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Lebanon central bank chief got it right

Riad Toufic Salame bucked pressure in 2005 and kept Lebanese banks from investing in mortgage-backed securities. Now the sector is prospering amid the global downturn.

February 21, 2009|Borzou Daragahi

BEIRUT — Throughout history, men braved the odds to perform great feats. Outmatched generals snatched victory from the jaws of defeat. Titans of industry gambled on bold innovations to reap jackpots. Athletes tested the limits of human endurance in quests for glory.

Riad Toufic Salame, the governor of Lebanon's central bank, is not one of those men.

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 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."

Most outsiders associate Lebanon with one of two extremes: machine-gun-wielding militants in fatigues firing weapons into the air or scantily clad 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, who is Lebanon's equivalent of the Federal Reserve chairman, exemplifies such geeks. 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 pricey Cuban cigars he pulls out of a wooden humidor in his spacious office. Unlike most 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 windbag politicians prone to soaring oratory, Salame favors mundane 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 today.

That meant tightening regulations and banking requirements so much that 35 banks were driven out of business. They just couldn't meet Salame's conservative balance-sheet requirements, including a rule that bars banks from lending more than 70% of deposits.

It meant changing transparency rules to do away with Lebanon's reputation as a money-laundering hub.

And it meant resisting 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 such safe assessments of their products. He didn't get it. Why were these considered safe investments? They were just too complicated. They went against a major tradition in Lebanese and Middle Eastern banking: Know to whom you're fronting 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."

He felt vindicated when he received a call from abroad last year after the collapse of Lehman Bros. It was 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.' "

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daragahi@latimes.com

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