Lebanon Businesses adopt dollar as economy faces crisis
When Moheidein Bazazo opened his Beirut mini-market in 1986, during some of the fiercest fighting in Lebanon’s civil war, he didn’t expect it to thrive. But several years later, he had shelves full of food and needed 12 employees to help him manage a bustling business.
Those days are over. Bazazo now mostly works alone, often in the dark to reduce his electric bill. Regular customers are struggling to make ends meet, and as they buy less so does he, leaving some shelves and refrigerators bare.
With the Lebanese economy in shambles and its currency in free fall, Bazazo spends much of his time trying to keep up with a fluctuating exchange rate. Businesses like his are increasingly leaning on one of the world’s most reliable assets — the U.S. dollar — as a way to cope with the worst financial crisis in its modern history.
“I once lived a comfortable life, and now I’m left with just about $100 after covering the shop’s expenses” at the end of the month, Bazazo said, crunching numbers into a calculator. “Sometimes it feels like you’re working for free.”
The Lebanese pound has lost 95% in value since late 2019, and now most restaurants and many stores are demanding to be paid in dollars. The government recently began allowing grocery stores like Bazazo’s to start doing the same.
While this “dollarization” aims to ease inflation and stabilize the economy, it also threatens to push more people into poverty and deepen the crisis.
That’s because few in Lebanon have access to dollars to pay for food and other essentials priced that way. But endemic corruption means political and financial leaders are resisting the alternative to dollarization: long-term reforms to banks and government agencies that would end wasteful spending and jump-start the economy.
Other countries like Zimbabwe and Ecuador have turned to the dollar to beat back hyperinflation and other economic woes, with mixed success. Pakistan and Egypt also are struggling with crashing currencies but their economic crises are largely tied to an outside event — Russia’s war in Ukraine, which has caused food and energy prices to soar.
Lebanon’s woes are much of its own making.
As the country felt the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, a deadly Beirut port explosion in 2020 and Russia’s invasion Ukraine, its central bank simply printed more currency, eroding its value and causing inflation to soar.
Three-quarters of Lebanon’s 6 million people have fallen into poverty since the 2019 crisis began. Crippling power cuts and medicine shortages have paralyzed much of public life.
Currency shortages prompted banks to limit withdrawals, trapping millions of people’s savings. It’s led some in desperation to hold up banks to forcibly take back their money.
The damage of the last few years was magnified by decades of economic mismanagement that allowed the government to spend well beyond its means. The head of the country’s Central Bank was recently charged with embezzling public funds and other crimes.
The pulverized Lebanese pound fluctuates almost hourly. Though officially pegged to the dollar since 1997, the pound’s value is dictated now by an opaque black market rate that has become standard for most goods and services.
Last month, its value fell from about 64,000 pounds to the dollar to 88,000 on the black market, while the official rate is 15,000. Making things worse for a country reliant on imported food, fuel and other products priced in dollars, the government recently tripled the amount of tax — in Lebanese pounds — that importers must pay on those goods.
This will likely lead to more price hikes. For small businesses, it could means selling products at a loss just minutes after stacking them on the shelves.
Dollarization could give the impression of greater financial stability, but it also will widen already vast economic inequalities, said Sami Zoughaib, an economist and research manager at Beirut-based think tank the Policy Initiative.
“We have a class that has access to dollars … (and) you have another portion of the population that earns in Lebanese pounds that have now seen their income completely decimated,” Zoughaib said.
The shift to a more dollar-dominated economy happened not by government decree, but by companies and individuals refusing to accept payment in a currency that relentlessly loses value.
First, luxury goods and services were priced in dollars for the wealthy, tourists and owners of private generators, who have to pay for imported diesel. Then it was most restaurants. And now grocery stores.
Caretaker Economy Minister Amin Salam said the Lebanese pound was “used and abused” over the past three years and that dollarizing grocery stores will bring some stability to fluctuating exchange rates.
As more people and businesses reject the local currency, the dollar gradually becomes the de facto currency. The lack of trust in the Lebanese pound has become irreversible, said Layal Mansour, an economist specializing in financial crises in dollarized countries.
“People are fed up with the fluctuation of the dollar rate, and having to spend lots of time changing it, so practically, on a societal level, it’s better to use dollars,” Mansour said. “This is the end of the Lebanese pound as we know it.”
Without a strategy to address the economy’s underlying problems, the government “is allowing this to happen,” said Lawrence White, an economics professor at George Mason University.
Dollarization means the Central Bank can’t keep printing currency that fuels inflation, and having a more reliable currency might create more confidence for businesses. But many people could be further squeezed if Beirut officially adopts the greenback as its currency.
Millions in Lebanon who tolerated the dollarization of luxury items may not respond similarly to groceries, whose prices were already surging at some of the highest rates globally.
Over 90% of the population earns their income in Lebanese pounds, according to a 2022 survey by the International Labour Organizaton and the Lebanese government’s statistics agency. Families that receive money from relatives abroad spend much of it keeping the lights on and covering medical expenses.
They would have to be paid in dollars to adequately adjust, which most businesses and employers, especially the Lebanese state, are short on.
Public school teachers have been on strike for three months because their salaries barely cover the cost of gasoline to commute. Telecom workers are threatening walkouts because their wages have not been adjusted to the Lebanese pound’s falling value.
Lebanon is nowhere near implementing the kinds of reforms needed for an International Monetary Fund bailout, such as restructuring banks and inefficient government agencies, reducing corruption, and establishing a credible and transparent exchange-rate system.
Zoughaib, the Beirut economist, said he fears the absence of sound policy and economic reforms means that dollarization will likely only deepen poverty, making it even more difficult for families to pay for health care, education and food.
Bazazo, the market owner, acknowledges that pricing in dollars will help him manage his finances and cut a small portion of his losses but worries it will drive away some customers.
“Let’s see what happens,” Bazazo said, sighing. “They’re already complaining.”
AP Business Writer Paul Wiseman in Washington contributed to this report.
Economy grew 0.5 per cent in January, Statistics Canada reports – Ottawa.CityNews.ca
OTTAWA — Economic growth resumed in January and came in better than first expected following a small contraction in December, Statistics Canada said Friday.
Real gross domestic product rose 0.5 per cent to start the year, the agency said, beating its initial estimate for a gain of 0.3 per cent for the month and reversing a contraction of 0.1 per cent in the final month of 2022.
Statistics Canada also said its initial estimate for February indicates growth continued with a gain of 0.3 per cent, though it cautioned the figure will be updated.
“There were many indications that the economy got off to a solid start in 2023, but today’s double-barrelled blast of strength is well above even the most optimistic views,” BMO chief economist Douglas Porter wrote in a report.
“Even if growth stalls in March, it now looks like Q1 will post growth of 2.5 per cent, up from a flat read in Q4. While we continue to look for a notable cooldown in the next two quarters, we are bumping up our GDP growth estimate for all of 2023 by three ticks to 1.0 per cent.”
The growth in January came as goods-producing industries gained 0.4 per cent for the month, while services-producing industries rose 0.6 per cent.
Statistics Canada said many of the main drivers for growth in January also contributed the most to the decline in December.
The wholesale trade, transportation and warehousing, and mining, quarrying and oil and gas extraction sectors all rebounded after falling in the previous month.
Wholesale trade gained 1.8 per cent in January, helped by wholesalers of machinery, equipment and supplies, while the mining, quarrying and oil and gas extraction sector grew 1.1 per cent after falling 3.3 per cent in December.
The transportation and warehousing sector added 1.9 per cent in January, more than offsetting a drop of 1.1 per cent in December that was due in part to bad weather.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 31, 2023.
The Canadian Press
Canada's economy shows surprising resilience despite rate hikes – BNN Bloomberg
Canada’s economy kept growing at the start of this year, defying expectations of a stall and eventual technical recession in the face of the highest interest rates in 15 years.
Preliminary data suggest gross domestic product expanded 0.3 per cent in February, Statistics Canada reported Friday in Ottawa, led higher by oil and gas, manufacturing, and finance and insurance sectors. That followed a 0.5 per cent expansion in the previous month, stronger than expectations for 0.4 per cent growth in a Bloomberg survey.
The Canadian economy is now on track to expand at an annualized rate of 2.8 per cent in the first quarter, assuming growth in March comes in flat. That’s much more robust than the 0.5 per cent annualized pace forecast by the Bank of Canada in January, when it signaled a conditional rate pause.
“Today’s double-barreled blast of strength is well above even the most optimistic views,” Bank of Montreal Chief Economist Doug Porter said in a report to investors. “Suffice it to say that if the strength seen in the opening months of the year persists, the BoC is going to find itself in a tough spot.”
Canada’s currency reclaimed nearly all of its losses after the release and bonds rallied. The yield on benchmark government two-year debt fell more than 3 basis points to 3.777 per cent at 9:50 a.m. in Ottawa.
The data suggest while some rate-sensitive sectors like housing have already cooled, overall economic growth is still holding up better than expected. It’s also at odds with a flurry of early estimates released last week that suggested a pullback in economic activity, with retail, wholesale and manufacturing sales all falling in February.
Friday’s numbers will test Governor Tiff Macklem and his officials as they look for evidence that monetary policy is sufficiently restrictive to bring inflation back to the central bank’s 2 per cent target. An accumulation of stronger-than-expected data may prompt them to stay on the sidelines for longer or even hike again.
Traders in overnight swaps markets, however, are betting the Bank of Canada’s next move will be a cut, given turmoil in global financial markets after the failure of regional U.S. lenders and a government brokered takeover of a European banking giant.
Economists in a monthly Bloomberg survey see 1 per cent annualized growth in the first three months of this year. But that’s expected to be followed by two straight quarterly contractions.
During deliberations for the central bank’s March 8 decision to hold rates steady for the first time in nine meetings, policymakers said they saw “clear signals” hikes so far were curbing demand. But there are few signs in recent data that the economy is gearing down.
Both goods-producing and services-producing industries were up in January, with nearly all sectors posting increases, except agriculture, utilities and management of companies.
Rebounds in several industries drove the January gain. Many of the key growth drivers were the largest contributors to December’s 0.1 per cent decline, including wholesale, transportation, and oil and gas industries. Accommodation and food services activity was also a key contributor.
“The Bank of Canada is likely at a crucial juncture and facing a significant dilemma,” Charles St-Arnaud, chief economist at Credit Union Central Alberta Ltd., said in a report to investors. “The central bank may have to choose between fighting inflation and hiking interest rates again or focusing on financial stability and keeping rates on hold.”
UK economy avoids recession but businesses still wary
LONDON, March 31 (Reuters) – Britain’s economy avoided a recession as it grew in the final months of 2022, according to official data which showed a boost to households’ finances from state energy bill subsidies but falling investment by businesses.
With the economy still hobbled by high inflation and worries about a weak growth outlook, gross domestic product (GDP) increased by 0.1% between October and December after a preliminary estimate of no growth.
GDP in the third quarter was also revised to show a 0.1% contraction, a smaller fall than initially thought, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) said on Friday.
Two consecutive quarters of contraction would have represented a recession.
Despite the improvement, British economic output remained 0.6% below its level of late 2019, the only G7 economy not to have recovered from the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The latest release takes the UK a little further away from the recessionary danger zone although the report does not change the overall picture that the economy’s performance was lacklustre over the second half of 2022 as the cost of living crisis hit hard,” Investec economist Philip Shaw said.
The International Monetary Fund forecast in January that Britain would be the only Group of Seven major advanced economy to shrink in 2023, in large part because of an inflation rate that remains above 10%.
Since then, a string of economic data has come in stronger than expected by analysts.
Ruth Gregory at Capital Economics said Friday’s figures showed high inflation had taken a slightly smaller toll than previously thought.
“But with around two-thirds of the drag on real activity from higher rates yet to be felt, we still think the economy will slip into a recession this year,” she said.
House prices slid in March at the fastest annual rate since the financial crisis, mortgage lender Nationwide said.
The Bank of England (BoE) last week raised interest rates for the 11th consecutive meeting and investors are split on the possibility of another increase in May.
Britain’s dominant services sector rose by 0.1%, boosted by a nearly 11% jump for travel agents, echoing other data which has pointed to a surge in demand for holidays.
Manufacturing grew by 0.5%, driven by the often erratic pharmaceutical sector, and construction grew by 1.3%.
Individuals’ savings were boosted by the government’s energy bill support scheme and households’ disposable income increased by 1.3% after four consecutive quarters of negative growth.
The BoE expects Britain’s economy to have contracted by 0.1% in the first three months of 2023 but it forecasts slight growth in the second quarter.
The outlook has improved thanks in large part to falling international energy prices and a strong jobs market.
But the picture could darken again if recent turmoil in the global banking sector leads to lenders reining in loans.
BUSINESS INVESTMENT FALLS
The data suggested businesses remained cautious. Business investment fell 0.2% in quarterly terms, a sharp downgrade from a first estimate of a 4.8% rise after changes to the way the ONS calculates seasonal adjustments.
Earlier on Friday, a survey painted a more upbeat picture for businesses.
Finance minister Jeremy Hunt this month announced new tax incentives to encourage companies to invest, although they were less generous than a previous scheme and came just as corporate tax is due to jump.
The ONS said Britain posted a shortfall in its current account in the fourth quarter of 2.5 billion pounds ($3.1 billion), or 0.4% of GDP.
Excluding volatile swings in precious metals, the shortfall fell to 3.3% of GDP from 4.2% in the third quarter.
The ONS said increased foreign earnings by companies, particularly in the energy sector, helped narrow the deficit.
Britain’s financial account surplus – which shows how the current account deficit was funded – comprised large net inflows of short-term, “hot” money. Foreign direct investment was negative in net terms for a sixth quarter running.
($1 = 0.8073 pounds)
Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.
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