In coronavirus lockdown, Lebanese banks turn off dollar tap

Cash-strapped banks have cut access to dollars for depositors already hit hard by the country’s financial crisis.

Lebanon banks
Lebanon's central bank is seen closed, after the government declared a medical state of emergency as part of the preventive measures against the spread of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) [Mohamed Azakir/Reuters]

Since Lebanon was placed on lockdown to curb the spread of coronavirus, cash-strapped banks have cut access to dollars for depositors already separated from much of their savings by months of tightening controls.

The health ministry has recorded 163 infections from coronavirus so far, and experts warn Lebanon‘s healthcare system may be ill-prepared, as dollar shortages have for months drained it of critical supplies.

The outbreak has compounded Lebanon’s woes, coming after it declared that it could not pay its hefty debt obligations and needs foreign currency reserves for key imports.

Lebanese Prime Minister Hassan Diab earlier this month said that the country will seek to restructure its massive debt as currency reserves dwindle amid an acute financial crisis.

Lebanon’s economic troubles have weakened the local currency, resulting in shuttered businesses, job losses and informal capital controls from banks severely restricting foreign exchange withdrawals and transfers abroad. 

Lebanon’s cabinet exempted banks from closing when declaring the lockdown, saying they could maintain daily operations “at a minimum level”, without specifying the ground rules.

Banks then said they would close until March 29 to protect employees from the virus outbreak but would keep a small number of branches open while handling operations for essential imports and paying salaries in Lebanese pounds.

“I need to withdraw dollars to pay salaries … There are no dollars in the ATMs now,” said Viviane Khoueiry, a senior partner at a law firm. “The workers need the money more and they rely on cash.”

Some customers said their banks told them to withdraw cash from ATMs in Lebanese pounds at a pegged rate roughly 40 percent weaker than the parallel market rate, effectively slashing their dollar savings.

Others said they were turned away from open branches and told those were intended to serve only corporate clients.

The banking association has said the curbs aim to keep foreign exchange – which is needed to pay for imports – in the country. With patience running thin, the government has promised a draft law to standardise capital controls. The draft law is expected to be finalised next week.

Some Lebanese took to Twitter to complain that the policies amounted to a haircut, or one-time reduction, on their savings and were meant to block access to dwindling foreign exchange reserves.

“In Lebanon, bankers took corona as an excuse to close their doors to control the ongoing crisis and lack of liquidity,” said one frustrated tweet.

Source: Reuters