An Icelandic post-mortem

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The Economist does a very good post-mortem on Iceland and its spectacular collapse with a number of lessons for other countries, especially those with oversized financial sectors like Ireland, Switzerland and the U.K.  Below is a snippet from their article which I highlight because it also demonstrates the real risk of social unrest due to economic collapse.

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Atop a hill near Reykjavik’s old harbour is a bronze statue of Ingolfur Arnarson, the first Nordic settler of inhospitable Iceland. It overlooks a bunker-like building: the central bank, headed by David Oddsson, a man who more than 1,100 years later has shown similar survival skills. Before chairing the central bank’s board of governors, Mr Oddsson was prime minister for more than 13 years, a record, during which time Iceland became one of the richest countries in the world. For years he was Iceland’s most popular politician, privatising most of the banking system with a Thatcherite zeal and floating the currency, the krona.

But the collapse of the krona and nationalisation of the country’s three largest banks in early October, which forced the country to secure help from the IMF, have left Iceland’s economic miracle and Mr Oddsson’s reputation in tatters. For weeks, protesters have gathered in Reykjavik’s main square each Saturday calling for his removal from office. On the chilly afternoon of December 1st a few hundred of them, shouting “David out, David out”, gathered at the Arnarson statue and marched down the hill to the central bank. In the lobby, they were met by riot police, who eventually defused the situation.

Such protests are almost unheard of: the only previous mass demonstrations to shake the country, against NATO membership, took place in 1949. But the economic crisis has exposed deep fissures in the nation of 300,000 people. In the same building the next day, Mr Oddsson barely smiles when he tells The Economist, “They say that the only way to get to paradise without dying is to be governor of a central bank. This has not been true in Iceland.”

So far, such protests are the most tangible evidence of the troubles besetting Icelandic society. The landscape bears scars too. From the central bank, the view of snow-dusted Mount Esja across the estuary is blocked by a half-finished grey edifice, sprawled like a dead whale across the harbour-front. This was to have been Iceland’s most spectacular building, crowning 15 years of economic growth: a concert hall facing out to the North Atlantic, covered in glass prisms imported from China meant to resemble glaciers and lava. But since the collapse of the bank that led the funding, construction has almost ground to a halt.

Likewise, blocks of half-built luxury flats stand half-finished along the waterfront. Instead of glass prisms, Icelanders are looking forward to a different Chinese cargo in the dying weeks of the year: fireworks. They set off more per person each new year than any other country in the world. Such is the demand that the Chinese manufacturers are making a special loan to Icelanders to buy them, according to a local newspaper.

Almost no other private creditor is lending them anything; Iceland has turned instead to the IMF. In November the fund agreed to a $2.1 billion two-year standby programme, which was supplemented by promises from Nordic countries and Poland, as well as Britain, the Netherlands and Germany. The package will be worth $10.2 billion in total—more than half of Iceland’s GDP.

The IMF calls the collapse of the banks the biggest banking failure in history relative to the size of an economy. In 2007 Iceland’s three main banks made loans equivalent to about nine times the size of the booming economy, up from about 200% of GDP after privatisation in 2003 (see chart 1). Only about one-fifth of those loans were in kronur; interest rates on these were punitively high. Ordinary citizens instead borrowed from their banks in cheaper currencies such as yen and Swiss francs to buy even the most modest homes and cars.

I think you know how this one ends. The full article is much longer. I highly recommend reading it, especially as it pertains to the UK economy. The link is below.

Source Cracks in the crust – The Economist

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