The tragedy of Iceland

| November 16, 2008

My co-blogger, Bruce Henderson, has spent two years now warning about the stupidities of our domestic (US) economy, based in large part on his nation-wide gathering and analysis of real-estate data on a daily basis. Unfortunately for all of us, he turned out to be pretty much dead on, and we’ve got a major recession staring us in the face, compounded by the lurching about by the US Treasury Secretary. It’s not going to be pretty for the next year or two.

However bad we may have it here in the US, however, it doesn’t begin to compare with what Iceland is facing. There, a set of high-flying (figuratively and literally) financial leaders have bankrupted an entire nation.

Here’s a lengthy discussion in the Financial Times that makes for sobering reading:

Picture a pig trying to balance on a mouse’s back and you’ll get some idea of the scale of the problem. In a mere seven years since bank deregulation and privatisation, Iceland’s financial institutions had managed to rack up $75bn of foreign debt. In his address to the nation, Haarde put the problem in perspective by referring to the $700bn financial rescue package in America: “The huge measures introduced by the US authorities to rescue their banking system represent just under 5 per cent of the US GDP. The total economic debt of the Icelandic banks, however, is many times the GDP of Iceland.”

And here is the nub. Iceland’s banks borrowed more than $250,000 for every man, woman and child in Iceland, and placed an impossible burden on the modest reserves of the central bank in the event of default. And default they have.

Voices of caution – there were many in Iceland – were drowned out by a media that became fixated on the nation’s emergence from drab pupa to gaudy butterfly. Yet, Icelanders’ opinions were divided. For some, the success of their Viking Raiders, buying up the British high street, one even acquiring that most treasured bauble of all, a Premier League football club, marked the arrival of a golden era. The transformation of Reykjavik from a quiet, provincial fishing port to a brash financial centre had been as swift as it was complete, and with the musicians Bjork and Sigur Ros and Danish-Icelandic artist Ólafur Eliasson attracting global audiences, cultural prestige went hand in hand with financial success. Icelanders could hold their heads high before the rest of the world.

Hallgrimur Helgason, well-known for his novel 101 Reykjavik, said in a letter to the nation in a Sunday newspaper on October 26: “Deep down inside we idolised these titans, these money pop-stars. Awestruck we watched their adventures and admired them when they supported the arts and charities. We never had clever businessmen, not for a thousand years, not to mention men who had won battles in other countries…”

For others, the growth was too rapid, the change too extreme. Many became uncomfortable with the excesses of the Viking Raiders. The liveried private jets, the Elton John parties, the residences in St Moritz, New York and London and the yachts in St Tropez – all flaunted in Sed og Heyrt, Iceland’s equivalent of Hello! magazine – were not, and this is important, they were not Icelandic. There was a strong undertow of public opinion that felt that all this ostentatious celebration of lavish lifestyles and excess was causing the nation to disconnect from its thousand-year heritage. In his letter to the nation, Hallgrimur continued: “This was all about the building of personal image rather than the building of anything tangible for the good of our nation and its people. Icelanders living abroad failed to recognise their own country when they came home.”

What international sympathy there was for Iceland’s plight evaporated with the dark realisation that the downfall of Iceland’s three main banks – Landsbanki, Kaupthing and Glitnir – brought with it the potential loss of £8bn for half a million savers in northern Europe, the bulk of whom were British. The shrill media response in the UK was reported extensively in Iceland. The British government’s use of anti-terror legislation to freeze the assets of Landsbanki pushed Iceland’s banking system into the abyss. It was a move viewed in Iceland as hateful and unnecessary. A few days later the one remaining viable bank, Kaupthing, went under.

Be sure to read the whole thing, including the follow-up piece below in the initial article.  Hat tip to Glenn Reynolds at Instapundit.  ..bruce w..

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Category: Credit Backlash, Economics, Geopolitics, Main, Recession Watch

About the Author ()

Webster is Principal and Founder at Bruce F. Webster & Associates, as well as an Adjunct Professor of Computer Science at Brigham Young University. He works with organizations to help them with troubled or failed information technology (IT) projects. He has also worked in several dozen legal cases as a consultant and as a testifying expert, both in the United States and Japan. He can be reached at bwebster@bfwa.com, or you can follow him on Twitter as @bfwebster.

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