Lebanese anti-government protesters work on constructing a sculpture of a Phoenix, set in the centre of the capital Beirut's Martyrs' Square near the Martyrs' State next to a giant sign of a fist with the slogan "revolution" on November 28, 2019, with the sculpture designed by Lebanese artist and activist Hayat Nazir made from the remains of tents destroyed by supporters the Shiite movements Hezbollah and Amal. Picture: JOSEPH EID / AFP
Lebanese anti-government protesters work on constructing a sculpture of a Phoenix, set in the centre of the capital Beirut's Martyrs' Square near the Martyrs' State next to a giant sign of a fist with the slogan "revolution" on November 28, 2019, with the sculpture designed by Lebanese artist and activist Hayat Nazir made from the remains of tents destroyed by supporters the Shiite movements Hezbollah and Amal. Picture: JOSEPH EID / AFP

Beirut — Lebanon repaid a $1.5bn eurobond on Thursday, an official with knowledge of the matter said, buying the country time as speculation swirls over its ability to avoid a default during a political and economic crisis.

The finance ministry issued payment instructions to the central bank, also known as Banque du Liban, the official said on condition of anonymity. The next bond payment is scheduled for March, when a $1.2bn Eurobond comes due.

Lebanon has never defaulted on its obligations despite struggling under one of the world’s biggest debt burdens, and the central bank had repeatedly said it would cover the $1.5bn bond. But weeks of nationwide protests that ousted the government saw credit risk surge and investor confidence slump.

The yield on the March 2020 bond rose as high as 105% last week from a mere 13% on October 17, when the demonstrations kicked off. Higher yields, and November’s record costs for insuring government debt, reflect concern the government may have to restructure sooner or later.

Foreign bondholders are estimated to hold $500m of the repaid Eurobond, while the central bank has $600m and the rest is most likely held by local banks, according to a Bank of America Merrill Lynch research note this week.

Day of reckoning

Lebanon is nearing its day of reckoning after years of overspending, borrowing and political paralysis, coupled with the crisis in neighbouring Syria that sent more than 1.5-million refugees into the tiny country.

With a current-account deficit of over 25% of its GDP, weak growth and debt that’s reached 155% of the economy, the central bank tried to maintain financial stability throughout the years and carried out what it called financial engineering. The operation was meant to shore up reserves and raise the capital of local banks, the country’s largest debt holders.

The protests were sparked by a government levy on phone calls such as those using the free WhatsApp service along with other tax measures. The demonstrations quickly turned against a ruling class accused of corruption. Prime Minister Saad Hariri resigned and politicians have been unable to agree on a new name to lead the next government.

The central bank began rationing dollars even before the unrest ignited, pushing up demand for the foreign currency and causing the Lebanese pound to plummet on the black market. The move has stymied trade and imports in a country that’s almost entirely reliant on foreign goods.

The central bank has said that it would supply dollars to the importers of fuel, wheat and pharmaceuticals and earlier this week added medical equipment to that list of essential goods.

Bloomberg