Lebanon’s secure banking sector plays an important role in the country’s stability and economic status. High liquidity and compliance with all international regulatory standards make it one of the most profitable in the region.
The Lebanese banking sector owes its solidity primarily to the stringent policies applied by the Lebanese Central Bank (LCB). Efforts are constantly being made to fight money laundering and terrorism funding.
The Lebanese diaspora also contributes to the stability through the flux of transfers and deposits of extraterritorial income. Compared with an estimated population of 4.9 million inhabitants, about 16 million Lebanese live abroad, largely engaged in trade and finance, and mainly concentrated in South America.
The banking sector’s stability is also bolstered by the currency exchange rate, which has been stable since 1997, when the Lebanese Pound (LBP) was pegged to the United States Dollar (USD) at a rate of 1507.5 LBP to the USD.
Banking Secret and Automatic exchange of Information
The Lebanese Banking Secrecy Law of September 3, 1956 was a key aspect in the expansion of the sector. Bank secrecy is applied to any bank operating in Lebanon, local or foreign, and prohibits the disclosure of any details or information about any account or accountholder. For long time this law has increased confidence in Lebanese banking together with the amount of foreign capital coming into the country.
Before the last economic and financial global shocks, the veil of banking secrecy could be lifted only with prior approval of the accountholder, in case of bankruptcy; for the exchange of information between banks about indebted accounts; and in case of legal actions between a bank and a client or illicit enrichment.
Nowadays, banking secrecy does not apply to US citizens because of the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act (FATCA) that requires foreign banks to report American accountholders to the tax authority of the US. Even though Lebanon has not agreed to be FATCA compliant as a whole, individual Lebanon banks have agreed to comply.
Moreover, in 2016 Lebanon joined the Global Forum on Transparency and the Automatic Exchange of Information (AEOI) for tax purposes, committing to implement a series of regulatory reforms to better comply with the Common Reporting Standards of OECD.
Consequently, if the requested information is protected under the Banking Secrecy Law of 1956, the request will be forwarded to the Special Investigation Commission (SIC) at the Central Bank with an opinion from the Ministry of Finance for review before it can be disclosed to the foreign tax authority based on an information exchange agreement.
The regulatory framework and supervision of the banking sector is already in compliance with international standards, such as Basel I, II, and III. Abiding by these laws does not eliminate banking secrecy. New regulations just aim to provide a more effective tool to counter the fight against tax evasion and to track suspicious operations for money laundering purposes, or self-laundering, based on tax offenses.
According to the AEOI, starting from September 2018 Lebanese Tax Authority will exchange information automatically on non-residents, and will have access to information on residents who hold assets abroad. No issues for Lebanese residents.
The new legislation will impact: banks, brokers, trusts, fiduciaries, insurance companies, although only for a few products, and certain collective investment funds.
As part of the strategy to integrate Lebanon further into the international community and the global economy, corporate governance in banks is necessary to guarantee fairness, transparency and accountability.
It is mandatory for banks while optional for other companies. In fact, an innovation took place in the banking sector on July 26, 2006 when the Governor of the Lebanese Central Bank enacted the Basic Decision No. 9382 to order to comply with the banking rules instituted by the Basel Committee.
Account freedom and flexibility
Lebanese banks are known for being open to foreign investors and have branches worldwide. Foreign individuals or companies can easily open a bank account in Lebanon in any currency and benefit from all banking advantages offered to Lebanese citizens. Further, amounts deposited in Lebanon are exempt from taxes and the interest received is subject to a tax rate of 5-percent.
The author of this post is Claudia Caluori.