September 4, 2019 / 5:44 AM / 14 days ago

Lebanon PM says accelerating reforms to rein in public debt: CNBC

BEIRUT (Reuters) - Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri said his government would aim to cut the budget deficit to 7% of GDP next year as part of reforms to bring public finances under control and rein in public debt.

FILE PHOTO: Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri is seen during the meeting to discuss a draft policy statement at the governmental palace in Beirut, Lebanon February 6, 2019. REUTERS/Aziz Taher

Lebanon also plans to keep the local currency peg to the dollar which was crucial to move ahead with long-stalled reforms, Hariri told CNBC in an interview.

Lebanon faces another credit rating downgrade and a potential test of its currency peg if the depletion of its limited foreign exchange reserves accelerates, S&P Global warned on Wednesday.

Hariri said the challenge was to prevent a further deterioration in Lebanon’s public debt burden, which is one of the heaviest in the world at around 150% of GDP. “Our strategy is to stabilize the problem that we have. Most important thing is not to deteriorate more, right?” he said.

With Lebanon suffering from years of low economic growth, long-stalled reforms are seen as more pressing than ever to put the state finances on a sustainable path.

On Monday, Lebanon declared a “state of economic emergency”, with Hariri saying the government would take emergency measures to speed up economic reforms to help overcome a worsening crisis.

Hariri said after a gathering of senior politicians and ministers that accelerating reforms would avoid a scenario similar to Greece, which fell into a debt crisis nine years ago and had to adopt tough austerity measures under tight supervision by foreign creditors.

Economists and politicians say the big budget deficits over the years have been rooted in waste, corruption, and sectarian politics.

“So what we are doing is, fixing our debt to GDP, our deficit and the budget to 7.6% this year, we want to go down to 7% next year, or maybe a little bit less,” he said in the interview aired on Wednesday.

The IMF said in July the deficit in 2019 would likely be well above the government’s target of 7.6% of national output.

Fitch downgraded Lebanon’s credit rating to CCC on debt-servicing concerns last month.

MAINTAIN POUND PEG TO DOLLAR

The prime minister also said that “keeping the Lebanese pound at 1,500” is the only stable way to proceed with the government’s reforms.

The Lebanese pound has been pegged against the U.S. dollar at its current level for more than two decades and is seen as a cornerstone of the country’s financial stability.

Hariri said his country would not consider an International Monetary Fund (IMF) program since it would leave market forces to decide the pricing of the country’s currency.

“I think the IMF has certain criteria that we do not, especially when it comes to the Lebanese pound. This is something that we feel extremely sensitive about.”

Hariri said divergent views on exchange rate policy was the only difference the government had with the IMF. The government had been in consultations with the IMF over tackling the country’s economic and fiscal woes.

Lebanon had no need to enter any program with the IMF since it already had an ambitious structural reform plan with donors that will help bring investments and spur growth, Hariri said.

Foreign governments and donor institutions last year pledged $11 billion in financing to Lebanon for a 12-year infrastructure investment program at a conference in Paris, on condition that it carries out reforms.

Reporting by Kanishka Singh in Bengaluru and Suleiman al-Khalidi in Beirut; Editing by Louise Heavens and Peter Graff

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