Bank Triumphant – The Canonisation of Riad Salameh

Central Bank director Riad Salameh has been the toast of financial analysts everywhere for having apparently steered Lebanon through the global credit crisis unscathed. A friend of mine has penned a minority report, which I offered to publish on the blog. He goes by J of Chalcedon, and is a former resident of the magic kingdom. Enjoy the ride!

riadsalamehBank Triumphant – The Canonisation of Riad Salameh

By J of Chalcedon

These are tough times for the Vicar of Christ. Venture an opinion on reproductive health, and get pilloried as a professional virgin. Cut the employees some slack, and it’s cassocks off.

And if that wasn’t enough, the rabble are now horning in on the most exclusive of papal privileges. There’s a new saint in town, and his name is Riad Salameh.

How is Lebanon’s central bank governor crashing the canon? Simple: he’s pulled off the miracle of the moment, detailed faithfully in the English-language press. Capitalism may be in flames, but Lebanese financial know-how has kept the country from even getting singed – in fact, they’re doing better than ever.

The hagiography of Riad the Prudent goes like this:

1) He saw others sowing the whirlwind, and spared Lebanon the storm

… the silver-haired banker became a hero by playing it very, very safe. In 2005, he defied pressure from the Lebanese business community and bucked international trends to issue what now looks like a prophetic decree: a blanket order barring any bank in his country from investing in mortgage-backed securities, which contributed to the most dramatic collapse of financial institutions since the Great Depression.

So as major banks in America and Europe were shuttered or partly nationalized and thousands of people in the U.S. financial sector were laid off, Lebanon’s banks had one of their best years ever.

Billions in cash continue to pour in to the relative safety of Lebanese savings accounts, with comfy but not extravagant yields of 6%. A nation shunned for years as the quintessential failed state has become a pretty safe bet, or as safe a bet as investors are likely to find in this climate.

“Being able to survive and to do well in this crisis,” Salame said, savoring a deep sigh. “I can tell you I was proud of this achievement.”

2) When financial sorcery was fashionable, he stuck to common sense

Banks need to know who they are lending to, said Mr Salameh… Banks also tend to be well-capitalised, partly because they are mindful of previous political crises and consequent economic disruption.

3) He’s always been clever

One incentive for this flight to safety is the growing international reputation of Lebanon’s bankers. The London-based magazine The Banker this month named Central Bank Governor Riad Salameh as the best central bank chief in the Middle East for 2008.  Salameh was also named the world’s best central bank governor by Euromoney magazine in 2007.

4) He led the flock out of the wilderness, and into hedonistic comfort

Riad Salameh of the Central Bank, who in the past was often criticised for his conservative approach, feels vindicated.

“I think I’ve proved my point,” he says. “I have personally been stubborn about keeping a very conservative approach to banking, as I believe that this wild extension of credit, these high leverages in order to get more profits into financial institutions were against the very nature of banking.”

As the night falls, the dance floor of the Casino, one of Beirut’s many glitzy nightclubs, is full.

The rest of the world is now being forced to sober up after the wild excesses of the global markets, but here the party’s on.

The Lebanese are a nation of survivors, who have paid a heavy price for the fortunes they are reaping now. Through their troubles they have learned how to party as if tomorrow will never come, but also, against the odds, how to bank for their future.

And the amen chorus is kind of right. RS does look pretty smart, compared to the U.S. geniuses who hit on the idea of taking mortgages that people couldn’t afford, dicing them into products blessed by ratings agencies, and offering a can’t-miss buy in a world where house prices only go up. Whatever the failings of Lebanon’s financial caste, they are innocent of this particular attempt to run dogshit through a Cuisinart and emerge with foie gras. (There’s a suggestive parallel, albeit in the wrong tradition, with St. Thaddeus, who shunned flashy gifts and kept up the good work before ending his career in Beirut. Sample hymn: The Church ever sees you as a shining star, O apostle Thaddeus/Your miracles have manifested great enlightenment.)

A guy from a little country with a hypertrophied bank sector who opts to play it close to the vest in an era of cheap money comes off even better compared to say, anybody in Iceland. What happens when rubes roll the dice? Ask Thorhallur Vilhjalmsson, PR chief for the grandiose Reykjavik concert hall that’s fallen victim to the financial crisis:

“The West is having this great, long cocktail party,” Vilhjalmsson says. “And then, late in the evening, in comes this cute little dwarf, Iceland. And he gets drunk.”

Let’s be fair to the press as well. All of the stories above note, in passing, the broader context of the Lebanese miracle. The banking sector’s position in one of the world’s heaviest public debts, reliance on remittances and deposits from the diaspora, the implicit (if shaky) guarantee from Gulf brethren to underwrite Lebanon – they all rate a mention.

But that’s all they rate, because these accounts of a wee land’s brave stand against economic turmoil are going someplace special: namely, “Lebanon.” Ever heard of it? It’s a quirky little destination, not exactly coincident with any 10,000 square kilometres on the eastern Mediterranean. No, “Lebanon” is something else altogether, perhaps best understood through the following categories that any hack worth his/her salt would invoke.

Climate: Defies characterization. You can swim AND ski.

Society: Open, liberal, cosmopolitan; clannish, feudal, sectarian. War criminal and fief holder, formerly “socialist”, embodies “liberalism.”

Demography: a) women – sloe-eyed, long-limbed creatures, not necessarily cited in direct speech. Their tank tops are held to evince “liberal” political sensibility. See Society, above b) men – mostly unspecified. Chief types include cleric, gunman, magnate and intellectual.

Economy: Services, mainly banking and tourism, notably from the Gulf (see Demography – a).

This Description du Liban, even if it never appeared between two covers, has a genealogy, of course: it originates in English-language print media during The Events. It’s impossible to overstate the influence that the war had on the notion of “foreign correspondent,” for both contemporaries and successive generations. Some of that first generation had a notable run without being enslaved by it. Others sensed the possibilities of a pithy accounting of the world, and never looked back.

The mythic figure of the Lebanese finance guru itself acquired some of its key elements in those days. Consider the case of Edmond Naim, who died in 2006 at the age of 9,500. He wasn’t merely the last surviving eyewitness to Genesis; Naim’s turn as central bank chief provided some of the seminal accounts of homo economicus under fire.

From The Independent on Sunday, 23 September, 1990 (sorry, no link):

We ate on the terrace of his tiny flat atop the central bank building. Had we been able to see out, we would have noticed that every window was broken in the prime minister’s office across the street. But 12-foot walls rose up around us, and all we could see of the sky above was a tiny square in which shone the hungry full moon. It was like sitting in a drawing-room without a roof. The walls were supposed to keep out Christian shellfire.

Before I raised the subject of the gold, Dr Naim told me how he came to have a wall-to-wall lawn on his roof-top terrace. “I tried many things,” he said. “And then, you know, one day I discovered Astroturf. Only Astroturf doesn’t shrink or wrinkle or fade.” In a city where death comes so fast and so unexpectedly, durability is a matter of pride…

I wondered what was at the root of Naim’s power. In a nation of such consummate traders, it had to have something to do with the gold hoard in his basement.

Had the governor actually seen it?

“Every month.” He spoke slowly. He said it was because his false teeth didn’t fit as they should, and the dentist hadn’t been in to visit him.

“What does it look like?”

“It is kept in the vault, in special boxes.”

“Can I see it?”

“There are many keys and many people involved.”

“Perhaps when the governor pays his next monthly visit?”

“Perhaps,” he said, fiddling with the offending dentures. “Perhaps.”

That was a different time, though, and given exceptional circumstances you can perhaps understand a bit of Lebanon exceptionalism. That’s the doctrine that gives us the press that now gives us “Lebanon.” It’s a place so unique, so utterly resistant to the categories and processes which otherwise apply, that you don’t need to ask certain questions.

You can describe people who have learned how to party as if tomorrow will never come, but also, against the odds, how to bank for their future. No need to inquire what becomes of that future if the fiscal deus ex machina of Lebanon’s children and friends breaks down. You can invoke a Lebanese lesson about the crisis of capitalism elsewhere. Don’t bother querying a marriage of finance and state that’s about as unholy as anything Wall Street (R.I.P.) had to offer, or whether the local bank titans aren’t just as responsible as petty politicians for the ruin of Lebanon’s finances and government.

And if anyone from the press corps feels sheepish for swallowing the national tale, maybe they shouldn’t. Guys who wear bigger hats have gone for it as well:

“At this exceptional assembly we wish to declare before the world the importance of Lebanon, its historical mission, accomplished down the centuries.” Guess who?

Happy Easter.
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5 thoughts on “Bank Triumphant – The Canonisation of Riad Salameh

  1. Hello QN,

    I work in the financial industry in the US. I just wish the big wigs on WS had half of the wisdom and risk aversion as Riad. Personally, I don’t think he was just lucky. He had some forward thinking understanding of what’s to come.

    Hats of to Riad for a job well done. Glad you dedicated a post for him. The Pols in Lebanon should follow his lead in producing such great results for the benefit of the common citizen. Wishfull thinking I know. They’re too busy promoting their ego.

    Posted by Ras Beirut | April 11, 2009, 7:00 am
  2. He is definetly the most effective Lebanese by many people’s view.

    First hand proof:

    Posted by theFool | April 14, 2009, 3:34 am
  3. Hey Qifa — I am glad you posted something from the minority opinion. But the assault on the foreign press for their praising of one of the few positive developments in Lebanon over the last three years is a bit overdone, if not as stereotypical as your guest writer accuses the foreign press of being.

    Where is the rest of the story? The local banks own a big chunk of the public debt, and all your guest writer can do is whine about how the foreign press is a bunch of economic orientalists?

    All I see here is a generalized attack on the foreign press in Lebanon for not including the subtleties of Lebanese life, politics and culture in a story about banking and economics.

    What I don’t see is a serious critique of what the press should have included…other than a link to a poverty report.

    Please do write us the story that should have been told, J of Chalcedon.

    Posted by Choruspondent | April 15, 2009, 12:36 am
  4. J of Chalcedon

    Hi Choruspondent,

    Fair enough – I have indeed complained that the accounts of the good news don’t get into how the sausage is made, but without getting my own hands dirty. What I should have included – and a good point for starting a conversation about the banks’ role in public finance – is the question of how viable this model is, and why it’s basically unchallenged.

    There’s no question that the banks were the only option for day-to-day finance following the war. But nearly two decades later, the same arrangement, with minor adjustments, persists: institutions that aren’t exactly outside the political process which creates terrible public finances continue to hold the biggest chunk of the debt, service of which eats up the greatest part of the state’s revenues.

    And though the banks surrender some of what they’re owed in various schemes to restructure the debt, the basic problem of the debt burden is basically unchanged. At some point, is it worth asking whether the banks aren’t part of the broader political problem, by virtue of their role in perpetuating a debt burden that pretty much cripples the state?

    Again, kudos to Riad Salameh. He deserves credit for not succumbing to the lunacy that swept the U.S. financial industry. I just wonder whether praise on that point doesn’t slip into an unquestioning endorsement of the the banking sector as a virtuous exception to Lebanon’s problems. To me, it seems they’re right down in the mud with everyone else.

    I hope I haven’t succumbed to cliche in pointing this out (and if I did, I’m regretting not having gone all the way, and putting RS in a captain’s hat on the ship of state!).

    Posted by J of Chalcedon | April 15, 2009, 10:20 am
  5. Forgive, I am not going to read all of the comments.

    I really dislike the manipulation of media by Jeffrey Goldberg, of The Atlantic. He is skillful, there is no doubt. But if ever someone needed to understand Vonnegut’s MOTHER NIGHT, it’s Goldberg. IMHO

    Posted by Margaret | April 25, 2009, 6:37 am

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