Sigrún Davíðsdóttir's Icelog

Iceland pre-and post-collapse

French charges against Landsbanki Luxembourg managers re equity release schemes

make a comment

Icelog has followed the sad case of Landsbanki Luxembourg equity release loans for some years now. Those who took these loans in the years up to the collapse of the bank in October 2008 have for years been fighting for an investigation into these loans – in terms of the soundness of the original scheme, Landsbanki’s handling of the investments that were supposed to finance the loans, Landsbanki’s alleged breach of investing terms by investing in Landsbanki and Kaupthing bonds and then the whole handling of the bank’s administrator Yvette Hamilius.

After investigating these claims the French investigative judge van Ruymbeke opened an investigation. Following his investigation chairman of Landsbanki board Björgólfur Guðmundsson, Landsbanki Luxembourg manager Gunnar Thoroddssen, seven employees of the Luxembourg bank and the estate of Landsbanki Luxembourg, represented by Hamilius have now been charged with fraud and various other offenses.

Many other banks have settled equity release loans out of Luxembourg but not Landsbanki. This case is yet another example of the lax client protection there is in Europe when it comes to banking – another is FX loans, which I wrote about in my last blog (also on Fistful of Euros).

It takes long time to handle complaints; to begin with the authorities tend to shrug off any allegation of a bank’s mishandling, even now after so many cases of banks’  rather inglorious and harmful behaviour. What is so galling about the Landsbanki Luxembourg case is that most of the clients were elderly and/or retired people. For those who have been struggling to find clear answers regarding those loans the last step in France is a step in the right direction.

*See here for some earlier Icelogs on the investigation and the Landsbanki Luxembourg saga.

Follow me on Twitter for running updates.

Written by Sigrún Davíðsdóttir

January 26th, 2015 at 4:47 pm

Posted in Iceland

Swiss franc appreciation reveals the sorry saga of FX lending to un-hedged individuals

with one comment

Back in the 1980s Australians, many of them farmers, were offered low-interest loans, appealing in a high-interest environment. With changes in currency rates the loans in Swiss francs and Japanese yen quickly became much beyond the means of the borrowers to service with ensuing pain and suffering. The same story has since played out in country after country with the obvious lesson reiterated: for people with income only in their domestic currency FX borrowing is too high-risk to be wise. Icelanders felt the FX loans’ pain as the Icelandic króna depreciated 2008 as did many Eastern-European countries. – All these loans, often the result of predatory lending, follow the same pattern and it is no coincidence where they hit. There is now ample case for countries to take action: banks should be forbidden to lend in FX to private individuals with all their income in the domestic currency.

Australia in the 1980s, New Zealand in the 1990s, Iceland and a whole raft of other European countries in the 2000s saw liberalised markets but inflation was high and so were interest rates. By taking an FX loan or even just a loan pegged to FX the high domestic interest rates could be avoided – it seemed too good to be true.

Sadly it was indeed too good to be true: currency fluctuations changed the circumstances and servicing FX loans for those with income in the domestic currency became unsustainable. For loans running over many years this was, statistically seen, almost unavoidable. FX loans have turned into a huge problem in countries such Croatia, Bosnia, Bulgaria, Montenegro, Poland and Ukraine but politicians and banks have ignored the problem. These cases were spelled out at a conference on CHF/FX loans in Cyprus in December. Organised by Katherine Alexander-Theodotou president of the UK Anglo-Hellenic and Cypriot Law Association and various representatives of organisations fighting FX loans, the organisers have recently set up European Legal Committee for Consumer Rights to co-ordinate their work in the various countries marred by FX loans.

The recent shock of the CHF depreciation is now forcing the problem into the foreground in these countries. But more should be done: this problem should be solved once and for all because as long as banks and investors see profits in these loans this sorry saga will continue in new countries.

Australia in the 1980s

In Australia banks started offering customers, many of them farmers, yen and CHF loans in the 1980s. With Australian interest rates at around 10-16% the 7% rates of the yen and the CHF was attractive. When the Australian dollar started depreciating in 1986 the difference in interest rates was by far not enough to compensate for the new ratio between the Aussie dollar and other currencies.

As always, the borrowers first tried to keep on paying, then to negotiate new terms with the banks followed by court cases, mostly based on the banks’ negligence of warning the borrowers of the inherent risk of FX loans. To begin with, the borrowers were fighting on their own, not realising that there were so many others in the same situation.

The banks had the upper hand in court: people should have understood the risk and it was neigh impossible for the borrowers to prove what the bankers had said or not said, promised or not several years earlier. The banks claimed the loans had been issued in good faith and foreseeing the Aussie dollar depreciation had been impossible.

Westpac had been particularly successful in the FX loan market. In 1991 a former Westpac executive, John McLennan, leaked two letters from 1986 showing that the bank was well aware of the risk. What ensued was an investigation, which exposed that not only had Westpac been aware of the risk but a law firm had helped it covering its track. This turned into a classic whistle-blower case: Westpac sued McLennan but later settled.

The letters set the story straight, politicians finally turned against the banks and thus the borrowers got the upper hand and some compensation. But all of this only happened five years after the depreciation, leaving many borrowers bankrupt with all the tragedies such events bring on.

The Australian saga entails the same elements later seen in country after country: banks lend in FX to people who neither have an FX income nor are particularly well-placed to gauge the risk; politicians side with the banks – and only after much struggle and long time are borrowers able to get a write-down or other assistance. But by then, tragedies such as divorce or homes lost have already happened and things can never be the same or compensated.

Iceland: where politicians sided with borrowers

High inflation and consequently high interest rates characterised booming Iceland after the privatisation of the financial system in 2003. Banks were eager to grow by issuing loans and lend funds they borrowed internationally. With credit boom in Iceland savings were insufficient to satisfy the credit demand. Icelandic borrowers were offered so called “currency basket loans”: FX indexed loans usually based on a mixture of currency, usually US$, euro, CHF and yen.

As in Australia, things changed and fairly quickly. From October 2007 to October 2008 the króna had been depreciating drastically: €1 cost ISK85 at the beginning of this period but ISK150 in the end; by October 2009 the €1 stood at ISK185.

Borrowers complained, turned to their banks and some individual solutions were found. However, quickly borrowers were not only turning to the banks but to courts. There were no class actions but individuals sought to court, the cases were well publicised and others in the same situation followed them intently.

Already in June 2010 the first Supreme Court judgment fell regarding two such cases. According to the ruling it was against Icelandic law to tie interest rates on Icelandic loans, loans in Icelandic króna, to foreign currency but perfectly legal to lend in FX.

The result was huge uncertainty: first of all, which loans were legal and which were not, i.e. which loans were real FX loans and which were only FX indexed loans – and if some of these loans were illegal what should the interest rates be?

The banks distinguished between loans to private individuals and to companies where company loans have mostly been regarded as legal FX loans, i.e. the companies did indeed receive FX whereas loans to individuals have all been treated as illegal, i.e. not proper FX loans but only with interest rates tied to FX, no matter the form. The Supreme Court ruled that instead of the FX currency interest rates the lowest CBI rates should be used causing substantial losses to the banks.

The Supreme Court has by now ruled in around thirty FX loans’ cases. There are however still on-going FX loan cases in the courts, some of them related to consumer information such as Directive 87/102/EEC The Consumer Credit Directive, Directive 93/13/EEC The Unfair Terms Directive and Directive 2005/29/EC The Unfair Commercial Practices Directive

The peculiarity of the Icelandic FX loans saga is that from the first borrowers had political support, very much contrary to other countries where FX loans have been common. This is partly due to the fact the Icelandic households have long been highly indebted, which has to a certain degree tilted sympathy towards debtors rather than towards those who are trying to save money.

Croatia, Hungary and Poland

The fight of Croatian FX borrowers have their own organisation, the Franc Association but their fight has been arduous, as covered earlier on Icelog. Already last year, Franc won a case against eight banks, all foreign or foreign-owned subsidiaries: UniCredit – Zagrebačka Banka, Intesa SanPaolo – Privredna Banka Zagreb, Erste & Steiermärkische Bank, Raiffeisenbank Austria, Hypo Alpe-Adria-Bank, OTP Bank, Société Générale – Splitska banka and Sberbenk.

The banks were found to have violated customer protection law by not informing clients properly. Further, the Croatian government has now decided to freeze interest rates for one year while further solutions will be sought, with banks forced to take a write-down on these loans.

In Hungary, where FX loans were among the most widespread in Eastern Europe before the 2008 crash, the government ordered banks last year to fix conversion of euro and CHF loans into Hungarian florints to a rate well below market levels. Following the recent CHF deprivation the government has said that no further action will be taken.

Polish FX loans have not been issued since the financial crisis of 2008 but the number of loans before that had been high, which means that many are still suffering their effect. Last year, governor of the Polish Central Bank Marek Belka said these loans were a ticking time-bomb. It certainly has blown up now with the CHF depreciation. The Polish government is now seeking a solution and regulators are investigating collusion on lending terms among the banks issuing the FX loans.

The underlying mechanism of FX loans

Although FX loan sagas vary in details from country to country the general mechanism is everywhere the same, always with four actors involved: international financial institutions looking for interest margins; investors, often called “Belgian dentists,” i.e. wealthy individuals looking for moderate-risk long-term investments; domestic financial institutions (often foreign subsidiaries) selling domestic currency, looking to lend in FX; domestic borrowers looking for low-interest loans.

The FX loans are normally marketed to middle or low-income earners in small or transition economies, recently been liberalised, with unstable currency or where the currency lacks credibility – and/or where interest rates are high. The banks issuing the loans are often, but not always, foreign banks, operating in a weak legal environment with weak or no customer protection.

There are certainly FX loans in other countries, such as the UK but there they have mostly been issued to wealthy borrowers often financing property deals abroad. The situation can certainly be painful for those individuals but these loans are anomalous, hitting only a very limited part of borrowers. In France, many local councils are struggling with CHF loans and fighting financial institutions in court, again clearly a major problem for the councils but now following the general pattern of FX loans listed above.

The general description above fits Australia, New Zealand, Iceland – and the countries where many borrowers have been sorely struggling with FX/CHF loans since 2008, i.a. Poland, Croatia, Hungary and other countries. With the exception of Iceland these countries have been fighting the banks for years, often with limited or only very late success. Only the recent CHF depreciation has finally managed to clearly demonstrate the calamity these loans are for normal borrowers with income only in their domestic currency.

The only sensible solution to FX (predatory) lending

For more than thirty years FX loans have periodically been causing huge harm and personal tragedy in country after country. The pattern is always the same. Banks continue this type of lending, every time minimising or ignoring the risk to unenlightened borrowers. The only new elements are a new country and new people to suffer the consequences.

Since this story has been repeating itself for decades, bankers issuing these loans cannot reasonably claim to be unaware of the risk. Instead, FX lending to private individuals with no FX hedge increasingly looks like predatory lending: the banks must have been aware of the risk and known that the risk had indeed materialised earlier in other countries.

Bankers have so far shown little aptitude of learning anything at all from the past few decades. National and international organisations working in the field of financial regulation and consumer protection should work towards making FX lending to private individuals with no FX hedge illegal. Until that happens the FX loans will continue to find new countries to wreck havoc in.

*Another side to the FX lending is whether the banks issuing the loans have properly hedged their FX exposure of their liabilities. There is indication that banks in i.a. Austria, Croatia and Hungary have held more CHF assets than liabilities. This is another interesting aspect, which I hope to cover later.

If any Icelog reader has documents showing that banks were aware of the risk of FX borrowing to clients but did wilfully not inform them I would be interested in hearing from them.

Follow me on Twitter for running updates.

Written by Sigrún Davíðsdóttir

January 23rd, 2015 at 5:32 pm

Posted in Iceland

New adviser group – new phase, next steps

make a comment

As expected, there has been a reshuffle among the Icelandic advisers on capital controls – a new group has been formed. Freyr Hermannsson from the CBI has been left out. As before, the new group is led by Glenn Kim, with two vice chairmen. Sigurður Hannesson, whose remit as adviser on capital controls was announced already on January 9 by his employer MP Bank, is one of the two chairmen. Why MP Bank stepped out of line and announced Hannesson’s move before the government did is still unclear. After all, the CEO of MP Bank is married to prime minister Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson’s sister so the coordination should have been simple.

Hannesson is a close friend of prime minister Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson and said to have been a strong influence on Gunnlaugsson for a long time. Allegedly, Hannesson talked Gunnlaugsson into accepting that the loan write-down, the so-called “correction” could not be the ISK300bn as Gunnlaugsson had mentioned earlier but only ISK80bn. Also, Hannesson is said to have explained the importance to the PM of solving the dispute regarding the LBI agreement. Hannesson, a soft-spoken mathematician is unassuming and quiet in public but jolly among friends. He is generally popular and respected and seen as an amenable person.

A trusted lieutenant of the PM Hannesson is seen as someone who could add the power of decision-making to the new group although the word “negotiate” is still not uttered by anyone in power – no plans to negotiate with creditors though that will have to happen in some way if a reasonable solution is to be found any time soon. “Hannesson seeks solutions in every case and being a banker he will understand the environment of the creditors,” one source said.

With Benedikt Gíslason, an adviser to Bjarni Benediktsson minister of finance and leader of the Independence party, as the other vice chairman to division of power is taken care of at the top; Glenn Kim has the leaders’ representatives on each side. Gíslason is already tried and tested and enjoys the trust of Benediktsson. Gíslason’s demeanor is similar to Hannesson, a quiet and soft-spoken person.

Eiríkur Svavarsson remains on the group. Seen as somewhat dogmatic and stuck in the Icesave dispute, where he was fiercely against negotiating and supported the EFTA Court path, he is the only lawyer, apart from Ingibjörg Guðbjartsdóttir from the CBI. Among the new-comers he will enjoy a status as veteran of the process since the PM set up the first but at the time unannounced advisory group in November 2013. In addition to these five there are Jón Þ. Sigurgeirsson from the CBI where he runs the governor’s office and is generally seen as close to governor Már Guðmundsson.

“New phase towards lifting the capital controls” is the headline for the Ministry of Finance press release announcing the new group. Up until the announcements there were speculations and conflicting statements as to what would happen. “There is one thing today and another tomorrow,” one source close to the process said.

Björn Valur Gíslason, an ex-MP for the Left Green, has posted a list on his blog of quotes, linked to media coverage, by the PM and Benediktsson where they have been promising to lift the controls very soon ever since they came to power. It is a good revision of big words and broken promises, so far. In August 2013, just after coming to power the PM announced he would appoint an ” abolition” manager to abolish the controls. This job was never filled and it took months until the first group was appointed. Recently, after the PM said there would be decisive action this month, Benediktsson said it really did not matter if something happened before the end of this month or next month. Somewhat comic, with all these earlier promises in mind.

With the new group in place it seems likely it will take some time to study the options as stated in the press release. The new here is that there is something to study. As I’ve pointed out earlier, spring might seem some plans sprouting.

*Updated from an earlier version.

Follow me on Twitter for running updates.

Written by Sigrún Davíðsdóttir

January 22nd, 2015 at 12:57 am

Posted in Iceland

Capital controls advisers in a flux

with one comment

After rumours on imminent changes or reshuffle of advisers working on capital controls it now seems that such movements are indeed about to happen.

According to DV (now owned by Progressive Party supporters who hired journalist Hörður Ægisson, previously at Morgunblaðið, a constant source of scoops from the CBI and the ministry of finance; media-ownership in Iceland is an increasingly intriguing saga, big changes there these days and weeks) Freyr Hermannsson, Eiríkur Svavarsson and the chairman of the (previous/present?) advisory committee Glenn Kim will not be continuing.

The new name is Sigurður Hannesson* from MP Bank, known in Iceland as a close friend of prime minister Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson and believed to have been a source of ideas for the PM over the years. Hannesson was a chairman of a working group advising on indexed loans, a topic close to the PM’s heart. Benedikt Gíslason, an adviser to minister of finance Bjarni Benediktsson and a member of the Glenn Kim committee, is also said to be part of the committee in spe. An alleged third member of the committee is not been named in DV.

If this move turns out to be true and the task of this group, manned only by Icelanders, will be to identify solutions to ease or lift the capital controls this spells two things: a) the solutions will be “home-brewed,” i.e. not formed in co-operation with anyone familiar with the international debt-scene b) the PM is strengthening his grip on the topic of capital control although it is formally under Benediktsson’s ministry. If this becomes too obvious it will make the already unhappy Independence party parliamentary group, feeling that their bigger party is continuously working on Progressive party policies and not their own, yet more unhappy.

The Glenn Kim group was the second group set up to work on the capital controls and its task seemed to be to find solutions to finally find ways to  lifting the controls. No plans have been made public in spite of Benediktsson repeatedly saying that such plans would be finalised by the end of the year. A refrain from the leaders, especially the PM, has been that creditors have to meet the expectations of the government and the interests of Iceland. It now seems that neither the first group nor the second have come up with the solution the two leaders expected them to. So the leaders might as well try their luck yet again.

Everything done so far has been marked by a lack of unity by the two coalition leaders. Another group seems a way of postponing action. With all the work done by the CBI, the first group and then the Glenn group it surely seems unlikely that much is left to discover. What is more likely is that the PM and Benediktsson still are, as is widely rumoured, at loggerheads on how to proceed. A new group would then be an exercise in can-kicking. As one source said: “As long as the two leaders have not negotiated a solution amongst themselves no solution is in sight.”

What could possibly focus the minds of the two leaders? One underlying issue is the future ownership of Íslandsbanki and Arion, owned respectively by Glitnir and Kaupthing, i.e. creditors. If the two leaders, both from wealthy families with ties in the business sector, want to influence who gets to own the banks their time to do it is limited; the next election is scheduled in spring 2017. Iceland, right now with a contracting** economy, is smarting from capital controls and the leaders are playing the fiddle – or at least fiddling with their advisers.

*Update: MP Bank has now confirmed that Hannesson will take a temporary leave from the bank to work as an adviser on capital controls to the government. Interestingly, neither the Office of the Prime Minister nor the ministry of finance have mentioned this new adviser. 

**Update: one Icelandic reader disagrees that the Icelandic economy is contracting pointing out that the stats for the first nine months shows less growth than previously but this is expected to change with the whole-year stats. This is indeed the general expectations among Icelandic economists; I’ve even heard that the reason for the unexpected dip are staff changes at the Icelandic Statistical Bureau. However, I spoke to one person with a keen insight into the Icelandic labour market whose impressions were in accordance with the stats. – Remains to be seen, more on this later.

Follow me on Twitter for running updates.

Written by Sigrún Davíðsdóttir

January 9th, 2015 at 12:24 pm

Posted in Iceland

Happy merry New Year!

with 3 comments

The new year, 2015, will be a “fun year” a foreign observer of Icelandic politics and economics mentioned to me – and he might well be right. It is just not clear yet for whom it will be fun. Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson mentioned future action regarding capital controls in his New Year’s address (only in Icelandic) in the first part of the new year.

Gunnlaugsson pointed out that although much has been achieved, there is still capital controls in Iceland. “The so-called estates of the collapsed banks, which have already operated longer than is preferable, are the greatest hindrance in lifting capital controls. In the beginning the estates were not taxed although they are in most respect run like companies. But with the estates now being taxed the financial scope, unavoidable part of lifting the controls, is now finally beginning to come into being. It is necessary that these companies contribute their due to society. In many foreign countries, for example in the US, financial companies, which in most cases were kept going with access to the state coffers, have been made to pay sky-high fines in addition to repaying loans to make up the damage they had caused societies.”

Gunnlaugsson added that after preparatory work in evaluating the aftermath of the financial shock the government is now well-placed to take important action early in the new year. “The Icelandic nation has already shouldered all the cost it can be expected to because of the international financial shock – cost that could easily have been much higher and even unbearable if Icelanders had not guarded its right (hint: Icesave).” – I will leave it to the reader to try to match these words to reality, i.a. tax on estates in general and the relations of fines paid by banks and damages done.

Gunnlaugsson has since said in Icelandic media that something could happen already in January.

It remains to be seen. As earlier, my feeling is that the two coalition leaders, Gunnlaugsson and Bjarni Benediktsson minister of finance, have not yet reached an agreement as to how to proceed. Until that happens the really fateful steps towards lifting the capital controls will not be taken.

Whatever happens, Icelanders celebrated New Year as is their custom – with a glorious fireworks show, which culminated at midnight, as seen below. The fun has already been tested, skál and happy merry New Year!

IMG_5108

Follow me on Twitter for running updates.

Written by Sigrún Davíðsdóttir

January 4th, 2015 at 11:09 pm

Posted in Iceland

A revealing leak in Morgunblaðið

make a comment

A journalist at Morgunblaðið, Hörður Ægisson, has a remarkable access to mole/moles within the CBI and/or the civil service who provide him most lavishly with one leak after the other. Ægisson has earlier touched upon Project Slack, apparently the code name for the plan being hatched on the capital controls. Today, he not only mentions the plan by name but seems to copy and paste parts of it: interesting information on exit tax etc. with most interesting ramifications. The leak might be good news for creditors as it gives them the time to figure out a line of defense. But whether it will be used is another matter: it does not seem in line with the minister of finance vision of a simple route steering well away from legal risks.

One of the key concepts mentioned again and again to justify exit tax – i.e. the omnibus one on the whole of Iceland – is equality: exit tax should be equal for everyone, both foreign creditors and Icelandic businesses. This never sounded plausible; after all, those who want the state to make money out of lifting the controls aim at getting that money from the estates and foreign creditors, not from just everyone in Iceland. The leak in Morgunblaðið clarifies this strife for “equality.”

Morgunblaðið writes (p. 16 of print copy; my translation; emphasis in bold and additions in brackets are mine):

In other words, the (exit) tax is a declaration on behalf of Icelandic authorities that cross-border payments, for example due to possible exemptions for the estates (of the failed banks) accompanying a composition agreement, would be treated as is the case with other Icelandic entities. There would be no difference if the payment was in ISK or foreign currency. … Further, the aim is to find ways for domestic entities, both pension funds and businesses, to bring funds out of the country without having to pay the exit tax planned to be introduced as part of the plan of lifting capital controls.

So much for the declared intention of equality. This is a plan where there are foreign creditors on one hand, domestic entities on the other and some are more equal than others. I.e. first there is a general rule for everyone and then exemptions for some, who all happen to be Icelandic.

This does of course not come as any surprise. It has long been clear that a) the Progressive Party wants to channel funds, not only ISK but also FX, from the estates to the Treasury; b) if this channeling were an easy path to follow it would have been done as soon as the government came to power. – The path towards the funds has to be done under the sign of equality but in order for these measures only to hit the foreign creditors some special paths are needed. It is never easy to formulate “equality” that effectively is discriminatory; which explains why it is taking so long. And even more difficult since Bjarni Benediktsson minister of finance defined the route he wants to take: simple and avoiding legal risks.

Further, Morgunblaðið writes: “The estates’ foreign assets will not be treated separately, as creditors had planned, since they only own claims in ISK in Icelandic estates.”

It remains to be seen if this somewhat narrow definition matters or not. Following a Supreme Court ruling on November 10 (an unofficial English translation here) creditors can now ask for a payout in FX, even to the degree that the estates are free to buy FX to provide for a payout.

As to levying the exit tax (or “exit levy” – Morgunblaðið uses the term “levy,” as in the 2011 capital control plan, not “tax” as has been used lately) Morgunblaðið writes: “The exit levy will however cover offshore ISK owned by foreign entities (which is odd to mention because the definition of offshore ISK is “foreign-owned ISK” – does this indicate that there is no levy on offshore ISK owned by Icelandic entities through foreign bank accounts? Or is this just a manner of writing?) after they have been forced to convert their ISK, with a haircut, into FX bonds with maturity of more than 30 years. According to Morgunblaðið’s sources the proposal is to issue these bonds with fixed interest rates below 3%. It is likely that the sovereign would have to pay close to 50% higher interest rates by issuing comparable bonds in international markets.

Here it is of interest to note that these (foreign) offshore ISK owners would be subjected to haircut twice: first when they would be forced (how? By law?) to convert their ISK into FX bonds – and then when they take the bonds abroad.

Interestingly, long maturity is normally imposed to keep funds inside a country, i.e. to prevent it from leaving, when capital controls are lifted. This double-fencing in does, at first sight, not quite seem to add up.

Also, this only seems to fit offshore ISK holders in the original overhang, not the foreign-owned ISK in the estates but that might be my misunderstanding.

The worrying, or out-right scary, news for Icelanders is however that this plan seems built on the belief that with this plan Icelandic sovereign bonds will stay near to a junk/below-investment-grade level if the authors of this mighty plan calculate that 3% is a way for Iceland to get cheap interest rates. That is definitely bad news for Iceland and for Icelandic businesses, which to a great degree are dependent on the sovereign rating. After all, lifting the controls is meant to provide market access for Iceland and Icelandic businesses, not to keep them stuck under a new name in capital-control environment for another 30 years.

As Bjarni Benediktsson put it so well in a speech in October foreign investors tend to mistrust countries that need capital controls to survive.

The original overhang offshore ISK owners (now amounting to ISK307bn; 16% of GDP) are in for some changes if Morgunblaðið is in possession of the real plan: “Investment provisions of offshore ISK owners, who now hold ISK130bn in deposits and ISK170bn in sovereign bonds, will be tightened so they will have a choice either to participate in such a sovereign bond exchange or hold their ISK on non-interest bearing accounts in the CBI without any investment provisions. Offshore ISK owners who have invested in sovereign bonds will be forced into a bond exchange when their bonds mature. Foreign entities own ca. ISK80bn in state securities maturing in 2015 and 2016. The (exchange) bond, issued by the sovereign, is tradable but if investors wish to sell their bonds they will have to pay a 35% exit levy.”

It would be most interesting to know if Project Slack has already been blessed and signed by the foreign advisers or if this is “home-knitted,” to use an Icelandic idiom, i.e. if it is put together by Icelandic experts fulfilling the wish of the powers that are. My understanding is that the foreign advisers are indeed familiar with this project. The leak might hone their understanding of the political territory they are operating in.

In an interview with Viðskiptablaðið CBI governor Már Guðmundsson throws some cold water on speculation regarding an exit tax. In a most becoming governor-like Delphic utterance he points out that such a tax was already part of the 2011 plan but it is untimely to speculate what role it might play or how high it might be used. – Keeping in mind the original 2011 exit tax, targeted at foreign-owned ISK against the all-encompassing exit tax now discussed it is indeed appropriate to mention its role and eventual usage as something that needs to be pondered on.

Whoever named the project must be complemented for his (must be a “he” – no women working on this project) sense of irony given the myriad of connotations it can have: the slack legal framework, the slow-moving project etc.

Perhaps creditors know all of this already and have themselves acquired copies of Project Slack, just like Morgunblaðið. But if not, Morgunblaðið has done the creditors a huge big favour providing their lawyers with stuff with which to prepare for the eventualities listed above. Unless of course the slack project in the end neither fits the CBI, IMF, EU and Benediktsson’s sense of practicality and enforceability, not to mention irony.

Follow me on Twitter for running updates.

Written by Sigrún Davíðsdóttir

December 11th, 2014 at 9:31 am

Posted in Iceland

Lifting the capital controls: attacking the central ISK problem or dallying around it

make a comment

The depressing thing is that resolving the capital controls in Iceland might not be that tricky: there are some really sound ideas on lifting the capital controls and there is no lack of literature/IMF papers on similar situations in other countries. The problem is a political one: politicians have on one hand promised too much, on the other fear the responsibility of fateful decisions. Dallying around has already caused a costly delay for Iceland. But two significant steps have been taken recently: the Landsbankinn bonds agreement is finally in place and the Central Bank has announced its final foreign currency auction on February 10.

Finally, creditors – or rather the Winding-up Boards of the three failed banks and some of their advisers – got to meet the government’s so-called advisory group. An IMF-group, in Iceland now, was not at the meeting according to sources but had meetings with i.a. representatives of the creditors following the meeting yesterday. This is a meeting that will sprout many meetings but nothing more concrete for the time being.

The meeting was called for by the foreign advisers to hear the view of Winding-up Boards and creditors. With no plan presented it seems a bit of an exercise in trying to be seen doing something but as Lee Buchheit said to Rúv last night the foreign advisers thought it was time to hear from the Winding-up Boards before presenting their proposals. – And when could a plan be expected? Early next year, according to Buchheit. In the light of the past that seems an optimistic bid.

With the Landsbankinn bonds agreement in place Benediktsson has shown long-awaited determination though the press release curiously has six statements about what is not being done. Further, it is of great interest to see that the CBI auctions are now being brought to an end with a final auction on February 10. It is reasonable to think it will then take a couple of months to finalise plans, which means that in early spring some plan for dealing with the estates and easing capital controls might reasonably be expected; perhaps in the Icelandic tradition of giving summer presents on the first day of summer, celebrated annually on the third day of April.

However, an exercise in cleverness that does not resolve quickly and effectively the ISK assets, the core of the capital controls, will not be a happy solution for Iceland: most Icelandic business leaders agree that Iceland needs a speedy lifting of the capital controls, of course always with an eye on financial stability.

No conclusion – it wasn’t that kind of a meeting

Ever since Glitnir and Kaupthing presented their draft for a composition agreement to the CBI in 2012 creditors have been waiting to meet someone with authority to negotiate a deal. With foreign advisers at hand they had hoped the government would feel confident enough but so far it has not happen. Although nothing was decided today it was at least a day where it was acknowledged that the WuBs and creditors are a party to lifting the controls.

“No, it wasn’t that kind of a meeting,” Jóhannes Rúnar Jóhannesson from Kaupthing’s Winding-up Board said to Rúv when asked if an official plan of lifting capital controls had been presented. Steinunn Guðbjartsdóttir, Glitnir, said the meeting had been a positive step in the right direction. “I think we have to be optimistic. At least this has started and judging from what Icelandic authorities indicate they seem to be optimistic and steadfast in putting an end to this and start working towards lifting the capital controls,” Guðbjartsdóttir said.

Kaupthing’s main message, according to Jóhannesson, was that composition would be the best way forward for Kaupthing’s creditors but also for the Icelandic state, given that such an agreement would be final and abolish both uncertainty and risk. Being based on an agreement composition would be binding for all creditors. Jóhannesson also said that Kaupthing’s message to Icelandic authorities was that the WuB could offer to conclude Kaupthing’s resolution without challenging financial stability in Iceland. – This last thing is very much what the WuBs have been offering: a balance-of-payment, BoP, neutral resolution.

The possible measures

This was a meeting for the WuBs to make their voices heard and they had all worked hard to prepare for it. The WuBs were asked to explain how their proposals would support the aim of the government to secure financial stability. As mentioned above: the WuBs have all been working towards a balance-of-payment neutral resolution, which they aim at concluding through composition.

An exit tax is still being discussed.* The debate in Iceland has been un-nuanced: there is a huge difference if an exit tax is levied on the offshore ISK assets – as was part of the 2011 CBI plan for lifting the controls; same as i.a. Malaysia did with good results at the end of the 1990s, a classic solution in this situation – or on all funds (of course above a certain amount) leaving the country. Would this cover transactions/payouts between the WuBs’ foreign accounts to the creditors’ foreign accounts? No doubt, those who are constructing this plan would be of that opinion because it is first and foremost foreign funds prime minister Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson and those who agree with him are keen on securing.

Árni Páll Árnason leader of the social democrats who met with the advisers on Monday as part of the Alþingi Economic and trade committee on Monday pointed out after that meeting that the prime minister’s plan to catch funds from lifting the controls had always rung hollow. As far as he could see the aim of the plan-in-the-making was nothing like the prime minister had not only promised but claimed it was unavoidable that the state would accrue money out of the process of lifting the controls.

The goal here is a tax that would be non-discriminatory, not a trivial thing and yet create money flows to the Icelandic treasury. From the point of view of creditors such a tax is akin to an expropriation (especially if not based in national necessity as was the Emergency Act in 2008) and will no doubt be challenged.

The tax levied on the estates this year to fund the latest write-downs, the “Correction,” will as well be challenged. Then there is also another tax, ,,asset-handling tax” (“fjársýsluskattur”), hardly ever mentioned in the debate in Iceland but also greatly upsetting from the point of view of creditors. This tax is, according to them, levied on funds that arise only in the accounts, due to the effect on the asset status when i.a. claims that have been filed twice are corrected and other such measures, i.e. with no tangible funds.

Converting ISK assets into bond with long maturity – 30 years have been mentioned – is one classic solution to prevent funds from leaving the country. Creditors could then sell these bonds or keep them, meaning that for them ISK assets were tradeable. This seems to be part of the plan now in the making.

Solutions tailored to the ISK problem

The problem is that these are all general measures. It would be quicker and more to the point to simply negotiate with Glitnir and Kaupthing regarding their ISK assets, which after all is the core of the problem. The old ISK overhang, now ISK 307bn or just under 16% of GDP.

As the CBI pointed out in its latest Financial Stability report: A solution must be found for the estates’ ISK assets. This is the problem keeping the controls in place – and this is the problem that should be solved.

According to the CBI “settling the estates will have a negative impact on Iceland’s international investment position in the amount of just under 800 b.kr., or about 41% of GDP … The impact on the balance of payments is somewhat less, at 510 b.kr., or 26% of GDP, because a portion of the estates’ foreign-denominated domestic assets are backed directly or indirectly by foreign assets. Residents with foreign-denominated debts to the estates own substantial foreign assets that could be sold upon settlement. Furthermore, the estates’ foreign-denominated sight deposits are backed by foreign liquid assets, according to the Central Bank’s liquidity rules. The impact of the estates’ settlement on the balance of payments is virtually the same as their ISK assets. All of the above amounts will decline by 110 b.kr., or 6% of GDP, with the payment of bank taxes. (Emphasis is mine.)

In addition “Glitnir and LBI have now converted about 70% of the estates’ original asset portfolios to liquid funds, and Kaupthing has converted roughly 60%.”

The sentence in bold outlines how this part of the foreign-denominated debt could be resolved. The book value of the estates’ holdings in Arion Bank and Íslandsbanki accounts for ca. 77% of their domestic ISK-fixed assets. Roughly the whole of Kaupthing’s ISK problem is its holding in Arion. Glitnir has ca. ISK100bn in addition to its holding in Íslandsbanki. There are persistent rumours that Glitnir is close to finding foreign buyers to Íslandsbanki. Another way would simply be to list one or both banks abroad as well as in Iceland – the Norwegian stock exchange has been mentioned as an option.

Agreeing with the CBI the ISK problem needs to be solved. The easiest way to tackle it is by simply negotiating with creditors of the two estates. Swaps with the CBI’s ESÍ and other technical solutions could be used. But as long as the government is captured by its thoughts of making money out of the estates simple solutions are in the danger of being pushed aside for more complex and riskier plans.

Another reason for staying away from negotiations is the government’s fear of getting exposed to legal risk arising from an involvement. But that risk is, to my mind, already there as any exemption granted by the CBI needs the blessing of the minister of finance.

The economic environment: from inflation to deflation

In November Statistics Iceland forecast growth of 2.7% this year. Three weeks later it published new data showing a growth of 0.5% over the first nine months of the year with recession of 0.2% during the third quarter. All of this is way off the 3% widely forecasted at the beginning of the year. Inflation is now at 1%, historically low. As expected, the CBI lowered its rates today: the seven-day collateral lending was lowered from 5.75% to 5.25% (its press release throws some light on the economic situation of weaker growth than previously forecasted).

After living (rather too happily, it seems) with inflation (or the “ghost of inflation” as it is often called in Iceland, perhaps indicating that it is not taken very seriously: a ghost sounds less ominous, more ethereal, than the real thing) Iceland now seems headed for deflation though still too incredible to contemplate. Interestingly, this does not seem to register much. Strangely, compared to other countries, DEFLATION has not been printed in big letters or caused furious and worried debate. Oil price has fallen by 40% over a short time and such swings in commodity can very well aid deflation. People might have been waiting to see what the “Correction,” the debt write-down, would bring – these are the explanations economists have been coming up with.

A deflationary environment is of course a wholly different thing than a growing economy and would pose some real challenges in lifting the capital controls. After all, the conditions for lifting have been most favourable, both in Iceland and abroad.

Iceland’s economy, being a small one, often shows great big swings for little reasons. However, the deflationary tendency is a novelty. It remains to be seen if this is a trend or just a bleep.

An IMF-group was in Iceland yesterday to follow things though not present at the meeting. Both the IMF and the EU are monitoring the situation and a solution without their blessing is unthinkable.

What can unhappy creditors do?

The short answer is: plenty. Still too early to speculate, and hopefully there will not be much reason to, but the hedge funds and other claimants would not have been doing their job if they did not have plan A-Z at hand. Law suits abroad is a common route, plenty of scope there for speculation.

Or something as simple as to short Icelandic sovereign bonds.

Again, remains to be seen. A topic for another day but all of this is clearly been worked on by those whose job it is to steward claims in the estates of the three banks.

The government’s foreign advisers live and breath this environment and there will be nothing there they have not encountered before in other parts of the world. The advisers will be aware of the reputational risks for Iceland (and for themselves).

It is – of course – all about politics but not only in Iceland

There are now three things that indicate the growing political strength of Bjarni Benediktsson. The Landsbankinn bonds agreement went through, as did the ISK400bn payment to the priority creditors. This is allegedly what Benediktsson wanted to do all along, unsuccessfully until recently.

This might indicate an upper hand over the prime minister who was allegedly vehemently opposed to the deal though there was no plan in sight as to how to then save Landsbankinn from default in the foreseeable future.

But it was not only Benediktsson’s growing strength that helped finalise the agreement. According to various sources the Icelandic government sensed great pressure from abroad, first and foremost from the British government, eager to recuperate its Icesave expense but also from the European Union. “Quite severe pressure,” one source said. US officials were putting a lot of pressure on the government earlier this year but do not seem to have shown much interest lately.

If this foreign pressure has been a decisive factor the Landsbankinn move might be more due to the pressure than Benediktsson’s strength. The sticks and carrots were not needed for the LBI, the old bank, but for the government, which allegedly got more sticks than carrots from abroad to accept the agreement.

But there is also another movement: the CBI is resuming its currency auctions, which have been stalled for the last many months. There have been various explanation as to why but whatever the reason was the auctions have now been revived – definitely an important step. Being the final auction it will complete this stage of the plan from 2011.

After the whole sorry affair of getting rid of Hanna Birna Kristjánsdóttir minister of interior Benediktsson appointed a new one, Ólöf Nordal. She is not an MP and was a most unexpected choice. gave Benediktsson the possibility to show the capacity to finding an unexpected solution. It however did take him over a week, though Kristjánsdóttir’s resignation certainly did not surprise. It has generally been taken as a sign of Benediktsson’s strength but others think that in the long run this affair will weaken Benediktsson because it shows he has no faith in his Parliamentary group. He might discover at his peril that few bear grudges like belittled MPs.

Rather tomorrow than today

“Morgen Morgen nur nicht heute, sagen alle faule Leute, (tomorrow and not today, say lazy people)” is a German saying. In the case of Iceland it is not so much about being lazy as being fearful in front of the task of taking decisions that will set the course for Iceland in the coming years; and a political disharmony within the government.

There is an on-going action towards lifting the capital controls. Important steps have been taken but they have been taken rather on the back-foot than with a forward surge and energy. The difficult issues are still unsolved: to lift the controls with the lifting itself as the reward – or lifting by trying to get hold of foreign assets of the estates; two different routes demanding different approaches.

With the long preparation, dealing with the ISK assets is the most direct and shortest route towards lifting the controls. The creditors have a full understanding of the situation, also the political situation. Though they will evidently fight fiercely for every króna in the estates there is no doubt also a sense of reality among them what is likely to be within reach, also because a BoP neutral solution is needed as far as possible. If the Icelandic government could muster the courage, aided by their foreign advisers, to take an aim at the core problem it is perfectly achievable to lift the capital controls in the foreseeable future. Again, this is a problem of politics, not economics – and that does not make it any easier to tackle.

*To clarify: in the 2011 capital control plan the exit tax, called “exit levy,” was presented as last-step in the plan to lift the controls: “Finally, the remaining owners of offshore krónur will be offered the chance to sell their ISK deposits for foreign exchange, subject to an exit levy, or to swap króna‐denominated Treasury bonds for eurobonds issued by the Treasury. It is difficult to state when this phase will be concluded; this will be determined by the interplay of internal and external factors.” – As has been emphasized above and earlier on Icelog: what is now being discussed is a very different beast: exit tax on all funds (above a certain amount, no doubt a matter of severe discussion among the advisers) leaving the island, creditors, pension funds and all and sundry. The offshore ISK exit tax targets the core problem, the omnibus exit tax does not: offshore ISK owners, within the estates and those from the old overhang (now ca. 16% of GDP) could well wait, which means that there is nothing to ensure the offshore ISK problem will be solved. – For this reason I find it difficult to imagine that the IMF and the EU would accept the omnibus version of the exit tax though nothing is ever certain in this world.

Update: among the questions WuBs were asked about was why they preferred composition to bankruptcy proceedings – and also their opinion on inserting some sort of a sunset clause into the process (retroactive law?)

Further: I was asked what I thought the exit tax would be. It seems impossible to answer this question in a rational way. First: the estates aim at a BoP neutral solution – as Lord Eatwell suggested in his advice to Glitnir. Kaupthing is talking about the same. Second: what is the tax being used for? To raise money for the state? Then it is impossible to calculate the tax unless knowing how much the government is seeking to raise. Or, tax to solve the problem of the ISK? As far as I can see an omnibus exit tax does not solve the ISK problem, see above. – That said, the number must consistently mentioned is 45% but again, will it be a transparent tax/levy, i.e. with a clear aim/timeframe, as successfully used in Malaysia; or a non-transparent one with no clear aim/timeframe.

Follow me on Twitter for running updates.

Written by Sigrún Davíðsdóttir

December 10th, 2014 at 9:48 am

Posted in Iceland

Plan (early) next year

make a comment

So far, no clear news of the meeting with Winding-up Boards today but it now seems clear that the meeting today was only an informative meeting for the foreign advisers to hear the opinions of the Winding-up Boards on the relevant issues. In the words of a source advising creditors it was a “non-meeting.”

In an interview with Rúv Lee Buchheit, adviser to the Icelandic government on capital controls, said the preparatory work was hopefully about to end. Being this far into preparing a plan he said it was right to hear the opinions of the Winding-up Boards before the advisers would refine their plan and make recommendations to the steering committee. It was perfectly feasible to do something early next year, according to Buchheit.

Follow me on Twitter for running updates.

Written by Sigrún Davíðsdóttir

December 9th, 2014 at 6:22 pm

Posted in Iceland

Plan (of some sort) presented to parliamentary committee and Winding-up Boards

make a comment

Monday, some of the foreign advisers to the Icelandic government on capital controls met with the Parliament’s Economy and trade committee, apparently to present an outline of a plan towards lifting the capital controls. Tomorrow there is a meeting with the Winding-up Boards of the three failed banks.

The plan presented to the committee is so far confidential but in an interview with Stöð 2 Árni Páll Árnason leader of the social democrats said that without breaching the confidentiality he could say that the plan presented was a long way from the ISK300bn windfall for the Icelandic state that prime minister Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson promised during the election campaign last year. A promise that was always a hollow one, according to Árnason. “It also seems clear that the people’s pension funds will be last in the queue when the capital controls are lifted and the interest of the creditors have priority. It’s now reasonable to ask: what’s the cost of this delay?”

Árnason’s reaction, in addition to rumors from various sources indicate that the plan is still to a certain degree unformed. It is not yet clear if an exit tax on all capital flows from Iceland is being presented as part of it. This tax, in addition to other taxes already imposed on the estates, is likely to be challenged by creditors; it would then lead to the legal wrangling Bjarni Benediktsson minister of finance has said he would want to avoid.

Glenn Kim, who has lead the government’s working group, is in Iceland for the meetings, as is Cleary’s Lee Buchheit. On the other side there are foreign advisers for the Winding-up Board, i.a. from Blackstone. Considering this small world of hedge funds and their legal advisers it seems likely that the foreign advisers have some understanding of the creditors’ point of view and the fact that the creditors will feel that a plan on lifting the controls is long overdue.

There is still no sign of the government’s two leaders being in agreement as to how to proceed. However, with the Landsbanki bonds agreement now having been confirmed a decisive step forward has been taken. The government will now feel the pressure to continue along the same route. Tomorrow might certainly bring some surprises. Yet, remarkable few seem to count on the plan being the sort of solution the country is waiting for. More cost to Iceland from the capital controls might still accrue.

*Update: in addition to the issues above creditors might be offered to convert their ISK cash into long-term bonds, a classic way to resolve the problems at stake.

Follow me on Twitter for running updates.

Written by Sigrún Davíðsdóttir

December 9th, 2014 at 12:08 am

Posted in Iceland

Small or big steps?

make a comment

The Winding-up boards of the banks have been waiting to be called to a meeting with the committee overseeing the lifting of the capital controls – and now an invitation has landed on their tables for a meeting next Tuesday. Remains to be seen what the message is.

In the meantime, there is the extension of the Landsbanki bond agreement and a payment of ISK400bn to priority claimants in Landsbanki, announced yesterday, all explained here. The agreement has been changed from what it was originally but at least decisions have been taken and the Brits have had some happy tidings.

The question is if something more will follow, hen’s or horse’s steps.

Bjarni Benediktsson has heaped time pressure on himself (allegedly trying to push the PM to good deeds) by continuously referring to a plan in spe by the end of the year. With domestic politics in mind, he might feel that Icelanders need some taken care of, i.e. some control easing for domestic entities rather than foreign creditors. Without solving the problem of the offshore ISK any domestic move can be little but some window-dressing.

So far, the fundamental rift between the two government leaders hasn’t been fixed – that the PM hopes to gain funds out of lifting controls while Benediktsson is, I believe, “just” trying to lift the controls. As long as they don’t look in the same direction it is difficult to believe in the big steps necessary to lift the controls.

It certainly is a victory for Benediktsson that he has finally – after months (depends if one counts from May or later) been able to do what he apparently wanted all along: extend the Landsbanki bonds (albeit by changing the agreement but not in a materially different way). Better late than never. Incidentally, this happened on a day where he appointed a new minister of interior, Ólöf Nordal, thereby making a popular choice for everyone except his parliamentary group, which in the long time might turn problematic. The group will certainly not feel they owe him any favour.

In November a year ago when Benediktsson managed to drastically tame the PM’s wishes re the “Correction” as the plan was first presented, I thought this signaled that Benediktsson was gaining the upper hand in the relationship with his coalition party. I was dismally wrong that time; no drastic steps followed. Now that Benediktsson has taken steps re Landsbanki, after all this time, doesn’t necessarily mean he is gaining the upper hand.

The last paragraph in the press release from the Ministry of Finance is interesting:

The settlement of priority claims marks a major step forward in the winding-up proceedings of the failed banks and will assist the Government in implementing a comprehensive capital account liberalisation strategy. 

So is there now the long-awaited strategy? Not sure yet, more needs to be seen.

Another interesting new move – Heiðar Már Guðjónsson has now demanded at Reykjavík District Court that Glitnir be put into bankruptcy proceedings; another interesting twist.

Follow me on Twitter for running updates.

Written by Sigrún Davíðsdóttir

December 5th, 2014 at 11:01 am

Posted in Iceland