Thursday, June 7, 2018

So what is the best bank in Lebanon?

Artwork by Tarek Chemaly based on vintage Monopoly card
Since 2003 I have had the same formula for my blocked bank account, and for someone who - among other topics - majored in economics, I never asked the specifics of it. I just knew the money was there, blocked, yielding a marginally acceptable interest. My original bank got swallowed by another bank (anyone with minimal financial knowledge about Lebanon might know which two banks am speaking of), and despite the account migrating I was still not in financial need to ask specifics - again, the account was there, so why bother stir the pot.
Then Premier Hariri resigned and unresigned and suddenly my account starting yielding much more interest. Try as I might to extract the reason after several attempts, it was explained by to me the upteenth person that the bank has risen its interest rate.
Now my financial curiosity had risen. How can I passively make my money grow especially that the consultant business seemed in a rut with the market being so bad?
Hence me shopping for a (new) bank.
Like anyone else my first foray was online. Mind you I have had banking clients before, and so I was not too surprised to find eloquently written words which intrinsically were hollow or borderline vague. A bank even had a page entitled "interest rates" where no rate was mentioned at all.
So the online expedition proved totally futile, so - believe it or not - I fished for phone numbers of bank headquarters and tried to find the people in charge of answers. At this stage half a dozen banks have my number and all of them are supposed to call back - but that was days ago so the waiting for them is like waiting for Godot.
Realizing I am at a dead end, I started sending feelers through my network - and lo and behold - everyone knew someone who could get me a good deal, and answers that proved futile over net and phone started trickling at embarrassing speed including names and references. Suddenly, I had options and this called for a meeting with my financial adviser who thankfully doubles as a friend (otherwise would not be able to afford his consulting fees).
His first option was an account in Luxembourg but that required a million Dollars which I did not have (yet!) which made him switch to local options. Again, I gave him the liberty of well-defined brief, and he knew exactly what I wanted from the process and was kind enough to give me a lecture on the pros and cons which I had already knew via my economics classes.
We both agreed that at this stage, investing in the Lebanese Lira (which a bank was giving maddening interest for!) was not economically advisable, so we zeroed in on another offer - which required X amount of money. But no matter how I stretched my blocked account, it only got to 0.95X. Under normal circumstances, the bank would not offer the package to me. A phone call later to the CEO I was eligible for it, thanks to the direct interference of my adviser and his connections.
It is not uncommon for two people to have totally divergent experiences for the same bank. My fondest memory of my original bank which got swallowed was when I had to take my full deposit to pay for a real estate in cash, the head of the branch told me that I would be bankrupt and that the would take it upon himself to mark my withdrawal after the interest gets due but still allow me to have my cheque the same day so as for me to have something in my balance and keep going financially.
In the end, there does not seem to be a "best bank" in Lebanon, but rather, a "best banker".