BEIRUT, Lebanon – Throughout history, humans have braved great odds to perform great feats. Riad Toufic Salame, the governor of Lebanon’s central bank, is not one of those people. Instead, 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 have 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 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 percent. 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, “I can tell you – I was proud of this achievement.”
Many outsiders associate Lebanon with one of two extremes: machine-gun-wielding militants or merrymakers downing cocktails until dawn.
But a more sedate and moderate segment of the Lebanese population has also emerged from the political and economic wreckage of the last few decades. They are engineers and dentists, lawyers and bankers. They envision their country as neither hedonistic nirvana nor capital of mayhem, but as a safe harbor for low-key, middle-class ambitions. They have begun to quietly assert themselves.
Salame is Lebanon’s equivalent of the U.S. Federal Reserve chairman. He toiled for nearly two decades as an investment banker at Merrill Lynch before taking over as central bank governor 15 years ago.
He’s a man of few extravagances, indulging in Cuban cigars he pulls out of a wooden humidor in his spacious office. Unlike many Lebanese bigwigs, he drives himself to work, albeit in an armored BMW.
The country’s bankers adore him, speaking of him in glowing terms. He was once short-listed as a potential candidate for Lebanon’s presidency, a post that traditionally goes to members of his Christian Maronite community.
“We are very proud of him,” said Nassib Ghobril, head of research at Lebanon’s Byblos Bank. “He’s a very smart guy, and the regulations of the banking sector here have been kept up to international standards. It’s very tightly regulated.”
In a country known for politicians prone to soaring oratory, Salame favors technical facts as he describes the effort of growing Lebanon’s banking sector from $7 billion in assets in the early 1990s to $91 billion in 2009.
It meant tightening regulations and banking requirements so much that 35 banks were driven out of business. They couldn’t meet Salame’s conservative balance-sheet requirements, including a rule that bars banks from lending more than 70 percent of deposits.
It meant changing transparency rules to do away with Lebanon’s reputation as a money-laundering hub.
And it meant resisting the temptation for easy money.
“We had criticism, and some were saying that Lebanon could have bigger growth in its economy if there was not such regulation for credit,” Salame recalled. “We were criticized for putting too much regulation.”
When the real-estate boom crested this decade and investors began bundling debt into nebulous financial instruments fueled by easy credit, the pressure was on for Salame to let banks take advantage of the high yields.
But Salame steadfastly refused.
He says the mortgage-backed securities worried him from the start. He watched curiously as investment bankers engaged in what he calls “rituals” to please the credit-ratings agencies and got back safe assessments of their products.
He didn’t get it. Why were these considered safe investments? They were too complicated. They went against a major tradition in Lebanese and Middle Eastern banking: Know to whom you’re giving cash and who’s going to pay you back.
“We could not really sense who would be responsible in the end to collect these loans,” he said. “And we do not perceive banking as being a place to speculate on financial instruments that are not really concrete.”
When Salame received a call from abroad last year after the collapse of Lehman Bros., he felt vindicated. The call came from a super-rich Lebanese investor living overseas.
“He was always skeptical about the stability here,” Salame recalled. “But he told me, ‘I sent all my money to Beirut now to the banks. You were right.’ ”