September 12, 2018 / 12:19 PM / a month ago

Lebanon needs political action to avoid economic collapse - finance minister

BEIRUT (Reuters) - Politicians in Lebanon, still lacking a government four months after national elections, need to take action to stop the country’s economic crisis becoming an economic collapse, its finance minister said on Wednesday.

FILE PHOTO - Lebanon's Caretaker Finance Minister Ali Hassan Khalil speaks during a meeting in Beirut, Lebanon June 19, 2018. REUTERS/Mohamed Azakir

Infighting has hampered efforts by Prime Minister-designate Saad al-Hariri to form a national unity administration, leaving a political vacuum that has increased concerns for the highly-indebted economy.

“We are not concealing this crisis, but will this crisis inevitably lead us to a collapse? ... I say that with strong political commitment, political will and cooperation between all sectors we can avoid it,” caretaker Finance Minister Ali Hassan Khalil said.

His comments, which followed a meeting with the government’s economic and social council, were televised. Asked by Reuters what he meant by collapse, he replied “the economic situation”.

Leaders from across the political spectrum agree a government urgently needs to be formed, but a deal remains elusive.

Its formation would be likely to help raise investor confidence in the country, unlock billions of dollars in donor funding and enable parliament to embark on long-overdue reforms.

In April, international donors meeting in Paris pledged more than $11 billion of investment, but they want evidence of economic reforms first. At that meeting Hariri promised to reduce the budget deficit as a percentage of GDP by 5 percent over five years.

Lebanon had the world’s third highest debt-to-GDP ratio, at over 150 percent, at the end of 2017. The International Monetary Fund wants to see immediate and substantial fiscal adjustment to improve debt sustainability.

On Wednesday, parliamentary speaker Nabih Berri said Lebanon did not have the luxury of time when it came to forming a government “especially when it comes to the economic situation”.

Central Bank Governor Riad Salameh has said the Lebanese pound, which is pegged to the dollar, will remain stable and that the central bank has high foreign reserves.

He reiterated those comments to broadcaster CNBC on Tuesday.

Lebanon’s foreign assets excluding gold were $43.56 billion at the end of August, according to central bank data.

Reporting by Lisa Barrington and Laila Bassam; Additional reporting by Dahlia Nehme; editing by John Stonestreet

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