WHERE THE HEART IS

Lebanon 2012 | ECONOMY | FOCUS: REMITTANCES

The size of Lebanon's diaspora community has helped stabilize the home economy and act as a major source of liquidity and FDI.


Lebanon has a long-kept secret, and it is one that has helped keep the finances of the country ticking along in circumstances that would daunt any central banker. It is a secret that famous economist Nassim Nicholas Taleb, music superstar Shakira, US political activist Ralph Nader, and Mexican tycoon Carlos Slim all share. And that is they are all members of the Lebanese diaspora.

The size of the Lebanese diaspora worldwide is estimated at anywhere from 12 million to 15 million, substantially more than the country's population of 4.25 million. It is thanks to this overseas network that Lebanon has become the recipient of one of the highest remittances-to-GDP ratios anywhere in the world, and can punch well above its weight in international trade terms. In good times and in bad, the Lebanese banking system and the economy have managed to maintain their robustness as a result of the faith that non-resident Lebanese have in their country. And the benefits of these inflows don't just end at the finance sector, with real estate and tourism also being major receivers of remittance monies.

The World Bank estimated remittance flows from the Lebanese diaspora at $8.4 billion in 2010, representing a stunning 21.4% of GDP. It was the 12th highest recipient of remittance inflows globally in numerical terms, representing 1.9% of global remittance movements. In a 2009 IMF working paper, it was estimated that 54% of remittances came from non-resident Lebanese living in Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states, with Australia (7%), the US (6%), and Canada (3%) also being strong contributors. With gross public debt estimated at $52.5 billion at the end of June 2011, representing a debt-to-GDP ratio of 133% according to Bank Audi figures, the influence that remittance inflows have on the Lebanese economy and on internal debt refinancing is hard to underestimate.

As money flows in via formal channels, the banking system also benefits in the form of a more robust deposit base in terms of assets. In July 2011, the Banque du Liban estimated that 83.1% of the commercial banking sector asset base, or $113.8 billion, was made up of both resident and non-resident private deposits. Lebanon's banks have been on a steady path of regional and international expansion, meaning that attempting to sort out where remittances would fit under the resident or non-resident titles is becoming increasingly complicated.

Remittances are strong contributors to domestic consumption and trade, and thus can have a knock-on effect in increasing the real size of the taxation revenue base within Lebanon. The Lebanese economy has long had a strong focus on the services sector, and it is not hard to understand where the money comes from to support what is considered one of the most vibrant and resilient economies in the Eastern Mediterranean area.

Lebanon's tourism sector has also been a strong beneficiary of the diaspora's willingness to keep on spending back home. Despite the many ordeals Lebanon's tourism industry has undergone, it has maintained an ability to bounce back based on the continuous flow of non-resident Lebanese returning to the country to visit family and friends, especially over the summer period. Over 2010 the Ministry of Tourism estimated that 19.5% of those staying in hotels and furnished apartments were Lebanese nationals, the largest group. Ministry statistics, however, do not capture the large number of Lebanese expatriates who travel on foreign passports, thus meaning the true figure is likely much higher.

The real estate and construction sectors have also benefitted on the back of these tourism inflows, as non-resident Lebanese buy summer houses or simply places for retirement back in their home country. After the Banque du Liban expanded the size of the mortgage market in 2009 to shelter the economy from the global financial crisis, Houssam Batal, CEO of Premium Projects, estimated that up to 40% of new mortgages went to members of the diaspora. Elie A. Harb, President of Coldwell Banker, told TBY that he was seeing a lot of buying interest from Lebanese working in the GCC region, and then returning home cashed up to buy local real estate for the future.

However, it is more than just in consumer-type areas that Lebanese expatriates shine. As FDI generators they are considered to be prime candidates. Nabil Itani, the Chairman of the Investment Development Authority of Lebanon (IDAL), identified Lebanese citizens resident overseas as one of the three main categories of foreign investors that his organization was seeking to target. As investors, he believed they were more interested in “industry and information technology" related sectors, as they understood the risks and rewards of investing in Lebanon better than most other foreign investors.