Lebanon Likely to Default on $1.2B Loan

BEIRUT (AP) -- Lebanon appears to be heading toward its first-ever default on paying back Eurobonds as the country struggles with its worst economic and financial crisis in decades, a top Lebanese official said Saturday.

The $1.2 billion Eurobond payment is set to mature on Monday.

Prime Minister Hassan Diab was scheduled to make an official announcement about the Eurobond payment's fate in a televised speech Saturday.

Key members of the political and banking elite in the tiny Mediterranean country said they were "unanimously stand by the government in any decision it takes in managing the debt with the exception of paying back maturing debts."

That's according to the director-general of Lebanon's presidency, Antoine Choucair. He briefed reporters after a meeting attended by the president, prime minister, parliament speaker, central bank governor, the head of the banking association and financial experts.

Choucair's comments were the clearest indication that the government appears to have decided to default for the first time in Lebanon's history. Defaulting on the bonds will probably have negative repercussions in Lebanon, as international agencies are likely to further downgrade Lebanon's credit ratings.

Lebanon has a massive debt of $87 billion which stands at more than 150% percent of the country's GDP, making it one of the highest in the world. Lebanon's financial crisis erupted last year, but the country has been suffering in recent years from a lack of economic growth, high unemployment and a drop in hard currency inflows from abroad.

Opinions in Lebanon are split on whether to pay or not. Local banks, who are a main lender to the state, say the bonds should be paid on time to protect the country's reputation. Others say the Central Bank's dwindling foreign currency reserves should be saved to import wheat, fuel and medicine in the coming months.

President Michel Aoun headed a Cabinet meeting later Saturday.

(KR)