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Hezbollah role in Syria drives up Lebanon risk

  • FILE - A Hezbollah flag flutters during a ceremony in southern Lebanon. (The Daily Star/Mohammed Zaatari, File)

Lebanon’s investor risk surged to the highest level in 10 months amid concern that sectarian violence in the most indebted Arab country may escalate after Hezbollah openly joined the war in neighboring Syria. The yield premium investors demand to hold Lebanon’s $34 billion of dollar debt over U.S. Treasurys climbed 33 basis points in the past four weeks to 464 on June 11, the highest since September, after the group sent fighters to support the Syrian government, JP Morgan Chase & Co. data show. The cost of insuring Lebanon’s debt against default rose 31 basis points this month to 471, compared with 305 basis points for Hungary, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

Hezbollah’s military backing of President Bashar Assad against the mainly Sunni rebels risks turning sporadic clashes between Islam’s two main sects in Lebanon into a civil war as early as next year, according to research firm IHS. While violence has been largely confined to the north, rockets slammed into Hezbollah’s stronghold in southern Beirut last month for the first time since Syria’s uprising started in 2011.

“Hezbollah’s support for the Assad regime is the single biggest risk factor for Lebanese credit, the economy and social stability,” Raza Agha, London-based chief Middle East and Africa

The yield on Lebanon’s $2.1 billion bonds due April 2021 jumped 25 basis points, or 0.25 percentage point, last week, the biggest weekly increase since July last year, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. It fell two basis points Thursday to 6.74 percent.

Hezbollah’s leader Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah has justified supporting pro-Assad forces as a necessary step “to protect the back” of the group, which fought a monthlong war with Israel in 2006 and receives weapons through Syrian territories.

In response, the Sunni-ruled Gulf Arab states, which include Saudi Arabia and Qatar labeled Hezbollah as a terrorist organization. The action followed a warning to their citizens, who account 60 percent of tourism revenue during peak summer months in Lebanon, against traveling to the Arab country.

Tourism Minister Fadi Abboud said on May 29 that the industry, Lebanon’s main hard-currency earner, had already dropped 13 percent this year. Economic growth, which averaged 8 percent a year between 2007 and 2010, won’t exceed 2 percent this year, Finance Minister Mohammad Safadi said.

“There is a general wait-and-see approach by investors regarding the prevailing political uncertainty that has increased recently,” said Nassib Ghobril, chief economist at Beirut-based Byblos Bank SAL.

Lebanon’s credit default swaps have increased over the last four weeks, making them the second-riskiest credit in the region after Egypt, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. Lebanon is rated B at Standard & Poor’s, the fifth-highest junk grade and two levels above Egypt.

To be sure, not all reasons for Lebanon’s higher borrowing costs are political. “There has been a significant supply of Eurobonds in the market recently” that helped drive yields up, Ghobril said. The government sold $600 million in bonds due 2023 and $500 million in securities maturing in 2027 in April. Lebanon has the equivalent of $18 billion in debt due this year and next.

The performance is also affected by concern among investors that the U.S. Federal Reserve may cut its bond purchases amid signs that the world’s biggest economy is recovering.

“Most of emerging-market yields, be it local or external, have gone up,” Jean-Dominique Butikofer, who helps manage over $2.5 billion of emerging-market debt at Union Bancaire Privee in Zurich, said by phone June 11. “The liquidity provided by banks in this risk-off environment is not that ample. Noninvestment grades debt has for once also underperformed across the board.”

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on June 14, 2013, on page 5.
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