Currency and Banking
Trade barriers and obstacles are minimal in Lebanon. Foreigners may invest freely in many industries and sectors. Lebanese nationals are allowed to quote prices or to agree to pay in foreign currencies. In general, there are no foreign exchange restrictions, and Lebanese nationals are free to transfer abroad any amount they want in any currency. It is notable that this freedom regarding foreign currency does not apply to certain areas, including commercial agency agreements. Improving economic and financial conditions have led to more favorable monetary and banking activity; the consolidated balance sheets of commercial banks and customer deposits have increased considerably; and bank deposits are being de-dollarized. The exchange rate for the Lebanese Pound remains stable and the Lebanese Pound deposits carry high yields. The Central Bank of Lebanon (CBL) and many commercial banks (representing over 80 percent of Lebanon's banking activity) joined the SWIFT (Society For World Interbank Financial Transfer) network. Monetary authorities are working on developing financial markets and instruments in order to channel savings into productive sectors.
Banking secrecy was introduced in Lebanon to attract capital from other countries in the region. The secrecy laws made banking Lebanon's major economic sector and the one that most successfully withstood the Civil War. Banking secrecy, within limits of public policy, is absolute. It applies to banks, bank personnel, financial companies and client transactions. Violation of banking secrecy triggers criminal and civil liability. The Bank Secrecy Law of September 3, 1956 allows banks to open secret bank accounts where the account holder is known only to the manager. Such accounts may be referred to by a number only. No account is to be divulged to third parties, including legal authorities, and no seizure or attachment can be made without written consent of the account holder.
Banks in Lebanon have generally been performing well, and their profitability is among the highest in the Middle East. However, a large percentage of their income is generated from their heavy investment in Lebanese Treasury bills. At the end of 1998, T-Bills accounted for 35 percent of the total banking sector deposits, which was were equivalent to approximately four times banks' capital and reserves.
© 2000 Mena Report (www.menareport.com)