Lebanon Seeks Funds From More Allies After Qatar's $500 Million

(Bloomberg) -- Lebanon is in talks with allies to secure financial backing that would help it manage one of the world’s biggest debt burdens after Qatar pledged to buy government bonds worth $500 million.

The support could come in the form of deposits or a purchase of Lebanese Eurobonds at reduced interest rates, Nadim Munla, senior adviser to Prime Minister Saad Hariri, said in an interview on Tuesday in Beirut. He declined to name the countries involved in the talks.

“We are actively pursuing friendly countries to help us mitigate the short-term crisis we have faced because of the delay in the formation of the government,” Munla said. With the money, Lebanon would be able to reduce the cost of debt servicing, he said.

The assistance could help allay investor concerns that Lebanon is on the brink of a financial meltdown sparked by political turmoil and doubts over its ability to repay debts. It would also buy the government, which was formed last week after nine months of deadlock, much-needed time to implement steps negotiated with international donors in return for $11 billion in aid.

Lebanese bonds snapped a two-day decline on the prospect of relief, resuming a rally under way since the start of January. The yield on the government’s 2028 bond fell 28 basis points to 9.23 percent as of 6:10 p.m. in Beirut.

Lebanese officials have already hinted that some countries would step up to show their support, with Finance Minister Ali Hasan Khalil saying Qatar’s decision would be a “prelude” to similar moves by others. Soon after Qatar’s pledge last month, Saudi Arabia’s finance minister said the kingdom would support Lebanon “all the way.” He didn’t give details.

The newly-formed government will soon announce a plan to eventually slash costly subsidies to the state-owned electricity company, also known as Electricite Du Liban, according to Munla, a move that would save hundreds of millions of dollars a year. Other proposals under discussion include the implementation of a program to overhaul the public sector.

Fixing the electricity industry will be the government’s first item of reform since that would address urgent infrastructure and fiscal issues facing the country, Munla said. State subsidies to Electricite Du Liban represent 4 percent of gross domestic product. Reforming the sector covers 80 percent of the total fiscal consolidation that Lebanon committed to undertake at the donor conference last year.

Electricity Reform

“The only really popular measure that will bring in savings” is reforming the electricity industry, Munla said. The government also plans to improve tax collection and increase the ratio of revenue to GDP, currently at 19 percent.

The plans were negotiated last year with donors and lenders, including the World Bank, to help revive economic growth and reduce the budget deficit by one percentage point annually over five years.

Instead, spending increased in 2018 as oil prices and interest rates climbed. Lebanon’s public debt, estimated at over 160 percent of GDP this year, is projected to rise to near 180 percent by 2023, second only to Japan’s, according to the International Monetary Fund.

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