The Icelandic Success Story
December 8, 2012
Emotionally, I love Iceland’s financial policies since the crash of 2008:
Iceland went after the people who caused the crisis — the bankers who created and sold the junk products — and tried to shield the general population.
But what Iceland did is not just emotionally satisfying. Iceland is recovering, while the rest of the Western world — which bailed out the bankers and left the general population to pay for the bankers’ excess — is not.
Few countries blew up more spectacularly than Iceland in the 2008 financial crisis. The local stock market plunged 90 percent; unemployment rose ninefold; inflation shot to more than 18 percent; the country’s biggest banks all failed.
This was no post-Lehman Brothers recession: It was a depression.
Since then, Iceland has turned in a pretty impressive performance. It has repaid International Monetary Fund rescue loans ahead of schedule. Growth this year will be about 2.5 percent, better than most developed economies. Unemployment has fallen by half. In February, Fitch Ratings restored the country’s investment-grade status, approvingly citing its “unorthodox crisis policy response.”
So what exactly did Iceland do?
First, they create an aid package for homeowners:
To homeowners with negative equity, the country offered write-offs that would wipe out debt above 110 percent of the property value. The government also provided means-tested subsidies to reduce mortgage-interest expenses: Those with lower earnings, less home equity and children were granted the most generous support.
Then, they redenominated foreign currency debt into devalued krone, effectively giving creditors a big haircut:
In June 2010, the nation’s Supreme Court gave debtors another break: Bank loans that were indexed to foreign currencies were declared illegal. Because the Icelandic krona plunged 80 percent during the crisis, the cost of repaying foreign debt more than doubled. The ruling let consumers repay the banks as if the loans were in krona.
These policies helped consumers erase debt equal to 13 percent of Iceland’s $14 billion economy. Now, consumers have money to spend on other things. It is no accident that the IMF, which granted Iceland loans without imposing its usual austerity strictures, says the recovery is driven by domestic demand.
What this meant is that unsustainable junk was liquidated. While I am no fan of nationalised banks and believe that eventually they should be sold off, there were no quick and easy bailouts that allowed the financial sector to continue with the same unsustainable bubble-based folly they practiced before the crisis (as has happened throughout the rest of the Western world).
And best of all, Iceland prosecuted the people who caused the crisis, providing a real disincentive (as opposed to more bailouts and bonuses):
Iceland’s special prosecutor has said it may indict as many as 90 people, while more than 200, including the former chief executives at the three biggest banks, face criminal charges.
Larus Welding, the former CEO of Glitnir Bank hf, once Iceland’s second biggest, was indicted in December for granting illegal loans and is now waiting to stand trial. The former CEO of Landsbanki Islands hf, Sigurjon Arnason, has endured stints of solitary confinement as his criminal investigation continues.
That compares with the U.S., where no top bank executives have faced criminal prosecution for their roles in the subprime mortgage meltdown. The Securities and Exchange Commission said last year it had sanctioned 39 senior officers for conduct related to the housing market meltdown.
Iceland’s approach is very much akin to what I have been advocating — write down the unsustainable debt, liquidate the junk corporations and banks that failed, disincentivise the behaviour that caused the crisis, and provide help to the ordinary individuals in the real economy (as opposed to phoney “stimulus” cash to campaign donors and big finance).
And Iceland has snapped out of its depression. The rest of the West, where banks continue to behave exactly as they did prior to the crisis, not so much.