No need for more talks over draft budget: Lebanon finance minister

Lebanese Finance Minister Ali Hassan Khalil attends a cabinet meeting at the government palace in Beirut, Lebanon, May 21, 2019. (Reuters)
Updated 21 May 2019

No need for more talks over draft budget: Lebanon finance minister

  • Lebanon’s proposed austerity budget may please international lenders but it could enrage sectors of society
  • Lebanon has one of the world’s heaviest public debt burdens at 150 percent of GDP

BEIRUT: Lebanon’s finance minister said on Tuesday there was no need for more talks over the 2019 draft budget, seen as a vital test of the government’s will to reform, although the foreign minister signalled the debate may go on.
The cabinet says the budget will reduce the deficit to 7.6% of gross domestic product (GDP) from last year’s 11.2%. Lebanon has one of the world’s heaviest public debt burdens at 150% of GDP.
“There is no longer need for too much talking or anything that calls for delay. I have presented all the numbers in their final form,” Finance Minister Ali Hassan Khalil said.
But Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil suggested the debate may go on, telling reporters: “The budget is done when it’s done.”
While Lebanon has dragged its feet on reforms for years, its sectarian leaders appear more serious this time, warning of a catastrophe if there is no serious action. Their plans have triggered protests and strikes by state workers and army retirees worried about their pensions.
President Michel Aoun on Tuesday repeated his call for Lebanese to sacrifice “a little“: “(If) we want to hold onto all privileges without sacrifice, we will lose them all.”
“We import from abroad, we don’t produce anything ... So what we did was necessary and the citizens won’t realize its importance until after they feel its positive results soon,” Aoun said, noting Lebanon’s $80 billion debt mountain.
A draft of the budget seen by Reuters included a three-year freeze on all forms of hiring and a cap on bonus and overtime benefits.
It also includes a 2% levy on imports including refined oil products and excluding medicine and primary inputs for agriculture and industry, said Youssef Finianos, minister of public works and transport.
“DEVIL IN THE DETAIL“
Marwan Mikhael, head of research at Blominvest Bank, said investors would welcome the additional efforts in the latest draft to cut the deficit.
“There will be some who claim it is not good because they were hit by the decline in spending or increased taxes, but it should be well viewed by the international community,” he said.
Jason Tuvey, senior emerging markets economist at Capital Economics, said: “The numbers will be of some comfort to investors, but the devil will be in the detail.”
“Even if the authorities do manage to rein in the deficit, it probably won’t be enough to stabilize the debt ratio and some form of restructuring looks increasingly likely over the next couple of years,” Tuvey said.
The government said in January it was committed to paying all maturing debt and interest payments on the predetermined dates.
Lebanon’s main expenses are a bloated public sector, interest payments on public debt and transfers to the loss-making power generator, for which a reform plan was approved in April. The state is riddled with corruption and waste.
Serious reforms should help Lebanon tap into some $11 billion of project financing pledged at a Paris donors’ conference last year.
Once approved by cabinet, the draft budget must be debated and passed by parliament. While no specific timetable is in place for those steps, Aoun has previously said he wants the budget approved by parliament by the end of May.
On Monday, veterans fearing cuts to their pensions and benefits burned tires outside the parliament building where the cabinet met. Police used water cannon to drive them back.


BT warns UK that banning Huawei too fast could cause outages

Updated 13 July 2020

BT warns UK that banning Huawei too fast could cause outages

  • Prime Minister Boris Johnson is due to decide this week whether to impose tougher restrictions on Huawei
  • British PM in January granted Huawei a limited role in the 5G network

LONDON: BT CEO Philip Jansen urged the British government on Monday not to move too fast to ban China’s Huawei from the 5G network, cautioning that there could be outages and even security issues if it did.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson is due to decide this week whether to impose tougher restrictions on Huawei, after intense pressure from the United States to ban the Chinese telecoms behemoth from Western 5G networks.
Johnson in January defied President Donald Trump and granted Huawei a limited role in the 5G network, but the perception that China did not tell the whole truth over the coronavirus crisis and a row over Hong Kong has changed the mood in London.
“If you are to try not to have Huawei at all, ideally we would want seven years and we could probably do it in five,” Jansen told BBC radio.
Asked what the risks would be if telecoms operators were told to do it in less than five years, Jansen said: “We need to make sure that any change of direction does not lead to more risk in the short term.”
“If we get to a situation where things need to go very, very fast, then you are into a situation where potentially service for 24 million BT Group mobile customers is put into question — outages,” he said.
In what some have compared to the Cold War antagonism with the Soviet Union, the United States is worried that 5G dominance is a milestone toward Chinese technological supremacy that could define the geopolitics of the 21st century.
The United States says Huawei is an agent of the Chinese Communist State and cannot be trusted.
Huawei, the world’s biggest producer of telecoms equipment, has said the United States wants to frustrate its growth because no US company could offer the same range of technology at a competitive price.