Fighting Recession the Icelandic Way
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.”
You can say that again. Iceland’s approach was the polar opposite of the U.S. and Europe, which rescued their banks and did little to aid indebted homeowners. Although lessons drawn from Iceland, with just 320,000 people and an economy based on fishing, aluminum production and tourism, might not be readily transferable to bigger countries, its rebound suggests there’s more than one way to recover from a financial meltdown.
Nothing distinguishes Iceland as much as its aid to consumers. 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.
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.
In addition to easing consumer debt, Iceland reduced government spending and increased revenue by raising taxes and cutting deductions that mainly benefited the well-off, a path the U.S. might profitably emulate. In fact, relief for overburdened U.S. consumers is a cause promoted by former U.S. Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. Chairman Sheila Bair in a new book published this week. Bair would have done more to aid sinking homeowners and done less for banks, but she says her efforts were blocked by Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and others.
It worked in Iceland. A deficit that reached 13.5 percent of gross domestic product in 2009 fell to 2.3 percent last year. The IMF predicts Iceland will have a primary surplus (excluding interest on debt) of 1.5 percent this year.
As for the banking industry, Iceland never had an option to adopt the too-big-to-fail policy that led governments in the U.S. and Europe to prop up their banks. Assets held by Iceland’s three largest lenders had swelled to nine times the size of the economy. After they defaulted on $85 billion in debt, the government seized control of them.
Initial plans to repay foreign creditors, mostly U.K. and Dutch depositors, collapsed in 2009 as street protests led to the demise of the government. Repayment of obligations to overseas creditors was either postponed or written off, leaving the reconstituted banks with much smaller domestic operations. Twice, Icelanders rejected national referendums on repaying foreign depositors, who are pressing their claims in European courts.
A new government led by Johanna Sigurdardottir embarked on a campaign to hold accountable the so-called neo-Viking bankers at the center of Iceland’s crisis. Instead of picking a prosecutor from law firms in Reykjavik, which had depended on the banks for business, the government drafted an investigator from a remote village. Although a number of bankers fled the country to avoid prosecution, the former chiefs of two of the three biggest banks have been indicted and are standing trial.
Undoing the damage caused by the crisis is a work in progress; not every Icelandic innovation would be feasible in the U.S. or Europe. Iceland’s debt stands at almost 100 percent of GDP. Many of the country’s professionals have left for Norway and Denmark amid a dearth of jobs. Iceland still must figure out how to ease constraints that barred investors from withdrawing as much as $8 billion from the country and transferring it overseas. Inflation remains stubbornly high. To counter that, and to prevent capital flight, Iceland’s central bank has increased interest rates five times in the past year. But raising interest rates makes credit more expensive, checking growth.
Iceland’s central bank on Sept. 18 released a report suggesting the country go slow with plans to enter the European Union, a process started in 2010 when the euro seemed sounder than the krona. Becoming a member won’t be easy: If the issue were put to a referendum, Icelanders would probably reject admission. And why would Iceland want to join now? Euro-member nations such as Greece and Ireland offer testimony to the risks of being yoked to a currency along with stronger economies.
Devaluation of the kind Iceland suffered is never fun. Reneging on debts leaves a legacy of violated trust. But it still looks better than recession with no obvious way out.