Lebanon’s finance minister says difficult to replace cenbank head Riad Salameh

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Lebanese Finance Minister Youssef Khalil said replacing central bank governor Riad Salameh, who has held the job for three decades, would be difficult and that his term may be extended though no consensus has yet been reached.

Salameh, who is being investigated by European and Lebanese prosecutors for alleged embezzlement of hundreds of millions of dollars in public funds, an accusation he denies, said last week he would not seek a new term. His latest six-year stint ends in July.

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“There is no consensus yet and in Lebanon, and especially in this political environment, making a big change like this is difficult. It’s very difficult,” Khalil told Reuters when asked whether discussions on a possible successor had begun.

“There may be a plan to extend the terms of all first-level public servants, not just Salameh, but there is not yet consensus on that,” he added on the sidelines of the World Government Summit in Dubai earlier this week.

Khalil also said a financing deal with the International Monetary Fund remained a priority, even if it was unpopular for some. “I’m not saying all Lebanese support this but it’s important for building trust and confidence and putting Lebanon on a recovery path,” he said.

Beirut signed a draft agreement with the IMF in April but has been slow to implement reforms required by the lender to access funding to relieve a three-year economic meltdown that has plunged a vast majority of the population into poverty.

Caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati said in November Lebanon could still finalize a deal for a $3 billion bailout despite having no president and no fully empowered parliament.

The government devalued the official exchange rate by 90 percent on Feb. 1 to 15,000 pounds to the US dollar for the first time in nearly three decades.

At the time of the devaluation, the pound’s value on the parallel market was just below 60,000 to the dollar. It has since rapidly declined to an all-time low of 80,000 per dollar, prompting protests, bank burnings and road closures on Thursday.

Khalil said he faced “serious resistance” when he tried to officially devalue the pound months back but the government still planned to unify the exchange rate and move to collect taxes and fees based on a rate closer to the parallel market.

He said parliament still intended to pass a capital controls law after years of delay as a way to protect banks from “very big” lawsuits and to retain foreign currency in the country.

Khalil said there was a “very low level of trust in the banking system”, adding: “So, the question is how do you bring this trust? And there the objective is the IMF.”

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