Lebanon pays $1.5bn debt to ease financial tension

Lebanon has never defaulted, despite having one of the world's highest debt burdens.

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    These Lebanese protesters' banner reads: 'Oh rulers of Lebanon, our debt is 70 billion and the county is drowning under piles of trash, injustice and darkness' [Nabil Mounzer/EPA]
    These Lebanese protesters' banner reads: 'Oh rulers of Lebanon, our debt is 70 billion and the county is drowning under piles of trash, injustice and darkness' [Nabil Mounzer/EPA]

    Lebanon repaid a $1.5 billion Eurobond on Thursday, an official with knowledge of the matter said, buying the country time as speculation swirls over its ability to avoid a default during a political and economic crisis.

    The Finance Ministry issued payment instructions to the central bank, also known as Banque du Liban, the official said on condition of anonymity. The next bond payment is scheduled for March, when a $1.2 billion Eurobond comes due.

    Lebanon has never defaulted on its obligations despite struggling under one of the world's biggest debt burdens, and the central bank had repeatedly said it would cover the $1.5 billion bond. But weeks of nationwide protests that ousted the government saw credit risk surge and investor confidence slump.

    The yield on the March 2020 bond rose as high as 105 percent last week from a mere 13 percent on October 17, when the demonstrations kicked off. Higher yields, and this month's record costs for insuring government debt, reflect concern the government may have to restructure sooner or later.

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    Foreign bondholders are estimated to hold $500 million of the repaid Eurobond, while the central bank has $600 million and the rest is most likely held by local banks, according to a Bank of America Merrill Lynch research note this week.

    Day of reckoning

    Lebanon is nearing its day of reckoning after years of overspending, borrowing and political paralysis, coupled with the crisis in neighbouring Syria that sent more than 1.5 million refugees into the tiny country.

    With a current account deficit of over 25 percent of its gross domestic product, weak growth and debt that's reached 155 percent of the economy, the central bank tried to maintain financial stability throughout the years and carried out what it called financial engineering. The operation was meant to shore up reserves and raise the capital of local banks, the country's largest debt holders.

    The protests were sparked by a government levy on phone calls such as those using the free WhatsApp service along with other tax measures. The demonstrations quickly turned against a ruling class accused of corruption. Prime Minister Saad Hariri resigned and politicians have been unable to agree on a new name to lead the next government.

    US dollar shortage and Lebanon's economic crisis [2:29]

    The central bank began rationing dollars even before the unrest ignited, pushing up demand for the foreign currency and causing the Lebanese pound to plummet on the black market. The move has stymied trade and imports in a country that's almost entirely reliant on foreign goods.

    The central bank has said that it would supply dollars to the importers of fuel, wheat and pharmaceuticals and earlier this week added medical equipment to that list of essential goods.

    SOURCE: Bloomberg