Icelandic Economy Bounces Back From Brink

Debt relief put people’s needs ahead of markets

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Iceland’s economy suffered a meltdown in 2008, with its banks defaulting on $85 billion. In 2009 its citizens took to the streets and demanded action from the government against those they saw as responsible for the crisis. The government responded, putting people before markets, and now Iceland’s economy is outgrowing the euro one and, on average, the developed world.

Bloomberg reported that after it was determined in October 2008 that the banks could not be saved, the government intervened. It ring-fenced domestic accounts and shut out international creditors. Iceland’s central bank prevented the sell off of krona through capital controls, and new banks were created that were controlled by the state. Then the government and the state-controlled banks agreed that amounts in excess of 110% of home values would be forgiven on mortgages.

The country’s supreme court also ruled in 2010 that debts indexed to foreign currencies were illegal, which saved households from having to cover losses resulting from drops in the value of the krona.

An Icelandic Financial Services Association report cited by Bloomberg pointed out that the country’s banks have forgiven loans amounting to 13% of Iceland’s GDP. That lessened the debt load of the population.

In addition, the government is investigating, and prosecuting, numerous prominent figures from the meltdown. Currently more than 200 face criminal charges and a special prosecutor has said as many as 90 may be indicted.

Lars Christensen, chief emerging markets economist at Danske Bank in Copenhagen, was quoted saying, “You could safely say that Iceland holds the world record in household debt relief. Iceland followed the textbook example of what is required in a crisis. Any economist would agree with that.”

The result? According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, Iceland’s economy is in line to expand 2.4% both this year and next, after growth of 2.9% last year and in the wake of shrinkage of 6.7% in 2009. In contrast, the OECD estimated in November that the euro area will only expand by 0.2% and the OECD area by 1.6% in 2012.

Not only that, but the cost to insure against an Icelandic default is about the same as to insure against a credit event in Belgium. And Icelanders are no longer eager to join the eurozone. Most would rather stay solo. Housing as an element of the consumer price index is only down about 3% from what it was in September 2008, just prior to the collapse.

Fitch Ratings just last week also conceded that Iceland’s approach has worked, raising the country’s rating to investment grade with a stable outlook. At the time it said that Iceland’s “unorthodox crisis policy response has succeeded.”

Thorolfur Matthiasson, an economics professor at the University of Iceland in Reykjavik, was quoted saying, “The lesson to be learned from Iceland’s crisis is that if other countries think it’s necessary to write down debts, they should look at how successful the 110% agreement was here. It’s the broadest agreement that’s been undertaken.”

According to Christensen at Danske Bank, “the bottom line is that if households are insolvent, then the banks just have to go along with it, regardless of the interests of the banks.”

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