Iceland Proves Ireland Did `Wrong Things’ Sacrificing Taxpayers

Iceland Proves Ireland Did `Wrong Things’ Sacrificing Taxpayers

By Yalman Onaran

February 02, 2011 “Bloomberg” January 31, 2011 – – On his second day as head of Iceland’s third-largest bank, Arni Tomasson faced a crisis: The firm he had been asked by regulators to run was out of cash.

It was Oct. 8, 2008, at the height of the global financial meltdown, and Iceland’s bank assets in the U.K. had been frozen, Bloomberg Markets magazine reports in its March issue. Customers flocked to branches of Tomasson’s Glitnir Banki hf to withdraw money, even though the government had guaranteed their deposits. By the end of the day, the vaults were empty, says Tomasson, recalling the drama two years later.

The only way Glitnir and other lenders could avoid a panic the next morning was to get more cash, which they were having trouble doing. A container of crisp kronur sat on the tarmac at Reykjavik’s airport awaiting payment, Tomasson says. The British company that printed the bills, De La Rue Plc, was demanding sterling, and the central bank couldn’t access its U.K. account.

“Everybody was panicked — depositors, creditors, banks around the world,” Tomasson says. “The effort by all of us at the time was to make sure life could go on as normal.”

Tomasson, 55, got the cash he needed that night after the central bank managed to open an emergency line of credit with a European lender. Now, he’s sitting in an office in Reykjavik, handling about $24 billion of claims by creditors as life in Iceland’s capital returns to normal.

Unlike other nations, including the U.S. and Ireland, which injected billions of dollars of capital into their financial institutions to keep them afloat, Iceland placed its biggest lenders in receivership. It chose not to protect creditors of the country’s banks, whose assets had ballooned to $209 billion, 11 times gross domestic product.

Krona Devaluation

The crisis almost sank the country. The krona lost 58 percent of its value by the end of November 2008, inflation spiked to 19 percent in January 2009 and GDP contracted by 7 percent that year. Prime Minister Geir H. Haarde resigned after nationwide protests. With the economy projected to grow 3 percent this year, Iceland’s decision to let the banks fail is looking smart — and may prove to be a model for others.

“Iceland did the right thing by making sure its payment systems continued to function while creditors, not the taxpayers, shouldered the losses of banks,” says Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz, an economics professor at Columbia University in New York. “Ireland’s done all the wrong things, on the other hand. That’s probably the worst model.”

Ireland guaranteed all the liabilities of its banks when they ran into trouble and has been injecting capital — 37 billion euros ($50 billion) so far

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