A word with the minister

(Photo: Sam Tarling)

Raya Hassan is Lebanon’s finance minister. Saddled with a debt  around one-and-a-half times the size of the country’s economic output, a gaping deficit and a lack of infrastructure, she is tasked with making a method out of the madness. In an exclusive interview Hassan sat down with me to discuss everything from her ministry’s performance to the economic priorities of the government.

Q:  The ministry’s strategy to reduce the debt-to-GDP ratio appears to have been successful, but we only have potentially unreliable national accounts figures for 2008 to go on. As such, how can we accurately assess the progress made in the last two years, or even make projections?

For 2010 we brought an expert from INSEE [French National Institute for Statistics and Economic Studies] to help us project a growth rate for 2010. On the basis of the 2008 data we extrapolated, we can then determine what the 2010 GDP would be. We also use that same base for a projection for 2011 and 2012. Of course, the projections in terms of real growth rates are reviewed each year based on the projected activities in the economy. It is not based on real surveys for the economy but it is as close as we can get in the absence of work that is [now] being done by the Central Administration for Statistics (CAS).

Q:  For the first time you have projected a decrease in the amount of debt servicing, but the principal continues to grow. With telecom privatization being discounted for a few years to come and other Paris III reforms tied up in parliament, how will you reduce the principal on the debt now that our rate of borrowing is getting better?

In terms of reduction in the stock of debt, I don’t think there is any action in the foreseeable future… because as you said there are no plans for imminent privatization of the telecom sector [which would create capital with which to make repayments]. Of course [the stock of debt] is important, but for us I think what is more important is how to reduce the flow and ensure that the debt is not increasing at an increasing rate. That is why we look at growth as an anchor for controlling debt-to-GDP and at ensuring that we have a primary surplus in the budget in order to ensure that, at least, as the years progress we have a restriction on the increase of the debt stock in a sort of controlled manner. It’s the best we can do, as the primary surplus creates a cushion to any increase in the stock of debt.

Q:  But that primary surplus comes from the lack of infrastructure spending. We are going to have a problem with growth if we don’t catch up with infrastructure, so the primary surplus is not necessarily a blessing.

It’s a mixed blessing because even though the debt increase is going to be controlled, on the other side you are not going to have all the capital expenditures that would unleash the full potential of the Lebanese economy. The 8 percent growth rate that we project for 2010 is very good. However, in order to ensure the sustainability of this growth rate and to ensure that it is being translated developmentally on the ground, it is important for us to address the structural deficiencies in the economy. If the 2010 budget is ratified, all of these capital expenditures hopefully will be released and we will start to see some benefits coming out of it.

Q:  You have said that the current growth has not translated into jobs on the ground. Now that political tension is rising and there is a lag in policy making, have we lost this growth cycle?

There has not been as much job creation as we would have liked [and] I think the golden opportunity that we had in 2010 is now starting to fade away. What is good is that even with all the political upheavals we are still seeing some positive developments. I am a bit surprised frankly. However, 2010 would have been a golden opportunity to really capitalize on these positive developments and move forward in order to capture these good indicators and consolidate them. [The longer] this political environment persists, the less we will be able to do in the short term.

Q:  You seem to have abandoned a value-added tax (VAT) increase again for 2011 and are now saying you would re-examine exemptions. What is the current VAT strategy?

It’s not just [about] VAT. Our tax policy [aims to be] equitable, distributed and efficient. When I first took office this is what I [did] in terms of the assessment of the current tax structure. What we have concluded out of this study is that the tax policy is equitable, believe it or not, efficient and reflects the structure of the Lebanese economy. This economy is based on consumption and mostly on imports and not exports.

Now, if we are going to increase unproductive expenditures this is something that I will fight. But if the parliament approves and ratifies current expenditures that would put a dent on the primary surplus or the budget deficit then I will have no choice except to increase revenues.

Q:  By imposing new taxes?

New taxes, of course, because we are adamant that the budget deficit should be controlled and it should not increase, and we need to have a primary surplus, and we need to reduce the debt-to-GDP ratio. If there is going to be an uncontrollable increase in expenditures, the Ministry of Finance has no choice but to increase revenues. Growth will take care of some of it, but we have to look at other options.

Q:  You say that the tax structure reflects the Lebanese economy, but the economy is changing with real estate constituting an ever-greater proportion of GDP and the productive sector becoming less important. You have suggested an increase of 5 to 7 percent on the registration tax for properties over $500,000 and now say that you want a re-evaluation tax, but there are other real estate taxes that are much easier to apply.

I did suggest a tax on vacant real estate… because [vacant properties] are not taxed today. That is what I proposed in the 2010 budget but it was not approved within the parliamentary committee. For the 2011 budget I proposed a ‘quasi-capital gains tax’ [on real estate]. It’s not a capital gains tax per se because to be able to impose a capital gains tax you would have to have a complete database of the real value of real estate, and we don’t have that today. But in the absence of a complete valuation database, I am saying that we have to impose a 1 percent tax on revenue emanating from the sale of properties.

Q:  How much do you expect that to take in?

Some 200 to 300 billion [LL] ($133 million to $200 million). But this is not an optimal solution. What we are hoping to do is make this a transitory solution until either the valuation exercise is complete or we take a decision, and this will be discussed by the Council of Ministers. There is going to be a cut off point as of, say January 1, 2011, and afterwards we will capture the real value of the property, start to recognize any future transactions, and try to impose a capital gains tax.

Q:  Many of the MPs, if not most of them, have interests in real estate and some of the ministers as well. Is this the main problem with imposing real estate taxes?

[Sigh,] Look, we passed a 2 percent increase in the registration tax. There is [a possibility of] the tax on vacant property. There were going to be three tax measures that were going to be imposed on real estate. However, I think the concern was that in the advent of this slowdown in the economy, especially in the last two months, there is a fear that all three measures would really impact the real estate sector very hard. Whether we like it or not, the real estate sector is part of the growth pillar. I think this is where they are coming from. The fact that we passed at least one, and the fact that we are still going to discuss the 1 percent on revenue, I think would be fair for the time being.

Q:  In terms of salaries and related payments (the second largest expenditure item) the salary scale is not changing, the organizational structures proposed by the Office of the Minister of State for Administrative Reform (OMSAR) are not being implemented, the public bodies remain bloated bodies of patronage and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) is doing a lot of the work that the public sector should be doing…

Not a lot of the work; the policy work.

Q:  When does this stop and the transfer of capacity happen and we start cutting the edges?

I agree with you fully but the underlying factor is the political will to do it. This is not just up to the Ministry of Finance or OMSAR. We believe that the public sector could be much more productive. We think the public sector is bloated and needs to be reformed: the laws, the regulations and the capacities. However, that would mean that maybe we need to do some retrenchment in the numbers and need to look at the salary scales and look at training and this is a huge political decision. I think, and I discussed this with the Prime Minister, that the time is opportune to look at the salary scales and review them because the last time we reviewed them was more than 10 years ago. But, the review of the salary scale cannot be done independently…

Q:  It has to be changed along with the organizational structures of public administrations. But at the same time you are proposing to increase the number of security services significantly and this will mean more salaries and pensions. Frankly, the security services cannot fight Israel or fight battles in the streets. What is the point?

[Laughs] But, ok. You need them not just to maintain security within Lebanon but also you need them for traffic control, for ensuring the proper functioning of the state. For the army, we are trying, as much as we can, to get grants from abroad. This is a priority. Listen, if you don’t have security, you don’t have an economy.

Q:  But it is a political decision for them to come into Bourj Abi Haidar when there is a clash. This has nothing to do with if there are 20 or 100 troops.

But you are talking about the sovereignty of the state and the prestige of the state; you can’t have that if you don’t have a strong army and a strong internal security force that would allow you not to depend on non-Lebanese or non-official sources.

Q: You have already advanced the money for the fiber-optic broadband cables plan to the telecom industry to get the ball rolling. First of all, how much has been advanced and how did you do it without parliamentary approval?

It’s a treasury advance. And we are always attacked for treasury advances [by] the Ministry of Energy and the Ministry of Telecoms… We advanced the Ministry of Telecom around 100 billion [LL] [$66.7 million] to start the fiber-optic plan in the absence of a telecom sectoral plan. Now the fiber optics is a given and we have to do it, but how does this fall into an overall plan? We still don’t know.

This [issue] is the most detrimental in terms of the competitiveness of the Lebanese economy. We have been waiting now for more than a year, we have not even discussed any potential sectoral plan. Nothing. Not even a discussion. The TRA [Telecom Regulatory Authority] is crying. The whole economy is crying. This is where I think we are at our weakest. There should be something done very quickly. We could take years to come up with the perfect plan but that time is costing us huge amounts of economic growth. It’s going to be a huge detriment to the economy.

Q:  What is your forecast for 2011?

Well, that depends on what will happen in the next short period. If this political impasse persists then I think we are going to be seeing a tangible slowdown. In the last couple of months we have seen somewhat of a slowdown but this has been compensated by the very high growth we witnessed in the first six months of the year. If this persists then I’m going to be really concerned about the state of the economy in 2011.

First published in Executive Magazine’s December 2010 issue.

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