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Lebanon is hiring management consulting firm McKinsey & Co. to help restructure an economy that’s overly reliant on remittances and banking, and grappling with high unemployment, Economy and Trade Minister Raed Khoury said.
The six-month agreement with McKinsey will be signed by the end of this week and the company will start work next week with various ministries and economic bodies to formulate a new economic vision for the Arab world’s most indebted nation, Khoury said in an interview at his office in Beirut on Monday.
“The government has been historically nearly absent in putting policies and procedures to do that,” said the former Barclays Wealth banker and founder of Cedrus Invest Bank. “The first thing we want to do is to identify our economic identity and then go to more specific things.”
With at least three times as many Lebanese living abroad than in Lebanon, the country has been sustained by remittances that have kept flowing in, especially from Lebanese workers in Gulf and African countries.
Banks use the money to buy government debt, which stands at 150 percent of economic output, according to Khoury. That is one of the world’s highest ratios, along with Japan and Greece.
With foreign reserves at a record $43 billion, the Lebanese currency has been able to survive the political storms that have at various times left Lebanon without a president or prime minister, and the influx of 1.5 million Syrian refugees who have strained its resources.
But this model is “becoming very risky” and no longer sustainable, Khoury said, predicting that if nothing is done, the debt-to-GDP ratio will go as high as 170 percent in the next few years. He said Lebanon should aspire to emulate the economy of Singapore, another small country with many ethnic groups.
Lebanon’s governance has suffered from the legacy of the 1975-1990 civil war, and the country didn’t have a budget for 12 years until parliament passed one in 2017. Even now, with discussions under way over the new budget, not much thought is being given to the impact that decisions, such as imposing taxes, will have on various sectors, he said.
“We’re doing the budget for 2018, you think there is a mentality of a 3-year, 5-year, 10-year plan behind it? Zero,” he said. “It’s not chaos, it’s a culture.”
David Butter, associate fellow at Chatham House in London, said such strategic plans “might not do any harm, but in the case of Lebanon it’s a bit more tricky.” McKinsey will have to analyze and quantify various areas including services, financial flows and parallel economies such as the one controlled by the Iranian-backed Hezbollah group, which are hard to quantify, he said.
“You have a lot of gray areas which might be difficult to put into the context of some sort of a strategic plan,” Butter added.
The minister also said overall unemployment in 2014 stood at 24 percent, with rising youth unemployment exceeding 35 percent, the last year for which figures are available at the ministry. Lebanon’s trade deficit was $11.77 billion by September 2017, with exports at $2.12 billion and imports at $13.89 billion.
These figures show that Lebanon has no choice but to restructure its economy, said Khoury. “It’s not a luxury anymore,” he said.