Wage hike can spark inflation, experts warn

BEIRUT: Enacting a wage hike for public sector employees would spur inflation if paid in full rather than in installments, economists told The Daily Star Monday.

“The increase in wages would surely lead to a hike in demand on commodities which, in turn, would result in an upward change in prices and cause inflation,” Economist Ghazi Wazneh warned.

But Wazneh said the level of inflation could be minimized if the salary scale was paid in installments over four years. “I [would advise] the government to pay the salary scale in installments over four years because a cash injection of LL2,765 billion ($1.843 billion) would certainly lead to great inflation,” he added.

“We will not be able to eliminate inflation but we can try to minimize it this way,” he said.

In the past couple of weeks Lebanon has witnessed a wave of protests by civil servants and teachers in public and private schools represented by the Union Coordination Committee aimed at putting pressure on lawmakers to approve a wage hike draft law.

The salary scale bill was approved last week by Parliament’s Joint Committees following a series of marathon sessions.

However, MPs failed to reach an agreement on when the wage hikes should come into effect, whether they should be calculated on a retroactive basis and if they should be paid in installments.

Lawmakers also remained divided over the extent of the increase in the value-added tax and on details of the raises for teachers, prompting Speaker Nabih Berri to postpone the debate and voting on the draft law until Tuesday.

The failure to reach a final agreement on the salary scale has also prompted the UCC to call upon all public sector employees to participate in the strike on the same day.

Head of the UCC Hanna Gharib said that the strike was designed to protect the salary scale and ward off attempts to pay it in installments.

But economists insist paying the wage hike in installments is necessary because it could help curb inflation.

“If the salary scale is paid in installments we would reach an inflation rate of 2 percent instead of 4 percent,” Wazneh said. “It is way too much to inject this great sum of money into the market since it constitutes around 3.5 percent of the GDP.”

Former Finance Minister Jihad Azour shared Wazneh’s views, saying the approval of the salary scale would cause an increase in prices in addition to triggering certain adjustments in the education fees, medical costs and rents for instance.

Azour explained that average public sector salaries became much higher than average private sector salaries for equivalent jobs. “This will put upward pressure on the salary scale in the private sector,” he said, adding that introducing other adjustments in the private sector salaries would push the economy into a vicious circle of increasing salaries and prices that would create stagflation.

“Our economy is already witnessing slow growth so if you add inflation to it, you will trigger stagflation,” he added.

Stagflation occurs when the economy isn’t growing but prices are.

However, Louis Hobeika, an Economics and Finance professor at Notre Dame University, argued that the approval of the wage hike will not spur inflation provided that Lebanese industries that are operating below capacity increase production to meet the forecast increase in demand.

He said Lebanese industries are producing below their potential due to the economic slowdown and could increase the supply of goods to balance any increase in demand and keep prices stable.

Hobeika added that the wage hike would finance itself since an increase in consumption would increase the state’s revenues from VAT.

He added that the approval of the salary scale should go in parallel with fighting corruption and improving the collection of taxes.

“We should not increase taxes but we should improve its collection,” he added.

Source: The Daily Star

Dubai stocks drop most in month on overdone rally

DUBAI: Dubai’s benchmark stock index fell the most in a month, tracking a decline in global markets last week, on investor concern that this year’s rally was overdone given prospects for earnings growth. Saudi Arabia’s gauge also dropped.

The DFM General Index tumbled 1.7 percent, the most since March 12, to close at 4,759.15 in the emirate. Dubai Islamic Bank PJSC, the United Arab Emirates’ biggest Shariah-compliant bank, declined for a third day. Emaar Properties PJSC, had its steepest drop in a month. Saudi Arabia’s Tadawul All Share Index fell 1 percent at 2:53 p.m. in Riyadh. Al Rajhi Bank plunged the most in 10 months as first-quarter profit trailed analysts’ estimates.

The Standard & Poor’s 500 Index and the Nasdaq Composite capped their worst week since 2012 on concern valuations had climbed too high as earnings season starts. Technology stocks led emerging market gauges to the biggest drops in three weeks after the U.S. threatened tougher sanctions against Russia over Ukraine. Dubai’s benchmark index trades at a price to estimated earnings ratio of 18.3 compared with 10.2 for the MSCI Emerging Markets Index, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

“Considering the decline of international equity markets, especially the U.S., last week and the strong rally in the UAE over the past two years, we do expect corrections,” Tariq Qaqish, a fund manager at Al-Mal Capital PSC, said. “Many of the positive catalysts are already priced in.”

Dubai Islamic Bank fell 2.9 percent to 6.31 dirhams. Emaar, which is planning an initial public offering of its malls business, declined 2.9 percent to 10.2 dirhams.

Shuaa Capital PSC, the investment bank controlled by Dubai’s ruler, surged as much as 5.3 percent after making a profit in the first quarter following three years of losses in the period. Gains from lending and investment banking helped the increase in earnings. It later retreated to close 0.6 percent higher at 1.72 dirhams.

Dubai-based Marka, which plans an entry into the UAE’s fashion and restaurant businesses, begins an initial public offering to raise 275 million dirhams ($75 million) Sunday.

Al-Rajhi Bank fell 3 percent to 72.5 riyals. Saudi Arabia’s biggest publicly traded lender said first-quarter net income fell 17 percent to 1.7 billion riyals ($453 million) versus estimates of 2.08 billion riyals, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

In Doha, Qatar National Bank SAQ, the country’s largest lender, dropped 1.7 percent, the most in a month. Petrochemicals maker Industries Qatar fell 1.5 percent, the largest decline in two weeks.

“The market had a good run the past couple of weeks so there is some profit-taking, especially given what is happening in the overall global markets,” Saugata Sarkar, head of research at Qatar National Bank Financial Services, said by phone from Doha Sunday. “Given that we have a MSCI upgrade happening, there is still some upside.”

Markets in Doha and the UAE will be added to the MSCI Emerging Markets Index in May from the frontier gauge.

Benchmarks in Abu Dhabi and Kuwait both lost 0.2 percent while Bahrain fell fell 0.1 percent. Oman advanced 0.2 percent. Qatar’s QE Index declined 1.4 percent.

Israel’s TA-25 Index declined 1 percent with 19 stocks falling. Strauss Group Ltd. shares fell 2 percent. The government may ease restrictions on food imports, Globes reported.

The yield on the government’s benchmark bonds due March 2023 fell two basis points, or 0.02 percentage point, to 3.15 percent.

Source: Bloomberg

Lebanese startup goes global

BEIRUT: Despite an underdeveloped telecommunication infrastructure compared to its regional peers, Lebanon has managed in the past few years to lay the foundations of a supportive environment for startups.

Entrepreneurs who a few years back struggled to secure funding to launch their businesses are today more likely to gain the backing of financial institutions.

The trend may gain further momentum now that a number of startups have managed to scale their operations and attract international buyers, says Herve Cuvilliez, a co-founder of Lebanese-based regional news platform Diwanee.

Diwanee, a digital media company that specializes in content creation targeting women in the Middle East, was recently acquired by French digital publishing company Webedia.

“The deal proves that international companies aren’t afraid to acquire a Lebanese-based or regional company, and I believe more deals will follow, which will encourage financial institutions to invest more in the ICT sector,” Cuvilliez says.

Cuvilliez didn’t disclose the financial terms of the deal but told The Daily Star that it was one of the biggest involving a startup from the Middle East.

According to a number of reports, Webedia made an investment of $12 to $15 million for a majority equity stake in Diwanee, which was valued around $25 million.

As part of the deal, Webedia also injected an additional $5 million in cash into Diwanee.

More important than the cash injection, according to Cuvilliez, is the technological dimension that Webedia is now helping Diwanee with.

“Online publishing is a business with a very large technological dimension, especially when it comes to new advertising techniques such as targeted and real time advertising,” Cuvilliez explains.

“We reached a point that requires us to develop our advertising techniques to be able to compete for advertisers with larger companies in the Middle East. There is no way that we could have made that investment alone on the regional level.”

Diwanee’s most recent round of funding prior to its acquisition by Webedia was a $3.25 million private placement last year by MedSecurities Investment, a BankMed subsidiary.

Diwanee has a predominantly female audience of over 5 million monthly visitors, with a portfolio of sites that includes such subjects as fashion, beauty, entertainment and ecommerce. Webedia attracts over 40 million monthly visitors to sites of the same category.

The similarities between the two companies allow them to share and co-develop the same technologies, Cuvilliez says. “An industrial partnership with Webedia makes sense from a financial point of view.”

Diwanee generates most of its revenue from advertising and branded content, with 70 percent of its visitors coming from GCC countries, while the remaining 30 percent are from the Levant, Egypt and other countries.

As a result of its acquisition by Webedia, Cuvilliez expects Diwanee to double the number of its monthly unique visitors in the next two to five years and increase its audience in Egypt and the Levant.

A short-term goal for Diwanee is also to begin monetizing in 2014 and 2015 its traffic originating from the Levant and Egypt and to grow its ecommerce platforms, which also generate a part of its revenue, Cuvilliez says.

A subscription-based model to generate profits is not on the menu in the short to medium term, Cuvilliez adds, arguing that offering paid content in the Middle East requires further growth in online payments and credit card penetration.

“Instead, we will be looking in the future into selling subscriptions to premium services within our websites,” he says.

Diwanee, which has offices in Dubai, Belgrade and Beirut, currently employs around 130 individuals, with the majority of its staff based in Lebanon. Following its acquisition by Webedia, Diwanee hired 15 more employees for its office in Beirut.

“Most of our websites content is generated in Beirut, whereas the technology operations are handled in Belgrade,” Cuvilliez says.

Despite the high Internet cost in Lebanon, Cuvilliez says the total cost of operating in Beirut is cheaper than other place, particularly when taking into account the country’s highly skilled workforce.

“It is true that we are paying much more for an Internet connection in Beirut than in Belgrade. But it is also true that it costs a lot more to hire people in Dubai than in Lebanon, which is a country rich in talent.”

Source: The Daily Star

MEA blames passenger fall on Syrian war

Lebanon’s Middle East Airlines said the war in Syria has wiped out a revival in tourist flows that had built since the end of the country’s own conflicts, with first-quarter passenger numbers down 7 percent.

MEA posted net income of $63 million last year, beating the 2012 figure of $61.5 million after a $14 million one-time gain from plane sales, Chairman Mohammad al-Hout said. Demand may drop further if tensions don’t ease, he added.

“We are surviving,” Hout said. “We keep cash, control cost and believe in the future. We’re expecting to continue to make a profit this year but not as big as the years before. We are not expecting growth in passengers.”

Founded in 1945, MEA was once one of the Arab world’s top airlines, with Pan-Am, British Airways precursor BOAC and Air France all holdings stakes. Beirut closed to traffic during the 1975-90 Civil War, with flights grounded again in 2006 amid Israeli strikes against Hezbollah. The Arab Spring crimped traffic to Lebanon from 2010 and was followed by the outbreak of the Syrian war, which led to rising violence in the country and the influx of more than 1 million refugees.

Tourism from the Gulf has been hit particularly hard after some countries imposed travel curbs, while plans for an initial public offering at MEA are in limbo because of the crisis, which would depress the value of any share issue, Hout said.

“It’s not the right time in this political situation,” he said. “If you want to sell something you don’t want to get 75 cents, you want to get what it’s worth.”

Earnings should reach about $60 million this year given some stabilization, the chairman said, with the carrier seeking to boost long-haul traffic by adding a second daily flight to London’s Heathrow airport from April 17 after buying a night slot from Cyprus Airways for 6.3 million euros ($9 million).

MEA will open a route to Khartoum, Sudan, this summer, with two flights a week, Hout said, and the chairman anticipates growth on its services to Iraq. It added Basra on March 30, having already operated to Baghdad, Erbil and Najaf.

Owned by the Central Bank, which rescued it from bankruptcy in 1996, MEA operates an all Airbus Group NV fleet of four A330 wide-bodies, two A321s and 11 A320s, it says on its website. The carrier has confirmed an order for 10 A320neos or A321neos for delivery in 2017, and may exercise an option for two more of the planes that year, the chairman said.

The carrier relies on code-shares in the SkyTeam alliance to provide long-haul links including 70 destinations in the Americas.

Source: Bloomberg

Beverage company launches women’s empowerment campaign

BEIRUT: Gilbert Ghostine’s pet project, Diageo’s CSR campaign to empower 2 million women by 2017, had never felt more personal than when the executive watched Lebanese women talk about the difference the program, “Plan W,” had on their lives.

“I feel very proud that we launched Plan W in my home country,” Ghostine, president of Diageo Asia Pacific, told The Daily Star. “This project is my baby.”

Diageo is the enormous alcoholic beverage company selling household names such as Smirnoff, Johnny Walker and Tanquery. With Ghostine at the helm of Diageo’s operations in Asia, Plan W was conceived in 2012 as a corporate social responsibility initiative worth $10 million. Plan W’s launch in Lebanon this spring means the project has now reached 13 countries, and by the end of this year, 900 Lebanese women will have received entrepreneurship training classes as part of Diageo’s initiative.

Plan W seeks to empower women through learning, particularly in the field of entrepreneurship. The project in Lebanon focuses on three main subject areas: communication, accounting and leadership, skills necessary for success, Ghostine said.

Diageo has teamed up with 18 NGOs across the13 Asian countries with Plan W programs.

Local NGO Association D’Entraide Professional is spearheading the work in Lebanon, attracting women to the program, vetting their applications and helping the beneficiaries with microfinance after the program is complete, Ghostine said.

Lebanon’s program targets women living outside the capital and mainly in rural areas. Plan W began with the region of Zahle, where more than 170 women have received training to launch or better their small-scale business plans. Two of the women from this pilot program recently spoke at a news conference about their experiences.

“I felt very emotionally touched by their stories,” Ghostine said.

One of the women, he explained, came to the program hoping to open a small shop where she could sell her homemade preserves and other products. “But she didn’t know how to make a profit,” Ghostine said. For her, the classes on accounting were invaluable, she told the audience.

The project in Lebanon has also revealed areas where small business owners need practical training. Another woman at the news conference lamented that her children were computer savvy but she did not have the tools to learn herself. Ghostine said they were considering how they could incorporate computer courses into the local programs.

Batroun will be the next targeted area, and projects will continue all over the country.

Plan W takes a different approach depending on the socio-economic climate of the country. For example, in Nepal the program targets women in the lowest caste of society, a section of people called “untouchables,” and the most impoverished. Here, however, Plan W leaves the program open to all Lebanese women.

“It’s open to any woman who is Lebanese … here, you can’t put filters,” Ghostine said.

Ghostine takes personal pride in the project because he had been inspired to create it with his team after he met with Burmese political figure Aung San Sun Kyi at the Bangkok World Economic Forum.

The first program was implemented in 2012 and now counts 40,000 women among its beneficiaries. Ghostine explained that helping women was part of the company’s DNA. Forty-four percent of Diageo’s corporate board are women, and Plan W is just one of a number of projects by the company targeting women’s empowerment.

This year Diageo inaugurated its WE Journalism awards, which honor those in media who’ve fought for women’s empowerment. Diageo is also the only alcoholic beverage company to sign the U.N. Women’s Empowerment Principles.

Ghostine said he hoped the project would spur others like it in Lebanon: “This is a great cause and we’re rallying people. … We’re creating a momentum.”

Source: The Daily Star

Spectrum begins next phase of onshore survey

BEIRUT: The second phase of the onshore oil survey has started in Lebanon, heartened by the encouraging results in first stage, an official with the company carrying out the work said Thursday.

“The extracted data in the first phase was promising and is subject of interest for the international oil companies. The company will hand over the final report of the first phase to the [Energy] Ministry this month,” said David Rowlands, vice president for the Middle East at Britain-based Spectrum.

Spectrum conducted an onshore survey in the Batroun region last year but no official statement on the finding has been released yet.

Rowlands was speaking at a symposium held Thurday at Le Royal Hotel to explain the second phase of the 2-D seismic onshore survey. The company gave a presentation covering the areas that would be surveyed in the second phase.

Energy and Water Minister Arthur Nazarian said that the second phase would cover the entire Lebanese coast.

“The second phase of the seismic survey of the entire coast will give us a picture about the prospects of hydrocarbon material on the Lebanese soil before starting the exploration on the ground,” the minister explained.

He said local authorities in these areas as well as the NGOs would cooperate with the company and the ministry to facilitate their work.

Spectrum said that it would compensate municipalities and property owners if any damages result from the operations.

Source: The Daily Star

Beverage makers thirsty for bigger profits

BEIRUT: While some large beverage factories in Lebanon witnessed a remarkable drop in business due to the economic slowdown and tense political situation, others with less expensive products have succeeded in boosting their sales.

“We have been able to increase our sales in the past year because our products are not expensive compared to other beverages,” said Gaya Delgopiatof, Brand Manager at Darina, a Lebanese producer of powdered juice who spoke on the sidelines of the HORECA 2014 trade fair held at the Beirut International Events and Leisure Center.

“The flow of Syrians to Lebanon has also helped increase our sales, particularly in the Bekaa Valley area because refugees always look for more affordable products due to their difficult financial situation,” she added.

According to the U.N. refugee agency, the number of Syrians registered as refugees in Lebanon after fleeing war in their country has surpassed 1 million, and most of them live in poverty and depend on aid for survival.

Refugees have been given vouchers by domestic and international organizations to help them buy the products they need to survive.

“Most of the Syrian refugees in Lebanon are receiving food vouchers to help them in buying their basic needs,” said Samer al-Hachem, Co-Owner of Aruba, another manufacturer of powdered juice, adding that this had helped him grow his sales.

“Syrians are familiar with powdered juices, and they are used to it,” he said. “We have been doing really well in this area.”

For Hachem, the market for powdered juice is growing in Lebanon because the general public’s purchasing power has dropped in the past few years.

“We sell one liter of our drink for LL250, which is affordable to everyone everywhere,” he said.

But Hachem admitted that even the most successful beverage factories had not been spared by the economic recession in Lebanon.

“We are suffering from a cash flow problem in the Lebanese market,” Hachem said.

“Our clients used to pay their dues on time but now payments are being postponed from 30 to 60 and 90 days sometimes,” he said.

Hachem added that money collection was a big issue in the market today because industrialists were lending the market funds that would normally be used to manufacture more products.

In addition to cash-flow problems, other factories are suffering from the low confidence in Lebanese products.

“Some people prefer to buy foreign products because they do not trust the quality of locally produced items,” Delgopiatof said. “People should trust the local production more because they are very good quality,” Hachem added.

As opposed to Darina and Aruba, many of the factories that produce affordable drinks have reported losses in the past year.

“Our sales dropped by around 60 percent in the past year because at some moments we were unable to deliver our products to areas with security issues, such as the southern suburbs [of Beirut] and Tripoli,” said a representative of Yamama, a factory specializing in the production of juice syrup.

He explained that the company’s juice syrup costs LL3,500 per liter but that when water was added, the quantity increased by much more than one liter.

“The quantity that we offer for this price is reasonable, and our product is not considered to be expensive at all but the deteriorating political and security situation has affected us significantly” he said.

He added that when his products did not reach the client on time, they were replaced by other brands.

Some businesses that have suffered from the events in Lebanon and next door in Syria have tried to make up for the economic slowdown by exporting their products and entering new markets.

“We cannot rely only on the Lebanese market to cover our costs and increase our turnover,” Hachem said. “This is why we rely more on exporting our products to maintain our cash flow.”

Hachem said that his capital was more secure when he exported products because he was paid on time and through financial institutions.

Darina is also trying to expand to other markets in order to make up for the drop in local sales.

“We have been successfully exporting to Jordan for some time and we are entering new markets such as Africa in the near future,” Delgopiatof said.

Likewise, Kassatly, a producer of natural condiments, syrups and spirits, has also reported a 60 percent drop in its sales.

“The public’s purchasing power has decreased over the past several years, and this is why they no longer want high-quality products,” said Robert Kassatly, general manager of the company.

He attributed their sales drop to the security problems in areas such as the northern city of Tripoli and the Bekaa Valley.

“It is tough to deliver your products to such areas on a constant basis. This is why we are relying more and more on exports for our survival,” Kassatly said.

Source: The Daily Star

Bemo group announces $46M in private placements

BEIRUT: Bemo Securitization SAL and Bemo Saudi Fransi Finance closed two private placements of debt for Sakson Group, for $21 million and $25 million respectively.

“In this deal, the Bemo Group team managed to deliver the financing in a very short period of time, hence allowing our client to successfully acquire the rigs in the timeline dictated by the tenders,” BSEC General Manager Ronald Yazbeck said in a statement Friday. “We are proud to have set our flag in two new geographies, and we hope many other countries will follow.”

The placement, which was completed on March 16, was announced Friday. BSEC and BSFF acted as joint arrangers and placement agents on the two transactions, which were placed with three Lebanese lenders.

The proceeds of the two offerings will be used by the Egypt-based Sakson Group to purchase two new 2000 HP land drilling rigs to be deployed in Algeria and Kurdistan on multiyear contracts with two of the leading oil and gas multinationals in the world.

Established in 2006, Sakson Group is a regional provider of petroleum services with operations in Iraq, Algeria, Egypt, Kenya, Turkmenistan and Ethiopia among others. The group offers an integrated bundle of services in drilling, coiled tubing, reservoir stimulation services and pipeline process services as well as the supply of oil field products.

With this expansion, Sakson Group will be operating 10 drilling rigs deployed throughout the Middle East, Africa and Central Asia.

Source: The Daily Star

Staff compensation holding back Standard Chartered sale

BEIRUT: All hurdles except one have been cleared in the pending acquisition of Standard Chartered’s retail operations in Lebanon by Cedrus Invest Bank, a source involved in the negotiations told The Daily Star Friday.

Over three months of negotiations, the two companies have managed to settle terms on price, taxes and hundreds of technical issues, but the fate of Standard Chartered’s employees remains an issue of contention holding back a final deal.

Standard Chartered is negotiating with their staff on the proper compensation scheme once the retail business is sold to Cedrus,” the source said. “But these talks have lasted longer than expected.”

He added that according to the agreement, it was up to Standard Chartered to compensate any employees who do not want to be part of Cedrus.

London-based Standard Chartered has 100 employees in Lebanon.

Cedrus has expressed interest in keeping some of the Standard Chartered employees, while the rest are to receive a compensation package from London.

The source declined to predict when the talks between Cedrus and Standard would be concluded but stressed that the most difficult parts had been resolved.

Cedrus, which is mainly specialized in management of funds and wealth, is keen to expand its business to commercial banking.

Standard Chartered has decided to sell its retail operations in Lebanon as part of efforts to pull back from emerging markets.

The bank has three branches and a license to open two more. Standard Chartered will keep a representative office in Beirut once the sale of the retail business is complete.

Both sides have refrained from giving details about the talks but sources estimated the deal at around $24 million-$27 million.

Central Bank governor Riad Salameh told The Daily Star earlier that he had no objection to an investment bank acquiring a commercial bank in Lebanon.

The Central Bank must approve any bank merger or acquisition before the concerned parties sign an agreement.

Source: The Daily Star

Hajj Hasan: Trade deficit must be reduced, by any means

BEIRUT: Industry Minister Hussein Hajj Hasan said Thursday that Lebanon must reduce its trade deficit, even if doing so requires adopting protectionist policies.

“This method is followed by all countries. The GDP is less than $50 billion. Is it fair to have a five-year trade deficit that is equal to the GDP for one year? How can we build a healthy economy if we continue this path?” Hajj Hasan said.

“If at some point we’re compelled to place protectionist tariffs, then we will do it to preserve our productive institutions and competition capabilities.”

Lebanon’s trade deficit widened by 2.525 percent in 2013 compared with 2012, as exports fell by more than $480 million, according to the Customs Department.

“I have informed the ambassadors I have met with that the ministry will preserve the country’s industry with the continuation of imports. But we should strive in the foreseeable future to increase exports by $1 billion to $2 billion and reduce imports by the same amount,” the minister told industrialists and officials at the HORECA exhibition at BEIL.

Hajj Hasan called on officials to raise these issues during the trade talks with other countries in order to protect the national industries.

The minister called on the agro-food industries to abide by all international standards, warning that he would not tolerate any violations or slackness.

Source: The Daily Star

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