Iceland–An Independent People

April 20, 2011 at 2:49 pm | Posted in democracy, Free Trade, International Relations, Labor, Political Economy, World Politics | 2 Comments
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In the midst of the NATO campaign against Libya and the budget deal between Republicans and the Democrats in the US, a far more historically significant event appears to have fallen off the radar. On April 9, 2011, the people of Iceland voted for the second time to reject a government proposal for Iceland taxpayers to repay some €4 billion to the governments of Britain and the Netherlands which had compensated their domestic depositors in the collapsed online bank, Icesave. Initially, the British and Dutch governments had pressured the Iceland government to agree to repay them over fifteen years at a 5.5 percent annual interest–which was estimated to cost each household in the tiny island nation about €45,000 over the period. This was rejected by 91 percent of the voters in a referendum in March 2010. After subsequent negotiations, London and Amesterdam agreed to lower the interest to 3.2 percent and stretch the repayment period to 30 years between 2016 and 2046. The deal was accepted by a large majority of 44 in favor and 16 opposed in the Althingi, Iceland’s parliament, which also rejected a clause to submit the bill to another referendum. Nevertheless, as the President, Olafur Ragnar Grimsson, refused to sign the bill, it was automatically subject to a referendum wherein it was rejected by almost 60 percent of the voters.

Iceland

The Dutch and British governments–which had used anti-terrorist legislation to seize assets of the failed Icelandic banks–have threatened to scupper Iceland’s application to join the European Union and to take the island nation to court. Reykjavik has insisted that the two governments would get most of their money back and the assets of the Landsbanki bank which set up the Icesave operation would be sold and was expected to realize 90 percent of the Icesave debt. What was at issue in the referendum was not whether London and Amsterdam would be compensated or not–but whether private citizens should be expected to shoulder the burden of repayment of a bank’s debt in which they had no hand in incurring and from which they did not benefit. The threat to take Iceland to court is important because it is to frighten off other states which also face indebtedness due to the financial crisis like Greece, Ireland, and Portugal. It is simply the question of whether the bankers have to bear the burden of the bad loans they have extended.

Iceland is, in fact, a case study of neo-liberalism gone awry. Before the late 1990s, Iceland’s financial sector had been small and the banks were largely government-owned. In 1998, the two leading parties–the Independence Party and the Centre Party–embarked on a privatization of the banking sector, assigning Landsbanki to grandees of the Independence Party and Kaupthing to the Centre Party. A new private bank, Glitnir, was also set up merging several smaller banks. None of these banks had much experience in international finance, but like South Korean banks a decade earlier, these banks tapped into abundant cheap credit and easy capital mobility. Unlike the South Korean banks, their strong ties to political parties, the merger of commercial and investment banking, and low soveriegn debt meant that they got extremely high grades from the credit ratings agencies and as Robert Wade and Silla Sigurgeirsdottir note: “government policy was now subordinated to their ends.”

With the government relaxing mortgage rules to permit loans up to 90 percent of value, the banks rode the wave–by buying shares in each other they inflated share prices and enticed depositors to shift their savings to shares. In less than 10 years after the privatization of banks, Iceland had the fifth highest GDP in the world, 60 percent higher than that of the United States, and the assets of their banks was valued at 800 percent of Iceland’s GDP. As land prices soared, Icelanders loaded up on lower-interest yen- or Swiss-franc debt.

IcelandBankLending

By 2006, Iceland’s current account deficit had soared to 20 percent of its GDP. Late in that year, Landsbanki established an online bank, Icesave, to attract deposits from overseas clients and by offering highly attractive interest rates, it raked in millions of pounds from England, and later millions of euros especially from the Netherlands. This was soon copied by the two other banks. These were established as ‘branches’ rather than as ‘subsidiaries‘ which meant that they were to be supervised by the icelandic Central Bank rather than regulators in Britain or the Netherlands. Because of Iceland’s obligations as a member of the European Economic Area to insure bank deposits, no one thought to worry about whether the Icelandic Central Bank had the capacity to oversee the vastly extended operations of the island’s three major banks.

Macdonalds

This happy bubble burst in September 2008 when Lehman Brothers collapsed, within a fortnight of which the three big Icelandic banks collapsed and by November of that year the krona had fallen from its pre-crisis level of 70 to the euro to 190 to the euro, so sharply cutting the islanders’ purchasing power that the three McDonald’s franchises were forced to close as the cost of importing ingredients made the price of burgers prohibitive! The country’s stock market lost 98 percent of its value! If ever there was a definition of crisis, this was it. It was the first time in over 30 years that a ‘developed’ state had to seek assistance from the International Monetary Fund.

Steve Bell cartoon 001

In the light of all this, Iceland’s voters have had the courage to face up to the crisis. It was the first country to kick out the government which had failed so spectacularly. Unlike its neighbor in the North Atlantic–Ireland which underwrote its own banking collapse and loader every household with €80,000 in debt–Iceland let the three banks go under and they imposed capital controls to prevent the flight of capital. Though unemployment in Iceland today is 7.5 percent in Iceland–up from 2 percent in 2002–but just over half of Ireland’s 13.6 percent. Though the krona lost almost half its value, inflation is down sharply and without having to pay back foreign creditors, its government finances are in much better shape than those of Greece, Ireland, or Portugal.

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  1. If this law suit takes place and is sucessful then the precedent is set that it is unlawful for any state to refuse to bail out a private business (no matter how obviously high risk a service it was offering) which has outstanding contracts with foreign clients.

    Absolutely absurd, take the money from the banks, hands of Iceland.

    • I agree of course with the sentiment but don’t think it is as bad as suggested by the press. For one thing, estimates that the sale of Landsbanki’s assets will cover 90 percent of the amount demanded by the Dutch and British governments indicate that the actual costs will be significantly lower. For another, this comes under the jurisdiction of the European Economic Area which means (a) the precedent if one is set will have limited validity; and (b) given Germany’s insistence that the bankers also share in the pain, nothing too adverse is going to be implemented…or so let us hope!


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