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Iceland pre-and post-collapse

The day of decision… or maybe not…

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The day of decision regarding the Landsbanki bonds agreement isn’t over – still too early to tell how it ends. Allegedly, Bjarni Benediktsson minister of finance and leader of the Independence party had planned to answer LBI, with some changes to previous agreement. His attempt was, again allegedly, stopped last night by prime minister Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson.

The LBI postponed its creditor meeting yesterday until today. It is now due to start at 4pm. However, it is still unclear if there will be an answer from Icelandic authorities regarding the agreement. Or not. The minister of finance has to inform the Alþingi economy and business committee of the agreement and so far, no meeting has been called in the committee.

No doubt, there are hectic meetings ongoing. Considering the fact that the agreement was made on May 8 this year the government has had ample time to analyse the matter. However, this government has so far normally decided things the very last moment (the “correction” of loans and handling of the appointment of the governor of the CBI spring to mind).

The agreement was meant to be a first step towards lifting the capital controls. If Benediktsson, who has the formal responsibility for finding a solution, is being stopped in his track now the question is if he is in command and if he stands any chance at all to progress as he wants to. As I have often pointed out earlier the solution regarding the capital controls and the three estates – Landsbanki, Glitnir and Kaupthing – is a political one. It is now an even bigger question than earlier if the two party leaders in government will at all come to necessary conclusions on key issues. Or if things will just drag on as hitherto, with state-owned Landsbankinn limping towards default next year, certainly not the sellable asset of which the government had planned to sell 15% next year and again 15% the following year.

Even more intriguing that this alleged wrestle between the two party leaders is happening on a day when the daily Fréttablaðið publishes a poll showing that Gunnlaugsson’s party, the Progressive party, now only has 8.7% of votes, compared to 24.4% in the elections in spring last year. With this result the party would lose 13 MPs. Benediktsson’s party, the Independence party, has jumped up from 26.7% to 30%. The social democrats have 23.1% according to the poll, got 12.8% of votes in the election.

- – -

Late afternoon addition:

It now seems clear that no answer on the Landsbanki bonds agreement is forthcoming from the government today – but is apparently to be expected on Monday.

*More on the Landsbanki bonds agreement here.

 

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Written by Sigrún Davíðsdóttir

October 24th, 2014 at 12:06 pm

Posted in Iceland

Arnarhvoll-ology: when the best of times could quickly turn into the worst of times

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Minister of finance Bjarni Benediktsson discourses boldly on decisive and imminent steps towards lifting the capital controls. Prime minister Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson now rarely mentions the topic and then only in the most general terms. The next important event is the October 24 deadline* for the Landsbanki bonds agreement. The government faces strikes, the final vote on the 2015 budget is still to come and the “Correction” – writing-down of loans – is moving slower than planned. Worst of all for a government: the two leaders seem light-years apart on key issues. The question is if the two of them really can forge a coherent policy on the capital controls (as well as some other issues).

Russia watchers have Kremlinology. The equivalent in Iceland could be Arnarhvoll-ology (admittedly a word that will not flow easily off a foreign tongue): the art of observing and making qualified guesses of what is really going on in Icelandic politics.

Arnarhvoll is the imposing 1930 building, which now houses the ministry of finance, built at the time when most buildings in Iceland were corrugated-iron sheds or turf-roofed cottages. With an eye on modern Iceland – new(ish) cars, big houses and Harpan – it is easy to forget the giant steps this once so, literally, dirt-poor country took into affluence and modernity. Now Arnarhvoll nests by the Supreme Court house, the Central Bank and the National Theatre, not far from Harpan.

Below is an attempt to practice some Arnarhvoll-ology to gauge where the government stands regarding the capital controls, most of all the pressing issues of the Landsbankinn bonds agreement and of how to resolve the estates of Kaupthing and Glitnir.

Benediktsson’s knowns and unknowns

Minister of finance Bjarni Benediktsson gave a speech last week at a symposium in memory of an Icelandic economist, Jónas Haralz. In his speech, (here, only in Icelandic) Benediktsson reminded the audience of the last time capital controls were put in place in Iceland: stayed for 60 years. With new controls in 2008 Haralz said that compared to earlier Iceland was now much more connected to the outer world in addition to the support of the IMF; Haralz was sure the controls would not be allowed to fester for 60 years this time.

Although Benediktsson’s speech was fairly general it did, to my mind, include soms paragraphs, which under the lenses of Arnarhvoll-ology might give some hints on his thoughts: no, the creditors are no this main worries but, as far as I can see, his coalition partner.

As before Benediktsson said any solutions had to be financially feasible, socially fair and politically doable. It was also important to be aware of the risks implied, he said, aware that circumstances can change quickly in spite of the present positive outlook. Solutions should not be based on too much optimism regarding the coming years. In addition, circumstances abroad could change – a timely reminder for Iceland, he said, to pay off its debt (but no, he did not mention why then ISK80bn of public money should be used for the “Correction” and not to paying off sovereign debt).

Benediktsson said that since last year much work had been carried out to analyse the problems and develop solutions. Then this declaration (which sounds equally un-Icelandic as it sounds un-English in my translation; emphasis mine): “I make the demand that during this year important questions will be answered so that next steps can be taken. They (the questions) will i.a. touch on if it is realistic to solve the issues of the estates without a direct intervention by authorities.

Benediktsson emphasised the importance of a holistic solution, taking care to respect national interest “as well as respecting law, international commitment and ensure equal treatment.” The balance-of-payments needs to reflect reality (never easy in Iceland at the best of times), also to prevent another economic down-turn. Then again, a very interesting sentence: “Actions that take less time, are simple and minimise legal risk will be favoured over more complicated ones; each action needs to be in accordance with the general solution.

Benediktsson said the government was willing to listen to all constructive ideas, no matter where they came from, also regarding exemptions, as long as they improved the economy. But all decisions would be taken with the general interest of the nation at heart, not single interest groups – interestingly, a comment that could as easily be directed at some Icelanders as well as the creditors.

But there were also words clearly meant for the creditors: “If those seeking exemptions from capital controls do not put forward realistic ideas to meet these points of view as well as others still being worked on, things will be put in order of priority according to the needs of the real economy.” – This means that creditors must take into account issues the government has already presented as well as those not yet presented, the knowns and the unknowns; never an easy proposition.

Anyway, both Kaupthing and Glitnir have tried: Kaupthing has had no answer; Glitnir has had an answer after which it amended its composition draft. There are simply far too many possibilities and variables for this silly game to continue. The government cannot claim the estates are none of its business when it is the final arbiter in the process of the estates’ resolution.

And last but not least some edifying words for those working on lifting the capital controls: “For those responsible for moving these issues forward it is at last important to realise that it will not be possible to calculate all potential outcomes, eliminate all risk and foresee investor behaviour far into the future. What is needed, after the necessary preparation, is simply to make a decision.

Benediktsson’s message according to Arnarhvoll-ology

From all directions it echoes that Benediktsson and Gunnlaugsson are light-years apart on the key issues of the capital controls. Each side appointed people in the all-Icelandic advisory group at work last winter – in the end it allegedly only came up with a mish-mash of various and to some degree conflicting ideas. In the group now at work each side also appointed its representatives, which means, I am told, that there is not much momentum to solve the underlying and fundamental disagreement on composition vs bankruptcy re Kaupthing and Glitnir. Glenn Kim, the foreign advisor in charge of this group is apparently not much seen in Iceland these days (though yes, with modern means of communication presence is not all).

Reading Benediktsson’s speech with this in mind, it is difficult to avoid the feeling the Benediktsson really is talking to his opponents in the government and not so much to creditors. He is telling his opponents that rather than embarking on the risky road of bankruptcy, simple foreseeable routes are preferable. Or, as the IMF put it: composition is an orderly legal route, bankruptcy a disorderly route.

Benediktsson prefers the simple to the complicated and he also prefers solutions that take less time than long time. And Benediktsson is also well aware of reputational risk: my friends (if he still uses that word for his coalition members), lets keep in mind the rule of law, international law and equal treatment for all, both Icelanders and foreigners. An all-encompassing certainty can never be achieved in this world: those who have the painful role of deciding must in the end… eh, make up their minds.

The Progressive Party has over the years been good at securing good deals for chosen party members. The feeling is that some would like to steer Íslandsbanki and Arion, now owned respectively by Glitnir and Kaupthing, into Icelandic hands. If so, this goal could influence their thinking on the issues at stake in lifting the control.

As tried and tested Kremlinologists know the interpretation is only as good as the political understanding it is based on. But no matter what: it is politics and not economy that decides on the vital issues regarding the lifting of the controls.

The best of times

In its recent Financial Stability Report the CBI came out with its so far most clear warning on the “steadily increasing” cost of the capital controls and their detrimental effect on the economy (emphasis as in the FS report):

There are numerous costs associated with the capital controls. The most obvious is the direct expense involved in enforcing and complying with them. But more onerous are the indirect costs, which can be difficult to measure. The controls affect the decisions made by firms and individuals, including investment decisions. Over time, the controls distort economic activities that adapt to them, ultimately reducing GDP growth. The direct costs associated with liberalisation centre primarily on the possible lack of confidence in liberalisation and the associated risk of disorderly capital outflows, which would weaken the króna, stimulate inflation, and result in higher interest rates.

If liberalisation is not carried out successfully, these costs will make themselves felt quickly. On the other hand, liberalisation will lead to increased efficiency over time, as decisions will be made without consideration of the capital controls. Measures aimed at making it easier for some parties in the economy to tolerate the controls reduces the incentive to lift them, with the associated expense for the general public. 

The FS Report is equally clear on the present favourable economic conditions:

At present, economic conditions are favourable for large steps in liberalisation. The economic outlook is better in Iceland than in its main trading partner countries, interest rates abroad are at a historical low, Iceland’s interest rate differential with its main trading partners is positive, GDP growth is stronger in Iceland than in most trading partner countries, domestic inflation is close to target, Iceland has an established trade surplus, the fiscal budget is estimated to be in surplus next year, the spread between the official Central Bank exchange rate and the offshore exchange rate has narrowed significantly in recent months, and the Treasury has demonstrated repeatedly that it has access to foreign credit markets. Therefore, it appears that current economic conditions are conducive to successful liberalisation of the capital controls. It is important to remember, however, that these conditions could change for the worse later on.

The main problems relating to liberalisation have been identified as the stock of offshore krónur owned by non-residents, Iceland’s balance of payments, and the settlement of the failed banks’ estates. The narrowing of the spread between the Central Bank’s official exchange rate and the offshore rate, increased access to foreign credit markets, deleveraging of foreign loans, and the persistent trade surplus diminish the effects of the first of these two risks. The remaining problem, the settlement of the failed banks’ estates, is the largest factor complicating the liberalisation process. 

The same views are widely heard throughout the Icelandic business community, most recently expressed in an article (only in Icelandic) by Þorsteinn Víglundsson managing director of SA, the employers’ organisation.

One way of managing life under controls would be to give more exemptions to domestic entities. Were that route to be used increasingly it undoubtedly means that the government is planning for the controls to be in place for a long time – no good sign.

Landsbanki bonds agreement

According to rumours the Landsbanki bond agreement is yet another battleground between the two coalition leaders. Benediktsson has been in favour of agreeing to it. It seems the prime minister sees the agreement as giving too much to the creditors. (See here for further details regarding the agreement).

Some prudent voices claim the agreement sets precedence for the general creditors. Others claim that the main importance is to abolish the uncertainty Landsbankinn with no agreement poses. The CBI points clearly out the risks for Landsbankinn and Iceland as a whole unless the bonds’ maturities are extended:

Other things being equal, if the Landsbankinn bonds are not extended, domestic demand would have to contract and the currency would have to depreciate in order for the domestic economy to generate enough additional foreign currency to service the debt. Analysis using the Central Bank’s macroeconomic model indicates that, in comparison with a scenario providing for the lengthening of the bonds, the exchange rate would have to decline temporarily by up to 8%, private consumption would contract by up to 2%. Inflation would rise and, according to the model, Central Bank interest rates would have to be kept higher in the near future in order to bring it back to target. In order to prevent this, the State or the Central Bank would have to provide Landsbankinn with long-term foreign-denominated funding, with the associated implications for the Treasury debt position and the Bank’s foreign exchange reserves.

If the bonds are lengthened and external conditions remain unchanged, it is likely that the trade surplus will suffice to cover resident entities’ unfunded debt service burden in foreign credit markets in coming years…

Landsbanki estate, the LBI, has not been able to pay out to priority creditors for over a year now, see its financial statement here. With time and no explanations from the authorities it will make the UK government increasingly frustrated as well as other priority claimants. Again, does not bode well for Landsbankinn. Also, it prepares a case for creditors that the Icelandic authorities are withholding their funds.

The worst of times – in sight

In addition to the good times in Iceland there are positive circumstances abroad. As Benediktsson pointed out in his speech nothing lasts forever. In Iceland, an ominous winter is ahead.

Coalition MPs disagree wildly over tax – Benediktsson proposes to put VAT on food up from 7% to 12% and offsetting this by lowering VAT on i.a. kitchen appliances. This is a thorny issue for the Progressive Party. Sigmundsson himself wrote some years back on the unfairness of putting up VAT on food, an opinion widely shared by his fellow MPs. The question is if Gunnlaugsson will side with his fellow party members or with Benediktsson and the Independence Party when the budget coms up for a final vote in Althing: a truly impossible choice unless Benediktsson helps him out, which in turn hurts Benediktsson and cements his reputation as a ditherer.

Because of this the budget might not go down smoothly in Althingi. In addition, the “Correction” is still not in people’s pockets and so far unclear when it will happen.

Physicians got the right to strike some thirty years ago but have never gone on strike so far. That might be about to change: the Icelandic Medical Association now threatens a strike on October 27. Other strikes could follow in the coming winter.

The times for lifting the capital controls may be as good as they get. Objectively, Benediktsson has excellent reasons to be optimistic about decisive steps in sight. There are solutions in sight, tickling the finger-tips. But as long the underlying discord and clear-cut disagreement is unresolved the good economic circumstances do not help. The truly frustrating thing is that because of the work carried out by the Icelandic authorities those who, like Benediktsson, favour a quick and simple solution really do see various ways to reach the goals set forth by Benediktsson. Above, nothing is said about the unknowns related to possible creditor action against Icelandic authorities – hopefully an unknown Benediktsson is working on understanding and then explain possible risk to those who take a different view on how to proceed, also the fact that no action on behalf of the Icelandic authorities is not entirely risk-free either.

If the underlying disagreement remains unsolved  and if strikes and budget battles are on the horizon the best of times could easily become the worst of times… and drain the government of the political energy needed for taking the decisive steps the minister of finance is demanding. Sad for Iceland but hopefully it will not take 60 years as last time.

*Updated version. – The original version gave the LBI deadline as Oct. 26; sorry, it is indeed October 24 as stated in an earlier Icelog.

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Written by Sigrún Davíðsdóttir

October 20th, 2014 at 12:23 am

Posted in Iceland

Six years after the collapse: the government is starving the Special Prosecutor of funds

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After the banking collapse in October 2008, three things were set in motion by the government at the time (Independence Party, together with the Social Democrats): an investigation into the causes of the collapse, rewriting the constitution and an Office of a Special Prosecutor. The investigation was concluded with a report of 2400 pages published April 10 2010; so far, no country has done a comparable report on the financial crisis in 2008. Rewriting the constitution was not finished in the way intended due to a political backlash. The government now plans to review OSP’s role although the OSP was made a permanent serious fraud office in 2011 – and starve it of funds while the review is ongoing.

It did not start too well: after Althing passed an Act in December 2008 to set up an office of a special prosecutor to investigate possible fraud related to the banking collapse no one applied. Finally, Ólafur Þór Hauksson stepped forward, a sheriff (called “sýslumaður” in Icelandic) from Akranes, the village on the other side of the gulf from Reykjavík.

Though having no previous expertise in Iceland to build on, the OSP has built up the expertise and know-how in investigating fraud such as market manipulation, insider trading, embezzlement and breach of fiduciary duty. So far, six OSP cases have found their way all the way to the Icelandic Supreme Court: five ended with sentencing, one with acquittal.

The Icelandic decision to investigate possible fraud within the banks has been much noticed around the world where financial institutions often seem like holy cows, too powerful to investigate and bankers too important to jail. Examiner Anton Valukas who led the investigation into Lehman Brothers’ demise pointed out certain accounting practice, so called Repo 105, which according to the report seemed to have the sole purpose of balance sheet manipulation (see here on Valukas and the SIC report). Valukas has later clearly expressed bafflement that no charges have been filed regarding Lehman. – In Iceland, irregularities regarding the operations of the banks are being investigated and bankers prosecuted as well as other high-flying businessmen.

With the present coalition government of the Progressive Party and the Independence Party (which led the government that set up the OSP; ex-PM Geir Haarde said on Rúv tonight it had been a good step), the tone is now changed: the OSP is being starved of funds in the 2015 budget.

The government claims it is going to review the OSP operation. Interestingly, it is going to starve it first and then review it. The government seems to ignore that fact that since the law on the OSP was changed in 2011 so as to turn it into a permanent serious fraud office, there is no burning need to come up with changes of purpose and mission.

In numbers (from a recent Rúv interview with Hauksson): the OSP budget for this year is ISK900m, €5,9m; for next year its share in the budget is ISK295m, or a cut of 67%. Sixteen employees were recently fired because of the envisaged funding cuts. With the present prospect for 2015 staff will go from seventy to twenty. The number of cases now under investigation is 96; 39 of them are related to the collapse. The planned cuts also mean that opening investigations into new cases will be problematic; the outlook for seeing charges through court is uncertain.

Just to give an idea on the OSP present activity: these days, the OSP’s most extensive case so far is in the Reykjavík District where Landsbanki’s CEO Sigurjón Árnason and three Landsbanki employees are charged with market manipulation. This weekend, Rúv brought news of charges against four Spron board members and Spron CEO Guðmundur Hauksson (not related to Special Prosecutor Hauksson) relating to an ISK2bn, now €10m, loan to Exista; Guðmundur Hauksson had shares in Exista and long-time relationship with that company, the largest shareholder of Kaupthing. In January, the so-called al Thani case is coming up in the Supreme Court; appeal of the Reykjavík District Court where Kaupthing CEO Hreiðar Sigurðsson was sentenced to 5 1/2 years, executive chairman Sigurður Einarsson 5 years, Kaupthing’s second largest shareholder Ólafur Ólafsson 3 1/2 years and Magnús Guðmundsson manager of Kaupthing Lúxemborg 3 years.

On October 6 2008 Icelanders sat stunned as prime minister Haarde addressed the nation at 4pm to tell them the government was doing what was needed to prevent the collapsing banks from causing a national catastrophe. The OSP has been diligent in bringing banking high-flyers and their helpers to court. Although the task is not finished it seems the government is no longer adamant about investigating collapse-related fraud cases, let alone keeping an eye on potentially new financial fraud cases. – It is now oh so 2008…

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Written by Sigrún Davíðsdóttir

October 6th, 2014 at 10:39 pm

Posted in Iceland

The Landsbanki bonds agreement: one step… not quite forward but hovering

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Extending the maturity of the two Landsbanki bonds, held by LBI, is widely seen as one of the prerequisites for lifting the capital controls in Iceland. An agreement on extension was reached in summer. In order to ensure LBI would pass payments on to creditors the agreement is dependent on exemption from the capital controls. The deadline, originally August 8, expired October 1. The agreement, which seemed a step towards lifting the controls, is now one foot forward but hovering.

“The attitude in Iceland is that an agreement is never final but can always be renegotiated,” was one comment I heard now that the Central Bank of Iceland is keeping Landsbankinn and the LBI, the estate of the old failed Landsbanki, in a limbo.

The extended deadline has passed – but the LBI has published a statement announcing the re-extending of the deadline: “According to revised terms if the transaction is not completed by October 24, the amendment agreement between LB and LBI will terminate.”

The question is what can be read out of this latest development regarding the advancement of a plan to lift the capital controls, the view within the government and the role the CBI is playing.

The CBI can play politics … or not

The procedure regarding exemptions from capital controls is that if the CBI approves an exemption the minister of finance has to confirm it, which means the process is political. This gives the CBI two options in its standpoint on exemption: it can make its own evaluation – does the exemption threaten financial stability in Iceland or not – or – it can play politics and make assessment according to how the political winds are blowing: if it thinks the minister will agree to it or not. (Once the decision has been taken it is however not necessarily clear what option it took.)

October 1 the CBI published two letters (only in Icelandic) to Landsbankinn regarding the agreement: a letter from July 14 and a letter sent October 1 to Landsbankinn.

The July letter mentions that the CBI already has in total three exemption requests from the LBI to pay out funds, kept in Iceland and abroad, to priority creditors (who have been fully paid in both Glitnir and Kaupthing). In addition, LBI has requested, in connection to the Landsbankinn bonds agreement, that any payments due to creditors from the bonds be kept outside the capital controls, meaning the LBI could pay creditors directly thus avoiding the exemption process (a clever arrangement, which I had not heard of earlier).

The CBI acknowledges in the July letter that the new agreement makes it easier for Landsbankinn to seek funding on international markets, which alleviates the Icelandic balance of payment (BoP) problem linked to the bonds repayment.

In spite of the (obviously) positive and desired effect of the agreement the CBI states that “within the timeframe given” it cannot agree to the request of keeping bond payments to LBI outside of the controls for two reasons:

“For the first the bank’s decision needs to be based on a thorough analysis of the effect of the agreement on BoP and on those privy to the agreement. The agreement needs to be compared to the present status. It is also the bank’s duty to examine if any changes in its fulfilment or other options could be both realistic and better for any single party or all those privy to the case. Here it is not being stated that this might be the case. This analysis just takes longer than the time given, in particular considering the time of the year.

Secondly, it needs to be taken into consideration that the government’s policy on lifting the capital controls is being re-evaluated, especially what role of the resolution of the estates of the failed banks will play in that process. This work is though going forward. Last April an advisory group on lifting of the controls gave an opinion and recently foreign advisers were hired who will be advising the government on forming this policy. It is however unavoidable to examine how the above request harmonises with that policy. This cannot be stated at this point.

Considering the present plans a final answer can be expected no later than the end of the year. It should be emphasised that earlier requests for partial payouts to creditors are still being considered. It should be reiterated that all exemptions mentioned in this letter need by law to be confirmed by the minister of finance in addition to the approval of the CBI.”

The new letter refers to the July letter, saying that an answer could not be provided before August 8 but would be forthcoming no later than by the end of the year. The CBI sticks to opinions expressed in the July letter.

Since the letter was sent the work on the issues mentioned in the (July) letter has progressed well. Yet, it has not been possible to deal with the matter before October 1 as had been requested in a letter of August 8 from the LBI. The CBI reckons however that it is highly likely that a answer to the LBI request can be provided in the next few weeks.”

An agreement with two godmothers?

It is easy to gauge the atmosphere at the LBI and Landsbankinn. Knowing Iceland and its government they are hardly gobsmacked but they can hardly be pleased. They are now left to grapple with the dilemma if there is an agreement in the making or nothing at all.

As to why the two parties thought they had an agreement there are again, theoretically at least, only two possibilities: the Landsbankinn management thought it had the acceptance of the CBI and the Ministry of finance to make this agreement with the LBI (and then it can hardly avoid feeling betrayed) – or it did not have such an acceptance and then the question is why the management thought it would get the agreement accepted.

As far as I know civil servants from both the CBI and the Ministry of finance followed the negotiations. After all the state owns 97.9% of Landsbanki and negotiating without any attention to the wishes of the owner would hardly have been prudent.

Considering the fact that the CBI has repeatedly expressed the view that extending the maturity of the Landsbankinn bonds was a necessary (first) step towards lifting the capital controls and the authorities had an eye on the negotiations this whole aftermath looks somewhat peculiar.

Priority creditors have already been paid out in Glitnir and Kaupthing; thus, allowing bond payments to be paid out to creditors in the LBI hardly sets precedence. By extending maturity from 2018 to 2026 payments to general creditors will not be forthcoming for the next many years.

The LBI double trouble and the Landsbankinn demise in sight

The creditors in LBI now have a double trouble to deal with: the fact that the CBI, for no clear reason at all has stopped payments to creditors although the waiting payments, fx cash, threaten neither Icelandic BoP nor financial stability nor do they constitute a precedence for Glitnir and Kaupthing. In addition, the LBI is set to get nothing on the bonds next year as Landsbankinn cannot pay.

Landsbankinn’s problem is that instead of being able to use the agreement to refinance in international markets it is now staring into the abyss of a possible default. Will it be forced to do a fire sale of foreign assets?

According to the government’s Budget for next year, the plan was to sell 15% of the state’s share in Landsbankinn and another 15% in 2016, for a total of ISK70bn. In addition a sale would bring a saving on interest payments of ISK12bn the next three years. With no agreement the Ministry of finance can start re-calculating the Budget.

Lifting controls is a political problem

Even in Iceland some people claim that Iceland is like a company in bankruptcy proceedings: the controls are like a Chapter 11 protection. The uncertainty is costly and can be measured in Iceland’s low credit rating meaning that the cost of financing is high, not only for the state but also for companies.

At a BICC meeting in London recently Bjarni Benediktsson minister of finance repeated three times in his speech that decisive steps towards lifting the controls would be taken this year. Prime minister Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson mentioned no date in his speech in New York that same week but gone was his belligerence and the world “vulture fund” was not heard from his mouth.

What the government will tell the IMF at the Fund’s annual meeting now in early October remains to be seen. But it will take some talent to make it look as if things are moving steadily forward because at every hurdle – be it appointing a new CBI governor or taking a stand on an issue like the Landsbankinn bonds agreement – the government seems to dither.

As I have pointed out earlier, lifting the capital controls can no longer be seen as a problem of purely economical nature: with growth and growing fx reserves there is the capacity to lift the controls if cleverly negotiated. It is however a political problem: the question is if the government is strong enough to pull this giant salmon ashore; so far, it does not seem to be pulling in the same direction.

*I have earlier explained the intricacies and details around the Landsbanki bonds and the agreement. – The quotes from the CBI letter above are my translation (and may differ from a legally formal translation). – The text above was updated Oct. 2 to include the statement published by the LBI on extending the deadline.

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Written by Sigrún Davíðsdóttir

October 1st, 2014 at 10:45 pm

Posted in Iceland

Now that the Dutch have sold their Icesave priority claim in LBI…

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Admittedly, the Dutch have been fortunate with the €/ISK trend, which no doubt tempted them to waive good-bye to their LBI priority claim. For the UK deposit guarantee scheme the £/ISK trend has been the opposite, making a UK sale less likely (but not impossible especially if British authorities see no imminent sign of LBI payout and only a rising political risk). Though the Dutch exit is logical it also hints at what some other creditors might be thinking: that the Icelandic government seems to be tackling the capital controls sub specie aeternitatis.

For quite a while it’s been rumoured that De Nederlandsche Bank, the Dutch Central Bank, DNB, intended to sell its priority claims in LBI, the estate of the old/failed Landsbanki. Dutch authorities were from the beginning adamant to recover the whole amount and there has been political pressure to bring the Dutch Icesave saga to an end. As the €/ISK trend has been favourable to the Dutch it is no wonder that Dutch authorities decided not to tempt their luck any longer and instead rid their books all Icelandic risk.

With the Dutch sale and the fact that summer is over it is appropriate to ponder on the prospects of Iceland lifting the capital controls. More than one coalition insider has told me recently that “decisive steps towards lifting the capitals controls will be taken this winter.” I certainly do not doubt the will – in addition to strong pressure from the business community.

However, the government’s grip on major issues so far and the tension within the government on the core problems related to the capital controls (see earlier on Icelog, i.a. here) raise the question if the government has enough political strength and stamina to proceed. If nothing tangible will be done this winter, it seems safe to conclude that decisive steps towards lifting the controls will not be taken by the present government.

The Dutch numbers

As pointed out in the DNB press release earlier this week the Dutch State paid out 1.428bn and Dutch banks 208m to Icesave depositors. DNB held these claim on Landsbanki and has over the years recovered 932m; it had expected to collect further 623m and that is the batch the DNB has now sold.

It seems that DNB sold at just over 0.93. The reason it can claim it has made a full recovery stems from the €/ISK trend since April 22 2009. That day, the €/ISK rate stood at I69ISK against the euro; August 27 it was 154ISK. Given that the Dutch sold at 0.93 their price based on the €/ISK is 1.02.

Based on this simple calculation it made a lot of sense for the Dutch to sell. Instead of waiting until 2018 – or longer if the maturity on the Landsbanki bonds is extended (further here re the LÍ bonds) – the funds are in hand or, more likely, in the DNB.

With this calculation in mind the British case is just the opposite. On April 22 2009 the pound stood at ISK190.6 but was on August 27 ISK193.2 against the pound. If the British were offered 0.93 for their claim their real price would be 0.917, i.e. a loss and not a gain. (The Dutch and the British authorities are still trying to recover their cost from Iceland as seen from a claim filed in Iceland earlier this year against TIF, the Icelandic deposit guarantee fund).

Who bought the Dutch claim?

I don’t know, is the short answer. Deutsche Bank was an intermediary in the sale. There was more than one buyer. No doubt, the buyers already hold claim in the LBI. If the króna is strengthened recovery by priority claim holders increases and general creditors get less; vice versa if the króna moves the other way. With this in mind it makes sense for any general creditor in LBI to buy the priority claim as a hedge.

In addition, it makes even more sense for general creditors in LBI to buy the Dutch claim in order to strengthen their influence in LBI. Put bluntly, the LBI has something akin to a stronghold on the government given that the state-owned Landsbankinn is short of fx funds to pay on the Landsbankinn bonds next year. – For some reason, this stronghold is hardly ever mentioned in the Icelandic debate.

Interestingly, many of LBI major creditors are creditors to Glitnir and Kaupthing. With greater weight in the LBI they could try to influence course of events in Glitnir and Kaupthing through the LBI.

The Icelandic authorities the Dutch sale is not necessarily happy tidings as it fractures the creditor group. For other LBI creditors losing the Dutch might be bad tidings because both the Dutch and the British authorities can be assumed to have greater pondus than other creditors. Whether the outcome of the Landsbankinn bond agreement might have been different without them is another matter but the Dutch sale will hardly simplify matters in the LBI.

The Dutch view on the Iceland risk

The favourable €/ISK trend made sale an attractive option, in addition to political pressure for the Dutch government to exit the Icesave affair with positive numbers and not a loss. I cannot claim having an insider view on what risks the DNB feels it now has sold off but it is easy to make some inferred guesses.

Both the Dutch and the British authorities have understandably been focused on the political risk. Since last year the LBI has not been allowed to pay out to creditors (i.e. priority creditors who are paid first; having already paid priority claims Glitnir and Kaupthing are waiting impatiently for the government to make up its mind on the legal paths towards resolution in order to start paying general claims). The CBI is vested with the power to issue exemptions for a payout but needs the blessing of the minister of finance which has not been forthcoming since last year.

It is hardly a coincidence that the LBI hasn’t been allowed to pay creditors. The Dutch might well have come to the conclusion that no LBI funds would be flowing their way any time soon; better to act than to wait. In addition, there is the agreement on the Landsbankinn bonds, which the government needs to agree to. It was supposed to answer in early August but its deadline has now been extended to end of September.

Again, this deadlock regarding the Landsbankinn bond agreement could be seen as a negative factor since it seems fairly obvious that the CBI, which followed the negotiations, must favour the agreement. One might also surmise that Landsbankinn’s (the new bank) owner, the state, would have been in favour of it though the minister of finance claimed at the time he was not familiar with the agreement.

In addition, the Dutch must have evaluated the general political situation: is it likely that this government is going to solve the issues related to the capital controls in the foreseeable future? Although the Dutch might have valued the positive numbers above the political outlook the Dutch sale is never the less food for thought.

A CBI governor half-hired, a minister half-fired

On the same day the ministry of finance announced that Már Guðmundsson had been re-appointed as a governor of the CBI, it was announced that part of the portfolio of home office minister Hanna Birna Kristjánsdóttir would be moved to another minister/ministry. Guðmundsson was told that the position of governor might change which might change his situation, meaning that he was in a sense only half-hired on the day he was re-appointed. And Kristjánsdóttir, having the major part of her portfolio removed was indeed half-fired.

As I have pointed out earlier, Guðmundsson’s half-hearted re-appointment might leave the CBI in a limbo. However, the bank has worked with full energy on issues related to the capital controls and will no doubt continue. Guðmundsson and most of the CBI staff will no doubt pay great attention to IMF’s advise on reputational risk and an orderly exit for the estates. And Guðmundsson is no doubt adamant to proceed in order to make capital controls progress a part of his legacy at the bank – a legacy, which so far is looking promising.

The spin school of staunch denial

Kristjánsdóttir’s case involved a leaked document on an asylum seeker, discrediting him, as it seems to justify that he was being sent out of the country. Later she denied any part in it or any knowledge of the case, also that she knew anything about the Reykjavík Police investigation, which ensued. It now turns out that not only did she know about the investigation but she tried to influence the chief of the Reykjavík Police during his investigation.

This has surfaced in an enquiry by the Althing Ombudsman. Despite this evidence Kristjánsdóttir staunchly denies any interference in the matter. She now has until September 10 to answer the Ombudsman.

On Facebook the minister has criticised both the Ombudsman and the police. Bjarni Benediktsson leader of the Independence party and minister of finance has supported Kristjánsdóttir thereby indirectly taken a stance against the authorities investigating the matter. All of this is rather remarkable seen from the outside but could, in an Icelandic context, be seen as yet another example of the rather lackadaisical approach to structure and form of Icelandic authorities.

Political infirmity

In other countries, a minister in the quagmire Kristjánsdóttir finds herself in, would most likely have resigned. Most ministers resign when they are told they have lost the trust of the prime minister: the only choice is then between walking the plank or being pushed.

This sorry affair has now been in the media for close to a year. When finally, late in the day, it was decided that she should be relieved of that part of her portfolio related to the police it took the best part of two weeks until new arrangement was decided (the prime minister takes on what she isn’t allow to have, leaving her with not very much).

Another example of a long-winding and inconclusive process: last year, the government announced a review of law on foreclosure, making it more difficult to foreclose on individuals in order to hinder that people were driven out of their homes. This is connected to the government’s debt relief programme, which is coming into force in November. With an on-going review foreclosures were suspended until September 1 this year. It now turns out the review is not ready, incidentally part of Kristjánsdóttir portfolio, which means that foreclosures will now be suspended until March 1 2015.

The whole CBI matter, both a new organisation for the bank and the appointment of a new governor, sadly shows the same lack of firm grip. Things seem to happen only as ministers stumble along to meet deadlines. Governmental procedures under the present government tend to look ungraceful and not terrible elegant.

Though unrelated, none of these cases bode well for the tough decisions regarding the capital controls. Nothing can be done without deciding on the Landsbankinn bonds agreement and the legal path for the resolution of Glitnir and Kaupthing. So far, there is little to inspire confidence.

“No foreign banks do yet dare to lend to Iceland”

All in all, Iceland is doing well, indeed phenomenally well compared to many European countries. With Iceland now being a major tourist attraction foreign currency is flowing into the country. Talking to an Icelandic business leader recently, he pointed this out, adding that yes, things were going well in Iceland and also for his business. All was well… except this problem with the capital controls.

The fx inflows have enabled the CBI to buy fx as never before: last year, it bought ISK1bn, this year the bank has so far bought ISK70bn. CBI is clearly bolstering its coffers for a future of lifting capital controls. With relative (though precarious) stability in the euro zone and booming tourism these are incredibly favourable times to take the necessary steps towards easing the capital controls.

Coalition ministers hardly ever mention the detrimental effects of the capital controls for Iceland. The coalition message is that the controls are much worse for the creditors than for Icelanders. The government seems to think it has all the time in the world to solve this problem; and as if there was for example nothing more natural in the world than money piling up in the estates and the creditors just waiting patiently for a solution… if and when.

Many Icelandic business leaders beg to differ that there is no hurry. United Silicon is a company building production facilities in Iceland. At an event to mark the occasion United’s CEO Magnús Garðarsson said that the equity came from abroad but the funding was entirely Icelandic. “No foreign banks do yet dare to lend to Iceland.” – His words attracted remarkably little attention in Iceland.

Steps towards lifting the capital controls will define the term of this government. After strong words on action at the beginning of its term this government will be seen as having failed miserably and catastrophically if nothing is done. The question is what will be more painful: forming the necessary policies – or – being judged as a failure.

Judging from the government’s grip on things so far nothing less than a miracle is needed for action regarding the capital controls. In politics, miracles are rare –solutions are normally born of political pressure and political necessity rather than divine intervention. Given the modern rarity of the divine the question is if there are the right political conditions for finding solutions. The problems related to the economy can all be solved – it’s the political problems, the tension in the government, which seem to hinder the steps needed.

*Earlier Icelogs, in addition to those cited above: the numbers and the tension; what needs to be done; the IMF view; further on politics and the capital controls.

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Written by Sigrún Davíðsdóttir

September 3rd, 2014 at 12:27 am

Posted in Iceland

New governor of the CBI – but not an end to uncertainties

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After the government’s less than a stellar appointment process a new governor of the Central Bank of Iceland present governor Már Guðmundsson has been reappointed. This might seem to end uncertainties that the government has created by its fumbling actions. But no, not quite. It may sound like a contradiction but it could be said that effectively the new governor is being fired by being reappointed.

After much back and forth minister of finance and leader of the Independence party Bjarni Benediktsson has announced that Már Guðmundsson will be reappointed governor of the CBI for another five years. This seemed at first to indicate that Benediktsson has shown independence from the old guard in the party, which has vehemently fought to throw Guðmundsson out, not to mention the fact that prime minister Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson leader of the Progressive party has time and again criticised the bank, and thus its governor.

However, it says in the letter of appointment that since there is a committee working on revising laws on the framework of his office might change (see further here).

This has prompted Guðmundsson to publish a letter (in Icelandic) on the bank’s website where he acknowledges the possibly imminent changes. He states that he might be tempted to return to work abroad (as he did earlier, he was with BIS) and might not wish to stay in a changed CBI.

This effectively means that yes, Guðmundsson is reappointed – but things will not necessarily remain as they are for what should be his whole five year period. Or it could be said that he has been fired but at a later and unknown date.

However, the optimistic view is that Guðmundsson now has some time and could very well use this time effectively. After all, he has nothing to lose. And so far the government has not been able to make up its mind as to how to reorganise the CBI and will not necessarily jump to a rapid reorganisation.

It is clear that Guðmundsson is adamant about taking decisive steps towards lifting the capital controls and would no doubt like that to be part of his legacy at the bank. That includes having to decide on the fate of the estates of the fallen banks. The feeling is that Benediktsson is more than willing to follow the guidance of the CBI – and the IMF, which has warned against the so-called bankruptcy route (see here). Prime minister Gunnlaugsson, who feels that Iceland won an important victory over foreign finance forces in the Icesave case and is still fighting that battle, seems to take the opposite view (and the fact that Guðmundsson wanted to negotiate on Icesave most likely made him less endearing to the prime minister).

Már Guðmundsson has so far proved himself to be a capable governor, respected abroad and in Iceland. As always, not all will agree with the CBI policy, rates etc but that is as it is. Most importantly, Guðmundsson has shown independence towards Icelandic power centers and political parties. The bank is i.a. investigating alleged fraud involving foreign currency transaction by the largest fishing industry in Iceland, Samherji.

The pessimistic view is that the CBI is now, as much as before, in a limbo. And that again bodes nothing good for Iceland. While waiting, Guðmundsson might just as well make a heck of a good use of his time.

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Written by Sigrún Davíðsdóttir

August 15th, 2014 at 2:24 pm

Posted in Iceland

End of central bank independence in Iceland – the pessimistic view

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The leaders of the Icelandic coalition government are struggling to appoint a governor of the Central Bank of Iceland. It now seems that the most likely outcome is that more than one will be appointed, whether it will right away or later. This spells the end of an independent central bank in Iceland. The stumbling process prompts the question how likely it is that a government that cannot agree on appointing a governor of the Central Bank will be able to chew through all the very difficult decisions needed in order to lift the capital controls.

In its last report on Iceland the International Monetary Fund sent some thinly veiled sharp messages to the Icelandic government: one was on the importance of respecting the independence of the Central Bank of Iceland; the other was the importance of an orderly path in resolving the estates of the collapsed banks, i.e. composition and not bankruptcy (more on this in an earlier blog).

It now seems that the government is just about to ignore the first advice, on the all important independence of the CBI. After mulling over the three most suitable candidates a “bizarre” selection committee put forward it now seems that the government cannot choose one candidate. Instead, it seems to be planning to change the management structure of the bank – and put more than one governor at the helm (more on the selection and its implications here).

Bjarni Benediktsson minister of finance said in a Rúv interview last night that considering the increased work load at the bank it made sense to appoint more than one governor (as if this need has suddenly become desperately clear).

The truth is that the government has been mulling over these changes more or less during the year since it came to power but apparently never could make up its mind as to what to do. This surfaced i.a. when the governorship of the present governor was not prolonged literally hours before it would have been renewed automatically.

At the beginning of May Benediktsson appointed a committee to review laws regarding the CBI. The committee was to come up with proposals before the end of this year. Those on the committee are Friðrik Már Baldursson, one of the applicants for the post of governor, Ólöf Nordal who was on the selection committee and is an ex-MP and ex-vice chairman of the Independence party. The third committee member is professor Þráinn Eggertsson at the University of Iceland.

Now there is suddenly no time to wait for the proposals of this committee as to the future of the CBI. Instead, it has all to be decided on the hoof and in a hurry before a new governor or governors will be appointed. New governor(s) has/have to be appointed before the end of August when the time in office of the present governor, Már Guðmundsson, expires.

From the three candidates seen as equally merited by the “bizarre” selection committee – Már Guðmundsson and two professors, Ragnar Árnason and Friðrik Már Baldursson – Guðmundsson is undisputedly the best qualified. For political reasons, the government is unable to rest with Guðmundsson continuing. This seems to be accelerating the process of management changes at the CBI where one or two of the professors would be hired as well.

Benediktsson seems to be indicating that more than one could be appointed. How that is possible – i.e. to make changes and then just appoint from the present pool of applicants – seems questionable but well, remains to be seen.

Seen from the outside, imaging this whole process happening in another Western civilised country, tells a sad saga about the state of affairs in Iceland. Regrettably, the CBI has been kept in a limbo since end of February when it became clear (unexpectedly since it was done last minute) that Guðmundsson’s time in office would not be automatically extended. Bearing in mind that Guðmundsson is eminently respected and has shown himself to be a capable governor and the CBI has been doing important work towards lifting the capital controls all of this is even more regrettable.

In addition, this whole unfortunate saga of the CBI is a sad example of how this government struggles to make up its mind on important issues. The unsettling thought is that since it seems so difficult to choose a governor of the CBI how is this government ever going to agree on i.a. the tough issues that need to be dealt with in lifting the capital controls. Maybe I’m being overly pessimistic here but if things continue in this way the four years of this government in power will come to pass without any of the decisive steps needed. – A case in point is that the time to decide on the Landsbanki bonds agreement has now been extended from August 8 to end of September… because the government had not made up its mind, yet.

With nothing being done regarding the capital controls would mean four more years for Iceland in the wilderness of controls – a truly dispiriting thought. (And I sure hope I’m wrong.)

 

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Written by Sigrún Davíðsdóttir

August 13th, 2014 at 9:40 am

Posted in Iceland

Two schools of thought: to bankrupt… or not – and the next governor of the CBI

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The furious battle of interest in Iceland regarding the estates of Glitnir and Kaupthing ultimately centres on the ownership of the new banks, respectively Íslandsbanki and Arion owned by the two estates. There is the IMF – some “foreign abbreviation” as prime minister Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson once said – together with some civil servants and politicians who want to find a common ground with the creditors and settle on a composition agreement. Then there are those who argue for a tough treatment of the creditors, bankrupting the estates and turning all their króna holding into fx. Choosing the next governor of the Central Bank of Iceland, CBI, will indicate who is in charge and which steps will be chosen regarding the estates and ultimately in lifting the capital controls.

Control-watchers and others who follow things in Iceland are eagerly waiting to see who will be appointed the new governor of the Central Bank of Iceland. The governor will be a key player in lifting the controls and deciding on the fate of the new banks and how the estates will be dealt with. The decision is also a test for minister of finance Bjarni Benediktsson – does the independence of the CBI matter to him or is he at ease with political meddling in the bank, contrary to the advice of the International Monetary Fund, IMF, which in its last report stressed the importance of an independent central bank.

The whole affair of appointing – or not appointing – a new CBI governor has been a bit of a drama. During winter there were continuous speculations regarding possible changes at the CBI. A few times in the course of the winter prime minister Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson criticised the bank and its staff severely, i.e. for not being in awe of his great project, the “Correction” or the writing-down of mortgages for those who are able to pay and had therefore not benefitted from earlier write-downs.

Until the 11th hour, literally, it seemed that in spite of it all, present governor Már Guðmundsson would stay in place. After all, it seemed unlikely that the government would act only at the latest moment. But that is what it did – hours before the time lapsed: if nothing had been done, Guðmundsson would automatically have been reappointed for another five years.

Then came the next step: appointing a selection committee to evaluate the applicants. Now imagine if the head of Scotland Yard would have been the head of a committee selecting a new governor of the Bank of England – does it sound far-fetched and utterly ridiculous? None the less this is what happened in Iceland: head of the Icelandic police was chosen to head the selection committee with a lawyer who is the Independence party representative on the board of the CBI and earlier an MP for the party together with – finally – a well-merited professor emeritus of economics. Out of three members only one was an economist and the other two had no special insight into central banking, apart from one being on the CBI board.

The curious outcome seems to stem for a general reluctance among some suitable candidates for the selection committee to be on it. The committee’s written decision has not been published but apparently they placed three applicants equal: Guðmundsson and then two professors: professor of the University of Iceland Ragnar Árnason whose speciality is fishing and Friðrik Már Baldursson professor at Reykjavík University who is a well-merited academic who fell out of favour in Iceland after the collapse because a much disputed report on the Icelandic economy he wrote together with professor Richard Portes.

However, to place these three as equal is rather distorting the merits of the three applicants: in terms of experience and career there is no way of placing these three as equal.

The rumour mill milling

Guðmundsson is by far the best candidate but in a country where political and personal interests matter, often obliterating professional merits, strong and clear merits are not always enough. There are now wild speculations in Iceland as to what Benediktsson will do and what the appointment will indicate in terms of domestic politics.

Árnason has been seen as the most likely candidate to be appointed because of his strong ties to the Independence party. He has i.a. been the party’s representative in various ways over the last decades, written reports etc. Also, he is thought to be favoured by the invisible power centre around Morgunblaðið’s editor ex-prime minister Davíð Oddsson. What many worry is that Árnason, having been involved in various disputes at the University, is seen as a difficult person to work with.

One speculation is that because of this Baldursson might be a compromise candidate. If it is true that Oddsson has any say in this he might not be too thrilled at the thought of Baldursson at the CBI. Baldursson was instrumental in bringing the IMF to Iceland during the days of crisis, at which time Oddsson was himself the governor of the CBI, staunchly opposing an IMF involvement. Oddsson lost that battle.

Now, does that leave Guðmundsson as the best candidate from the point of view of not only merits but also interests? Remains to be seen and it would surely be ironic since it is thought that this whole saga of appointing a new governor did indeed start because the prime minister (and probably Oddsson) wanted to get rid of Guðmundsson.

Wheels within wheels

Another twist in the CBI saga is that home office minister Hanna Birna Kristjánsdóttir is fighting for her political life due to a leak from her ministry regarding the case of an asylum seeker. A case that has been brewing for ca. a year and gets ever more convoluted and difficult for the minister. There are voices that she should simply resign, at least not be in office while there is an ongoing investigation, now involving the state prosecutor and the Alþingi Ombudsman.

While Stefán Eiríksson the head of the Iceland police, was the chairman of the CBI selection committee and working on the selection process, he was also applying for a lower-level job with the Reykjavík council as head of its welfare department, which he got just some days ago. According to Icelandic media it now seems he wanted to leave his job because of alleged pressure the minister.

Some weeks ago Morgunblaðið suddenly and apparently out of the blue attacked the Alþingi Ombudsman Tryggvi Gunnarsson for views held in an email. It then turned out this infamous email was by the Ombudsman’s namesake. This was rather incomprehensible at the time but now that the Ombudsman is on Kristjánsdóttir’s case the paper’s attempt to discredit Gunnarsson can be seen to acquire another meaning.

Benediktsson has been unwilling to criticise Kristjánsdóttir but has now given her a half-hearted support in the media. She has been his most dangerous opponent in the party and widely seen as someone who is waiting to challenge him in a leadership contest. With her gone from the political scene there would be no one he needed to fear. And those who want to keep a tight rein on him or oppose him would have no leverage against him.

Side-shows and other shows

The leak saga is very much in the Icelandic media. Another news was thrown out just before the last weekend when travels of Icelanders in Iceland traditionally peak: the minister of foreign affairs Gunnar Bragi Sveinsson (Progressive) has appointed two new ambassadors – ex-prime minister Geir Haarde of the Independence party and Árni Þór Sigurðsson MP for the Left Green (here is Rúvs report on this new appointment with a photo of Haarde, as PM, giving his “god bless Iceland” speech at 4pm on October 6 2008 where he told Icelanders that the banking system was collapsing). Haarde was found guilty by a special court regarding his part in the collapse in 2008 but not sentenced (see here some Icelogs on the Haarde trial and its aftermath).

A clever move because the left/opposition now stays silent and not a word of criticism is heard. A politician has not been appointed an ambassador since 2008 and many had probably thought that this kind of political meddling might be a history of the past. Not quite.

In order to understand the coming appointment of the CBI governor it is necessary to keep all of this in mind because these are political side-shows. Many see the CBI appointment as a test for Benediktsson: whose interests is he serving, does he really decide or does Gunnlaugsson decide on everything he deems of interest to him and his party? The fact that it is taking so long to decide – a decision was expected end of last week – indicates that the appointment is a bone of contention.

This is an important test for Benediktsson. Also because the IMF has strongly warned the government not to the diminish the independence of the CBI, most recently in its last report: “Maintaining a financially sound, independent, and accountable central bank is important for policy credibility and anchoring inflation expectations, which in turn supports stability and growth.” (See my take on the IMF report here).

Why the fuss about the governor? Because he will not only be important in fighting inflation, supporting stability and growth. The governor will be instrumental in deciding on the fate of Glitnir and Kaupthing and now the new banks, Íslandsbanki and Arion will be sold. Will there be a political horse trading in distributing the goods, i.e. the two banks, involving a fight with foreign creditors and disorderly routes – or will there be an orderly lifting of the capital controls, as the IMF is in favour of? The new governor will very much set the tone in all these issues.

*Earlier today, August 6, the Ombudsman sent a letter to Kristjánsdóttir  to enquire further re the leak, i.e. what and how often she talked about the leak to Eiríksson, the police chief. In addition, the Ombudsman sent a letter to the prime minister inquiring if ethical rules for ministers, set by the last government and expiring as it left office, have been replaced by another set of ethical rules. (A link to the two letters, in Icelandic, is here). – Further, to the Morgunblaðið’s failed attack on the Ombudsman see the end of my earlier blog, here.

Update Aug. 7: the minister of finance was expected to announce today or tomorrow who would be appointed as the next governor of the CBI. It now seems likely that no decision is forthcoming until next week. The rumour is that different factions within the government can’t agree. There clearly are strong tensions, indicating that there is much at stake.

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Written by Sigrún Davíðsdóttir

August 6th, 2014 at 10:25 am

Posted in Iceland

Reading entrails and how politics can magnify the problems in lifting the capital controls in Iceland

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Understanding constellations in Icelandic politics, not solely the economics, is the key in order to understand what could and might happen in Iceland regarding the capital controls. Although ex-prime minister Davíð Oddsson left office in 2004 he still seems to be the puppet master and king maker in Icelandic politics. Thus, Morgunblaðið, edited by Oddsson can be read like entrails in the olden times. Comparing the recent IMF report and what Morgunblaðið states provides some hints to what might come – and none of it is uplifting in view of general Icelandic interests.

On an Icelandic debate programme earlier this year one of the participants claimed that when it comes to the capital controls Icelanders are fighting to solve a problem of “hundreds of thousands of billions króna.” – None of the other participants corrected this. The Icelandic GDP 2013 was ISK1786bn, €11.5bn, which would make “hundreds of thousands of billions króna” a truly staggering, if not a hopeless problem to solve. Luckily, the problems are not quite that towering though in no way easy to deal with.

For control-watchers, reading Morgunblaðið like entrails, looking for hidden signs, is essential. A point in case is a recent article on Project Irminger.

Davíð Oddsson, its editor, used to run the country and his party, the Independence party in the 1990s, then switched over to run the CBI (needless to say a lawyer ex-prime minister turning governor of a central bank is unthinkable in all Western countries except Iceland) where he oversaw the collapse of the Icelandic economy and the CBI and from where he was ousted by public demonstrations in early 2009. As editor of Morgunblaðið he has overseen a steep fall in subscription but its owners – 50/50 a fishing-industry with Independence party ties and a Skagafjörður co-op traditionally linked to the Progressive party, thus miraculously mirroring the present coalition government – are more than happy to have him in charge, even after a recent gaff of staggering dimensions.*

The Morgunblaðið entrails and other signs could indicate that the lifting of the controls will be used to steer the two new banks – Arion and Íslandsbanki – into Icelandic ownership. And there needs to be something that looks like a victory for the Progressive-lead government. Prime minister Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson has time and again talked about the “inevitability” of the state profiting from lifting the controls.

While waiting for the next step towards lifting the capital controls appointing a new governor of the CBI will be a significant indication of the direction the government is heading into.

IMF: the orderly and the disorderly legal route

In its latest report on Iceland the IMF is worried about downward-tilted risks, i.a. in lifting or unwinding the capital controls: “A disorderly unwinding of capital controls could weaken the krona, lower reserves, and bring down market confidence and growth.” “An orderly lifting of capital controls, however, would prevent large capital outflows and disruptions to financial markets.” It is thus glaringly obvious what the IMF wants to avoid sternly warning the government of the dangers of actions leading to disruption and disorder. After all, Iceland very much needs continued access to financial markets.

Creditors cannot be paid out until the estates of the old banks are resolved, either by putting them up for bankruptcy or with a composition agreement. Here the IMF is also clear as to what constitutes an orderly route out of capital controls:

Two broad legal avenues are being discussed, one involving composition agreements that would provide an agreed roadmap for exit and the other involving bankruptcy proceedings (liquidation) with an uncertain exit from controls.

And then there is the reputational risk to keep in mind:

“Staff noted the importance of carefully considering the legal and reputational risks surrounding the strategy for addressing potential BOP pressures now locked in by capital controls, including the resolution of the old bank estates.” (My take on the IMF report is here.)

Project Irminger

The above-mentioned article in Morgunblaðið stated that the government kept the IMF thoroughly informed on every step. Consequently, the IMF was now aware of the government’s estimate of the problems and the avenues it believes passable. Further, according to the article, the IMF agrees with the government it is important not to exclude any possibilities; this was necessary in order to create incentives for creditors to bring to the table a solution fitting the Icelandic balance of payment.

Although the article was published weeks after the IMF report on Iceland the report does not figure in the Morgunblaðið article. On the contrary, the article creates the feeling that the IMF was equally in favour of the two legal routes and broadly in favour of what the government had in mind.

As can be seen from the quotes from the IMF report the Fund is indeed not mincing its words as to the best and most viable routes. Knowing from Morgunblaðið that the IMF is well informed there can be no misunderstanding when it i.a. clearly warns against the bankruptcy route that both the prime minister and minister of finance mention as an option every time they discuss publicly the capital controls and the estates.

The Morgunblaðið article states that the government is now working on a project called Project Irminger (named after an ocean stream that brings warm water to the South West coast of Iceland). The Irminger project seems to give no scope for negotiations with the creditors in spite of their attempts in that direction, at least since end of 2012 when both Glitnir and Kaupthing presented a draft of a composition agreement to the CBI.

Instead, possibly in September (unlikely soon, to my mind; every step announced by the government tends to take much longer than planned) according to the article, creditors will be presented with an analysis of Iceland’s economy, balance of payment etc after which they can adopt their composition agreement to this analysis. It does not seem there will be any negotiation but some sort of a “take-it-or-leave-it” analysis (more or less as the government has been saying from its birth last year: the creditors should understand and appropriately adapt to the reality, as defined by the government). The government will wait for no longer than three months or so and if nothing is forthcoming from the creditors the bankruptcy route will be taken, the article states.

The article is not clear about in what order things will be done. The CBI and the IMF have stressed the importance of resolving Glitnir and Kaupthing’s ISK assets and the Landsbanki bonds. The pension funds and other Icelandic investors are also seeking to direct investments abroad. The order of “exiting parties,” i.e. those allowed to take/convert ISK into fx is important. Whatever the order, the IMF has clearly indicated that the “exits” can only happen over some years and it favours letting the creditors out first; an advise that is easily turned into something anti-Icelandic in the Icelandic debate (see here on the interests of the pension funds in lifting the controls).

As so often with Morgunblaðið articles on hot political topics the Irminger-article seems to be a carefully crafted leak, published to warn, threat and mis-inform.

Rumours and sentiments as to what is in the making

Key issue in solving the ISK problem of Glitnir and Kaupthing is the sales of Íslandsbanki and Arion (more here). Some control-watchers claim that the government plans to instigate a disorderly and messy winding-up process for Glitnir and Kaupthing to ensure a fire sale of two new banks enabling a sale to investors close to the government (two banks, one for each party).

As to possible actions the ideas flying around are i.a. legal measures to isolate the estates from the economy so pension funds and other Icelandic entities can convert ISK to fx, i.a. for investing abroad, i.e. would exit from the controls before the estates. Again, such measures would not be a solution, only another hammock.

There are also tentative ideas that Eignasafn Seðlabanka Íslands, ESÍ (the CBI holding company) and some pension funds could form a joint venture to buy out the new banks. The fear is that none of this is thought through or creditors’ reactions taken into account; in short that these and other rumoured measure will not at all be the orderly route the IMF recommends.

The feeling all along has been that the aim of the government has been to get hold of the banks – to secure Icelandic ownership in Icelandic interest or in Icelandic special interests, depending whom to believe. Iceland is apparently the only country in Western Europe where no foreign banks operate and where domestic investors own all banks (apart from the accidental ownership of Arion and Íslandsbanki and foreign investors in MP Bank).

It is difficult to argue why it would be the end of Icelandic businesses if Glitnir and Kaupthing were sold to foreign investors, paying in fx – thus solving the estates’ ISK problems. Foreign ownership might possibly end banking the Icelandic way that played a big role in bringing down the Icelandic financial system but those who profited from that system might certainly want to reinstate it.

Glitnir and Kaupthing – but what about selling new Landsbankinn? Incidentally, that bank is owned by the Icelandic state but the bank cannot be sold until the problems of the Landsbanki bonds is solved. There is now an agreement in place and although it seems to be close to what the CBI had advised (and after all, it can hardly have been done against the wishes of the bank’s owner, the state) the government seems unwilling to take the steps needed to ensure the agreement. Intriguingly, new bank is at the mercy of its bondholder, the Landsbanki estate where the creditors from the two other estates wield power.

The frustrating thing is that possible solutions, in the general interest of Iceland and not narrow interests, are not that difficult to map out – complicated but not complex. There are even some Icelandic civil servants who would like to negotiate with the creditors, believing that beneficial solutions could be found relatively easily and fast: it is after all in the interests of not only creditors but also Icelanders to lift the controls though Icelandic politicians tend to speak as if Iceland can wait but the creditors are in a hurry.

Interestingly, civil servants have mostly been kept away from the plans of the present government, which instead makes use of a few trusted lieutenants. The government keeps appointing Icelandic “individual experts/advisers” as it calls them in press releases though then calling them a “group” when their role is discussed. It is not clear why this systematic mis-presentation of their roles but one reason might be that formal working groups are expected to be made up of men and women whereas the two capital controls “groups” have been all-male.

The importance of a(n independent) central bank

Lastly there is the importance of CBI in what ever will happen in Iceland, soonest regarding the Landsbanki bonds agreement.

In general, IMF is adamant about the importance of independent central banks. For good reasons, the IMF has been worried about the CBI and states in its last report on Iceland: “Maintaining a financially sound, independent, and accountable central bank is important for policy credibility and anchoring inflation expectations, which in turn supports stability and growth.”

It is most likely only a matter of days until the name of the next governor will be announced. As I have written earlier the feeling is that professor Ragnar Árnason is the government’s favourite for the position though the third leading candidate, professor Friðrik Már Baldursson might be a possible compromise. It would be a stretch to see CBI’s independence strengthened with Árnason who most recently has i.a. been the government’s representative on the CBI board and the chairman of an advisory council for the minister of finance, in addition to earlier services to the Independence party for more than a decade.

In addition to the present governor Már Guðmundsson the selection committee , which was called “bizarre” in a recent article in Central Banking, deems that both Árnason and professor Friðrik Már Baldursson are equally fit to serve as a governor. To put the three side by side as equally fit is quite remarkable, to say the very least, considering Guðmundsson’s experience and standing.

The governor of the CBI will be a key person when it comes to lifting the capital controls – and in the asset sale of the century, the sales of Arion and Íslandsbanki. Hardly anything re the capital controls and the estates can be decided on without assistance of the CBI, most notably the governor of the CBI.

If Már Guðmundsson will not be reappointed as a governor it sets in jeopardy any orderly route towards lifting the capital controls. Ousting Guðmundsson might well indicate that there are interesting times ahead in Iceland but not necessarily the best of times for financial stability and the interests of Iceland as a whole.

*The Oddsson/Morgunblaðið gaff: recently, Morgunblaðið published, in quotation marks, what it claimed was part of an email written by the Althingi Ombudsman Tryggvi Gunnarsson who was on the Special Investigative Commission. The email was published July 12 in a weekly column, called “Letter from Reykjavík,” traditionally unsigned but known to be written by the editor, now Davíð Oddsson. Morgunblaðið claimed Gunnarsson had sent the mail to many news outlets in January late at night, a claim Icelanders take as a hint that the email-writer was drunk. In the email Gunnarsson sided with the Brits (highly dubious in the view of Morgunblaðið) in using the so-called terrorism legislation to freeze Icelandic assets in the UK. Further, Gunnarsson spoke badly of the president of Iceland, who Morgunblaðið holds in high esteem after he hindered an agreement in the Icesave dispute. On the day Morgunblaðið published the Tryggvason email the paper published a correction on its website, stating that the email was a forgery only to admit later in the day, with apologies to the Ombudsman, that the letter was indeed written by a certain Tryggvi Gunnarsson, namesake of the Ombudsman and not the Ombudsman. The namesake is apparently known among Icelandic media people as a prolific email writer whose opinions are never reported; his email is a Hotmail address. There was absolutely nothing in the email to indicate that the Ombudsman had written it. The second, and no less interesting part of the “Tryggvason email” story is that the editor’s atrocious mistake has had no consequence for the editor who continues in his job, unchallenged as before. The gaff was like a stone thrown into a lake producing no rings on the surface; an airy phenomenon. – Journalist Egill Helgason notes on his blog that Oddsson is driven by such hatred that in attacking his enemies scrutiny of sources is easily forgotten. – The last thing to draw attention to Oddsson’s view of the world is that Morgunblaðið’s Letter from Reykjavík July 26 talks about “Barack Hussein Obama II,” characterizing him as “indeed a mulatto,” a word that is generally no longer used in Icelandic and has the same connotations as in English.

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Written by Sigrún Davíðsdóttir

July 28th, 2014 at 5:16 pm

Posted in Iceland

Iceland, capital controls and foreign pundits

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One of the problems with the debate in Iceland on capital controls is that so few seem to grasp the essentials. Consequently, politicians and special-interest agents on a mission can get away with saying almost whatever they fancy without being challenged. Once in a while, foreigners dive in, equally ill-informed, thwarting the debate further for Icelanders who, as so many small nations, tend to swallow everything coming from abroad. A case in point is a recent FT article by Gillian Tett with a somewhat misleading description of the Icelandic situation only some weeks after the IMF published a most informative report on Iceland. IMF gives some intriguing hints on two key issues: the Central Bank of Iceland and the legal routes out of the capital controls’ impasse.

Practically all nations forced to save themselves by slamming on capital controls struggle to get rid of them. It is by now an all too familiar problem that the shelter, provided by the controls for solving the original problem calling for controls, tends to turn into a hammock for in-action. Iceland is no exception.

The situation in Iceland however offers further complexities: getting rid of the controls will not prove easy at the best of times – but the overwhelming sense among control-watchers is that there might be wheels within the capital control wheels: first of all, steering the two new banks, Arion and Íslandsbanki, now owned by the failed estates of respectively Kaupthing and Glitnir, into hand-picked, politically-palatable ownership in what could be called “the asset sale of the century” (Icelog on this topic). Secondly, the government is seeking to preferably score a “victory” (à la Argentina) over the foreign creditors by securing funds from them for the state.

Iceland’s attraction for pundits in search of a good case to prove their point

Over the past few years, Iceland has been seductively attractive to economists and pundits looking for a story to prove their points/theories. Writing in July 2010 à propos an article by Paul Krugman on Iceland I pointed out that “when it comes to small countries (or exotic topics) it seems permissible to express opinions without knowing very much – or even anything at all.” – Those in the know and understanding are few and far between.

One myth has been that by letting its banks fail, Iceland’s cost of the collapse was almost negligible (more on this here). The cost partly rose from misguided attempts to save two private banks, possibly because of some domestic interests at stake. In addition, there was the cost of propping up the Icelandic “Sparkassen-system.” Thus, the cost of the collapse and resurrecting the country’s economy is more likely to be one of the highest for every country over the last few decades, ca. 20-25% of GDP.

In a recent article in the FT Gillian Tett joins the company of Krugman and many others on the well-trodden path of misunderstandings regarding the Icelandic collapse, subsequent events and the state of affairs right now. Apart from it being slightly shocking that such an esteemed paper as the FT does not take more care with what it prints the article provides a good opportunity to sum up the essentials on post-collapse Iceland and the capital controls. However, Tett’s general point certainly is valid: there is an essential topic for debate on emergency measures that are used as delaying tactics instead of a necessary shelter to work on solutions.

What happened when the banks collapsed?

Tett writes:

When the three banks collapsed, the government decided to save the domestic parts of the system (and its own taxpayers) by piling pain on to foreign creditors and depositors. So bank bonds held by foreigners were tossed into default and turned into implicit equity claims on the collapsed lenders – and bank deposits that foreign investors held in Icelandic krona were trapped in the country by capital controls.

True, the idea was to save the domestic part. The dilemma was how to dismantle a banking system ca. eight times the GDP of Iceland without drowning the whole economy at the same time. (The Icesave saga is about depositors in Landsbanki’s accounts in the UK and the Netherlands and EU’s passport rules for the financial sector; remarkable there was a mini-rerun of the passport conundrum in the UK following the Cyprus crisis; some aspects of Iceland vs Cyprus here).

Consequently, the operations of the three largest banks were divided into domestic and foreign operations. There were, and still are, persistent rumours that during the hectic days in early October 2008, when the emergency Act was being finalised, the policy really was called “f**k the foreigners.” Hardly shocking: a country staring into the abyss will go to great lengths to save itself, thinking less about others.

As explained in the Financial Services Authority, FME’s, annual report 2009 (there was no annual report in 2008) following the emergency Act (Act 125/2008) passed on October 6 2008 the three largest banks – Kaupthing, Landsbanki and Glitnir – were taken over by the FME and divided into “old” banks (destined to be wound up or liquidated at some point) and “new” banks. Like any estate of a failed private entity these failed banks are controlled on behalf of creditors, now by Winding-up Boards, one for each bank.

The three so-called new banks were turned into fully operating domestic banks. Following a crash settlement in the days after the October 2008 collapse the FME oversaw the finalising of financial instruments, based on valuation of assets transferred, between the old and the new banks. The new banks for Kaupthing, Landsbanki and Glitnir are respectively Arion, Landsbankinn and Íslandsbanki.

Thus there was a clear dividing line – not that “bank bonds held by foreigners were tossed into default.” And as in any failed company the creditors hold claims in the three failed/old banks.

According to the FME assets and liabilities of the new banks the “principal asset classes were loans to customers, on the one hand, which were further subdivided into loans to large corporations, small and medium sized enterprises and retail loans and, on the other hand, other assets. Liabilities consisted almost solely of deposits, which were valued at principal value. Gross loans to customers (that is the outstanding loan balances before any provisions or adjustments) represented over 80% of gross assets in each of the three new banks. Large corporate group loans (with liabilities in excess of ISK 2.5 billion) represented ca. 40%-70% of total gross loans to customers and ca. 55%-85% of corporate loans to customers across the three new banks at the respective carve-out dates.”

The problem that called for capital controls

The original problem, calling for capital controls, was foreign-owned ISK, or “nonresident holdings of liquid krona” as the IMF calls it. At the time these funds were over ISK600bn, but following CBI auctions these funds now amount to ISK322bn (at the end of February 2014) or 18% of GDP; 67% of gross reserves. These funds mostly originated from so called “glacier bonds” – bonds issued in Icelandic króna, ISK, often sold to wealthy individuals, popular in Germany and the Netherlands. At the time, both the government and the CBI chose to ignore the potentially destabilising effect of these, in spite of the effect of similar flows on some Asian countries in the 1980s and the 1990s.

These funds are no longer the greatest threat to Icelandic financial stability. In addition, it seems that at least some part of these funds willingly stays in Iceland because of the (still) high interests there.

But what is now the problem if it is no longer these liquid foreign-owned ISK? Tett talks about the bank bonds held by foreigners being “tossed into default and turned into implicit equity claims on the collapsed lenders – and bank deposits that foreign investors held in Icelandic krona were trapped in the country by capital controls.

The main obstacles towards lifting the controls are the ISK assets of Glitnir and Kaupthing, in total ISK450bn (end of 2013; further here) and the two Landsbanki bonds of which ISK226bn is still unpaid (more here; more on the numbers and how they are found in CBI’s latest stability report).

The bondholders now hold a claim on the estates, as happens in any other failed company. They were inevitably mostly foreigners since the banks’ fast growth was fuelled by international lenders and not by domestic deposits and domestic bond sales.

It is also worth noting that in total, 5.7% of the claims are owned by Icelanders, or just over ISK100bn, mostly held by the Eignasafn Seðlabanka Íslands, ESÍ (the CBI holding company). These funds could possibly be part of the solution, i.e. used in swaps with foreign creditors. (See here for numbers and facts, in my digest of the latest IMF report and here for my latest overview of numbers and possible solutions).

Why is it important to lift the controls?

In the past few weeks the government has indicated that it wants to start removing these controls to attract more investment to the energy sector and to create a more “normalised” financial system,” writes Tett.

The story is a lot longer than just a few weeks. The left government, in power from spring 2009 until the elections last spring, did got very far with plans to remove the capital controls – also because it was too weak to tackle the issue towards the end – but some progress was made. The CBI presented a plan in 2011, still the basis as no new plan is in place (here is an Arion bank analysis from December 2011 of that plan; the time frame has since been lifted, meaning that the plan is no longer anchored in time but to certain benchmarks).

During the election campaign the Progressive party, which until early last year seemed destined to be close to a wipe-out in the spring elections, attracted an unexpected following by promising voters debt relief funded by creditors, i.e. funds that would “inevitably” flow to the state as the controls on the two bank estates would be lifted. The numbers mentioned escalated from ISK300bn to as much as ISK800bn mentioned just before the election. However, when the debt relief was presented last November it was not funded by these “inevitable” sources of money but from a bank levy, also on the estates and from people’s own pension savings, a step IMF warns against in its last Iceland report.

It is misleading to say that the scope for lifting the controls is only to attract FDI for the energy sector. And it certainly is not just to normalise the financial sector, but to normalise the whole economy. As the CBI now points out at every opportunity the capital controls do in themselves induce a long-term risk, i.a. here:

Capital controls limit possibilities for cost-efficiency in business and distort the premises for investment decisions. The longer the control regime remains in force, the greater is the risk that investment options will be determined to a growing extent by possibilities of returns within the controls, while at the same time emphasis grows on seeking ways to circumvent the controls. The structure of business and industry could therefore in time develop differently within the control regime than without it. Options decline in number, and output growth and living standards deteriorate.

This spring, numerous individuals and organisations in the business community univocally called for government action towards lifting the capital controls. But no matter the policy it will realistically take some years until the controls are lifted. In addition, Iceland will also have to come up with a credible vision for the króna and the future. There are also those who believe some controls will be needed for years and possibly decades to come.

Correct proportions, correct numbers

According to Tett, Iceland’s “sovereign debt is “just” 84 per cent of gross domestic product, according to the International Monetary Fund. But if you add the remaining liabilities of the banks – which are implicitly owned by the government – the total debt ratio is 221 per cent, and there is little chance of the island repaying it in full.” (Emphasis mine).

According to the IMF’s latest report Iceland’s sovereign debt was 89.9% last year and projected to be 86.4% this year. The three new banks are not “implicitly owned by the government”: the state owns 13% of shares in Arion and 5% in Íslandsbanki with the estates of Kaupthing and Glitnir respectively owning the rest. The government owns 97.9% of Landsbanki with the employees owning the tiny rest.

Further, Tett writes that “any relaxation will force a new debate about that debt mountain, since the $7.4bn of krona held by foreigners in Iceland’s banks will almost certainly flee if controls are removed without any clarity on how creditors who hold Icelandic bank debt will be treated. And a flight of capital could spark a fresh crisis.”

“That debt mountain” seems to refer to the 221%. What the $7.4bn of foreign-owned krona assets refers to is not entirely clear: the foreign-owned ISK in Glitnir and Kaupthing are in total ISK450bn, $3.9bnbn – and the original overhang is ISK322bn, $2.8bn.

Thinking that the controls will be lifted “without any clarity on how creditors who hold Icelandic bank debt will be treated” seems to indicate a fundamental lack of understanding of the problem: this is exactly the main problem now being worked on and no lifting can or will happen until it is solved. As the CBI and the IMF have repeatedly pointed out any steps towards lifting the controls will have to include a plan as to how to deal with foreign-owned ISK in Glitnir and Kaupthing. And not until then can the estates start paying out to the creditors (see here).

The good news,” according to Tett, “is that the government announced this week that it has appointed external advisers for talks with creditors. But the bad news is that finding any resolution could prove very hard. A group that represents about 70 per cent of bond holders wants its claims to be settled by selling the successors to the collapsed Icelandic banks to new foreign owners.”

True, it is good news that there are foreign advisers (given that their expertise will be used wisely). The bad thing is not, as Tett points out, that it could prove hard to find a solution. The bad thing is, as I have pointed out earlier, if the government does not have any plan to get their advise on – or is not ready to accept their proposals (perhaps because it is focused only on a solution that will move the ownership of Arion and Íslandsbanki to Icelandic owners with the right political pedigree).

Finding a solution is indeed not necessarily very hard (see here). Again, it will not be easy if the government is hell-bent on not just lifting the controls but also securing some special interests at the same time. According to the Act on Financial Undertakings  no. 161/2002 (the “Act on Financial Undertakings”) votes of parties controlling at least 2/3 of share capital or guarantee capital need to accept all major decisions of the estates.

Iceland is not Argentina – or at least not just yet/does not need to be

Tett is not the first to mention Iceland and Argentina in the same sentence as if the two countries shared the same problems: “So there is every likelihood the country will either end up in a protracted court fight, like the one between Argentina and its “holdout” creditors; or that the government keeps playing for time by extending those supposedly “temporary” controls indefinitely.

Argentina defaulted and has for a long time (in)famously been involved in legal warfare with some of its creditors (my favourite Argentinian commentaries are those by Joseph Cotterill on the FT Alphaville). Iceland has not defaulted and its problems are, so far, contained in the estates of the three failed private banks.

However, if the Icelandic government strides into the field and incurs liabilities by legal measures, which might make the creditors sue the government, i.a. because of breech of property rights, the situation could turn Argentinian. With foreign advisers, no doubt aware of all of this, as well as being concerned about reputational risks, as is indeed both the IMF and the CBI, it seems unlikely (though by no means unthinkable) that the Icelandic government will by accident or recklessness (or both) unwittingly find itself exposed to legal wrangling with the creditors.

I have argued earlier that the government is incidentally already exposed to such a risk. After a change in the capital controls Act last year, the minister of finance has to agree to certain steps regarding the fate of the estates. It is easy to think up several such scenarios resulting from this. I.a. the creditors could take legal action if they at some point feel that by inaction the minister is indeed a hindrance to payouts.

As many other pundits Tett is recounting the Icelandic financial disaster saga to prove general points. “The first is that “emergency” policy measures that distort the financial world tend to become addictive. Second, this addiction is very hard to break when there is an unpleasant debt overhang, be that of the public or semi-public sort.

With gross debt rising in the world these are indeed important and never too oft repeated lessons to be learnt from the Icelandic collapse saga. The Icelandic reality is not quite what Tett makes out of it but does never the less support the lessons she wants to draw from the Icelandic fall and recovery.

*All the essential information on Iceland, its economy and capital controls are here: the IMF pages on Iceland – and the CBI financial stability reports.

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Written by Sigrún Davíðsdóttir

July 28th, 2014 at 3:35 pm

Posted in Iceland