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Icelandic Meltdown

Financial crisis puts Nordic nation on edge of bankruptcy

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corgan 1.jpg

Michael Corgan, a CAS associate professor of international relations, specializes in Icelandic affairs. Photo by Kalman Zabarsky

It’s been a dramatic couple of weeks for tiny Iceland. The land of free-wheeling multimillionaires (even a billionaire), low-interest loans, and high-yield savings accounts tumbled into financial ruin and was branded a terrorist nation by the United Kingdom — all in the space of 10 days.

Some 600 miles northwest of the United Kingdom, Iceland, which had rapidly transformed itself from one of the world’s poorest nations to one of the wealthiest, is pretty much bankrupt, the first national victim of the global credit crisis.

Iceland’s troubles started when the financial crisis emanating from the United States caused two of the country’s three private banks to collapse. At the time, the assets of these banks totaled more than 10 times the country’s gross domestic product. In other words, since the government was unable to guarantee loans, they were exposed.

The Icelandic banks were popular with the British. Municipalities, hospitals, and charities were attracted by savings account interest rates as high as 7 percent. But when depositors started to get nervous amid the global financial shake-up, they found their accounts temporarily blocked. Alarmed by a perceived lack of action by Reykjavik, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown branded Iceland a terrorist nation and invoked the U.K.’s antiterrorism law, freezing the assets of the country’s last remaining bank and of its U.K.-based companies.

Brown’s move, seen by many Icelanders as politically motivated to boost his poll numbers, brought the small country to its knees. Iceland’s banks have since been nationalized, the majority of its leading businesses are in meltdown, the value of its currency has been reduced by more than half, and thousands are unemployed. Iceland spent the past week knocking on neighbors’ doors for help, which could have security implications for the United States. The Nordic country, with a population of 300,000, is poised to receive a $6 billion rescue package from Russia, the International Monetary Fund, and several other Scandinavian countries. Deep recession is on the horizon.

How did this happen? And what can Iceland’s story teach the United States? BU Today spoke with Michael Corgan, a College of Arts and Sciences associate professor of international relations, who specializes in Icelandic affairs. He also teaches in the political science department at the University of Iceland.

BU Today: Can you explain how a country goes bankrupt in a matter of 10 days?
Corgan: The way the country went bankrupt is that its banks got into the international financial networks and started lending money to various enterprises after a lot of individuals made money in Russia following the fall of communism. Icelanders found that with very little regulation back home, they could open up bank branches and entire banks in various places, like the United Kingdom. They made sound, reasonable loans. They were the only banking system in Europe that did not buy into subprime mortgages the way other European banks did. Icelanders made a lot of money. It had its first billionaire about two years ago. That had never happened before. But by 2007, the assets of its banks were 10 times the GDP of Iceland. In other words, they really had a lot of money out there. As long as the system was working right and there were no bumps or slackening or loss of confidence, they were doing fine. But if the banks ever went bad, there’s no way the government could back them up. And things went bad. The mortgage meltdown in the United States was like a volcano erupting under the water, and there was a tsunami.

What was Iceland’s financial system like before deregulation?

The system was highly regulated, with tight currency controls. Even into the 1980s, it used to be that if you had a credit card, you could use it to buy things only in Iceland. Or if you bought something overseas, you couldn’t transfer it to Iceland. However, Iceland opened up its international airport in a big way and got completely modernized. The power elite in the dominant political party had very entrepreneurial free market ideas, and they prevailed upon the Parliament to cut back corporate taxes and deregulate, following what the United States had been doing with deregulation. They essentially bought our system completely, and their banks expanded enormously.

The United Kingdom and Iceland until recently
had a very close relationship. Why did Britain suddenly pronounce Iceland a terrorist nation?
The whole thing sort of snowballed. The British had lots of deposits in Icelandic bank branches in the U.K. A bank called Icesave, which was paying high rates, was suddenly saying, "We’ve got a problem, and we’re not quite sure how we’re going to handle it." The chairman of the central bank in Iceland made some unguarded comments on a TV interview show, saying, "I’m not sure how we’re going to deal with this." Well, that’s the equivalent of [Federal Reserve chairman] Ben Bernanke getting up on Face the Nation or Meet the Press and saying, "I’m not sure how we’re going to deal with the problem." It just caused all sorts of consternation.

Now, the Icelanders are used to this kind of thing. Like most Nordics, they expect that their government, in the long run and even in the short run, will more or less take care of them and won’t do anything outlandish. However, the British were not reassured at all, and they started panicking and demanded that their government do something. So Gordon Brown, who is, by the way, lagging in the polls for the parliamentary elections in Britain, invoked this 2001 antiterrorism law. He essentially branded the nation of Iceland as terrorist because it was threatening the economic security of Britain, and froze its assets. What this did was bankrupt the one remaining solvent Icelandic bank.

Iceland has negotiated with Russia for financial help. Does this have security implications for the United States?
Oh, sure. The United States rather peremptorily pulled its forces out of the base in Iceland in 2006. There are no NATO forces in Iceland now. It doesn’t have its own military. So now Iceland’s looking for help. It went to the United States and didn’t get it and has now gone to Russia.

Does this raise the specter of Russian troops in Iceland?
No, I think this is more of a “gotcha” move by Putin. But it means that if the United States wants to get back with Iceland for any security reason, that’s unlikely to happen. In fact, the Icelandic government is thinking about suing the British for their actions in invoking the terrorist law.

What is the mood on the street?
Iceland itself right now is relatively calm. My friends in Iceland say all these multimillionaires and the billionaire have made themselves very scarce in society. The mood on the street is resignation to the fact that the standard of living is going to take a hit. Hundreds of people in the banking industry, and thousands overall, which is enormous for Iceland, are out of work, and they’re unlikely to find jobs like they had anytime soon. There’s no hoarding or stockpiling or shortages, just anger at the new millionaires and multimillionaires who don’t seem to want to face the music. There’s almost the Scandinavian stereotype of the calm, phlegmatic, fatalistic, if you will, approach of, "Well, we got in over our head." Most Icelanders recognize that times were a little too good, and now they’re going to have cut back quite a bit. Things are going to be much more expensive than they used to be.

What lessons can the United States draw from Iceland?
In a sense, not many, because the scale is so different. The lesson I draw for the United States is that we’ve got to be careful how we try and export our economic systems and our deregulated capitalism, saying that it’s the best thing for everybody, because it may not be. We keep saying free trade is it, deregulation is it, that’s how the world should work. That’s how the big boys can work, but smaller countries, maybe not. There are 55 countries in the U.N. with less than five million people. We should be a little bit cautious. And if that’s the truth, maybe we ought to also watch how we try to export our version of democracy. It may not be right for other countries, either. This isn’t about corruption or lack of transparency in Iceland. It’s overextension. Small countries just can’t play the game the way the big countries can.

Caleb Daniloff can be reached at cdanilof@bu.edu.

6 Comments

6 Comments on Icelandic Meltdown

  • Flea on 10.22.2008 at 8:44 am

    Democracy

    There are 55 countries in the U.N. with less than five million people. We should be a little bit cautious. And if that’s the truth, maybe we ought to also watch how we try to export our version of democracy. It may not be right for other countries, either.

    If your argument is that many people in small countries are idiots and blame the United States for all their problems – including the withdrawal of the USAF after Iceland bitched about the airbase for decades – then I could not agree more: Many people do not have the adult intellectual or emotional capacity to support a democracy.

  • Anonymous on 10.22.2008 at 10:23 am

    Iceland & economics

    This is an excellent summary that helps those of us who are not economists understand what has happened.

    Thank You.

  • Anonymous on 10.22.2008 at 11:52 pm

    Democracy Again

    I think that the article, which seems to ME to be advocating caution, is much closer to being on the money than the above comment. We can’t just go around assuming that our way of living is the best in every way for everyone. I think that he was just saying that we should take into account the various disparities between America and other countries. We can’t just go around blindly advising other countries to follow our pied piper lead all the time.

  • amlaskow on 10.23.2008 at 11:23 am

    Mr. Corgan says: "The

    Mr. Corgan says:
    “The chairman of the central bank in Iceland made some unguarded comments on a TV interview show, saying, “I’m not sure how we’re going to deal with this”.”

    This is inaccurate, even totally wrong. The Bristish Chancellor, Mr. Darling, told the British Media thar he HAD BEEN TOLD by Icelandic authorities that ICELAND, WOULD YOU BELIEVE IT, WOULD NOT PAY. Here mr. Darling can only be referring to the telephone conversation between himself and the Icelandic Chancellor, Mr. Mathiesen, the day before. The contents of this telephone conversation has not been made public, but must be the root of UK´s harsh reactions (not the words of the chairman of the central bank in Iceland in a TV interview in the evening of the same day – this chairman does not dictate policy in such matters.

    Mr. Corgan and/or you should ask about this telephone conversation – a transcript is bound to exist somewhere.

    Best regards,
    Fridrik Th. Gudmundsson
    Iceland,
    Journalist

  • Michael Corgan on 10.24.2008 at 11:21 am

    Iceland meltdown

    Two comments on my piece.

    First, for Fridrik Gudmundsson. That the Chairman of the Central Bank does not dictate policy was a subtlety certainly lost on people in the UK who were demanding that their government do something. David Oddson’s comments on Kastljos (spotlight) certainly did not help matters, that was my point. As to the conversation between Chancellors Darling and Mathieson, without further comments by either, and I cannot find transcripts, we cannot know what Darling “can only” be referring to.

    Second, I certainly do not think people in small countries are any more idiots than we are. The writer says that “Iceland bitched about the airbase for decades.” Some Icelanders did. But many more Icelanders supported or accepted the base and many leaders in public life over those decades took often unpopular stands in supporting NATO and the base. It is simply too simplistic to say that “Iceland bitched.” What is not in question is the peremptory way we left in 2006. As one prominent politician said, “A 55 year alliance was ended with a phone call.”

    Michael Corgan

  • Anonymous on 11.19.2008 at 6:49 pm

    Democracy

    I am from Colombia, a beautiful country in South America. I think US has been helpful in improving our democracy. Without Plan Colombia, the terrorists would’ve taken control of the government. I recognize how difficult is for a Country to be a “democratic country”. I think the US political model is the best, and it’s because most of its people respect the suble rules of democracy. One example of it is how Hillary, Hukabee and Mitt Romney accepted their defeat and helped their opponents in the campaign to the presidency. For other leaders in the world, that action is impossible; they prefer to form another new party. I respect US government and hope that one day Colombia can survive without the “big help” from the US.

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