[This article was originally published in An-Nahar on December 31, 2019]
Let’s say a certain hugely successful Lebanese automotive executive ran into legal troubles in a country which has an usually convoluted judicial system, which tends towards “guilty until proven innocent.” Staying back to fight and salvage his international reputation and legacy entails wasting a chunk of valuable years from his life expectancy at 65, with no guarantee of exoneration in the seemingly rigged Japanese system. After weighing the pros and cons, he makes a fateful, controversial decision to skip bail and hightail it out of Dodge. He lands in Beirut, where he has a big, fat bank account, protected by Lebanese secrecy laws, unmatched anywhere in the world. Bank accounts in other countries might be in a precarious position because of a potential Interpol warrant. But he doesn’t care — he’s got a lot of cash stashed in his country of birth. He’s happy, even though he holds several passports. Finally, his Lebanese citizenship will come in handy, after years of neglect, allowing him to live out the rest of his days in luxury and where people with legal troubles routinely end up as ministers or political leaders. He might even consider that later.
But first things first.
After a few nights of rest and catching up with friends and family, and popping expensive champagne bottles, he goes down to his bank to withdraw some money. They always treated him like royalty there, ushering him straight to the manager’s office, where they serve him shitty Turkish coffee that he never liked. He asks them to withdraw a small amount, $50,000 in “walking around” money from his multi-million dollar account, which has grown handsomely over the years, because of unbeatable interest rates, produced by Lebanese banking geniuses.
Cash is good and not traceable like credit card transactions, which the Koanchosa-cho (Japanese Intelligence Service) would undoubtedly track. However, the senior banker opens with:
“Welcome, sir. It’s an honor to meet you. We’re very sorry, but we’re only allowed to give $200 per week, but you’re an esteemed customer. You can have $2000 to start, but don’t get used to it.”
“WHAT! WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU TALKING ABOUT?!!”
He calls his lawyer, who’s considered one of the top legal minds in the country, but he mainly likes him because he has a beautiful first name.
“What’s all this bullsh*t about a quota for taking out my own damn money? Someone sent me an article by this guy Dan Azzizzi or Azzouzzi or Something, saying that there will be a haircut on deposits. Is this guy legit?”
“I met Dan, and he’s an assh***. Can you believe he shows up at my favorite restaurant, Balthus, dressed like a slob, while everyone is dressed in impeccable suits …”
“Stop gibbering about fashion and tell me about my money. Is what this guy is saying true?”
“Look, he might be on to something, but don’t worry. They won’t allow Lebanon to fall. The Americans will send us a lot of money and then we can go back to living the old way. It’s just temporary.”
“OK, thank you for your geopolitical analysis. Now tell me how the hell I can liberate my money from the account … just in case the American Sixth Fleet doesn’t come to the rescue like you’re predicting. Surely my being a board member of a bank would help me.”
“Look, I hate to break it to you, but I can’t imagine they’d be able to keep you on the board, even here in Lebanon, but let me put you in touch with some people who specialize in this type of thing.”
He’s meticulous, using the same skillset that propelled him to the top of the automotive world where he turned around Renault-Nissan and ended up a hero in Japanese comics. So he starts reading and doing some research. He soon learns about new unique Lebanese concepts. The old concepts were “Lebanon is different” and “Lebanon bends but doesn’t break” … and Lebanese resilience. Oh, resilience. Always resilience. It’s in all the marketing brochures. This time the Lebanese concepts are different, annoying, and full of doublespeak. He learns what a Haircut is, about Lollar, Capital Controls (without Capital Controls), and devaluation of the Lira (without devaluation).
He then discovers a new concept called “Haircut Trading.” People buying imprisoned Lollar accounts for a discount of around 30%, for cash in the country or an overseas account. He’s smart enough to understand that the guy buying it is doing it to pay off a loan in Lebanon or to get a discount on a house he’s always fancied. Makes sense. That must mean the probability of the eventual haircut is larger. He considers doing it, but can’t risk getting the money as a transfer outside the country — not before he solves his Samurai problems — no bank will accept it, and if it does, he risks it being frozen by the authorities. It has to be cash. How the hell will they give him millions of dollars in cash for his account? That’s the real Lebanese resilience. Might make sense to pay it. Last thing he needs is to get stuck here without money. It would be like house imprisonment but in a bigger area. In fact, being stuck in Lebanon without money is worse than a Japanese prison.
For second, he wonders to himself, is it better to be imprisoned in Japan with free cash or free in Lebanon with improvised cash?