would not have been able to carry on". "The central bank deals with the outcome of the crisis, it is not the side causing it." The fast-diminishing reserves are threatening a subsidy program that had initially covered fuel, medicine, flour and other key imports before it petered out.
The central bank can afford to finance partial subsidies on a few remaining key imports for "around six to nine months," if no additional measures are taken to combat the depreciation of the Lebanese pound, Salameh said. Officially pegged at 1,507 to the greenback since 1997, the Lebanese pound sold for nearly 30,000 to the dollar on the black market earlier this month, a record low.
The official fixed rate is "no longer realistic", Salameh said, while explaining that a unified exchange rate would be unlikely in the absence of an IMF agreement and political stability.
Lebanon last year started IMF talks that were derailed due to differences between officials over the size of financial sector losses. But IMF talks have relaunched in recent weeks during which Lebanese officials have agreed that financial sector losses amount to around $69 billion.
"Lebanon is still in the stage of crushing numbers," said Salameh who is part of Lebanon's IMF negotiating team. "The Lebanese side hasn't yet presented a plan to the IMF for discussion." Salameh, one of the world's longest-serving central bank governors, is facing judicial investigations in France, Switzerland and other European countries on suspicion of money laundering and illicit enrichment among other charges. Salameh dismissed the cases against him as unfounded and lacking in evidence, claiming they were opened based on complaints filed by Lebanese citizens "for reasons that could be political... or tied to certain interests."
He said that a top-tier financial audit firm had scrutinized his accounts at his request and presented him with a report that he then submitted to officials and judges at home and abroad. "I am ready to cooperate with all investigations," he said, claiming they were based on "fabricated evidence" that made it egregiously seem as though he "took all of Lebanon's money and pocketed it." - AFP