Sigrún Davíðsdóttir's Icelog

Ireland and Iceland – better to let fail or to bail out?

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When it comes to bailing out banks Ireland and Iceland chose different paths. Interestingly, there are those who see the two countries as a test of whether it is better to let the bank system fail – or bail it out. That is at least how Jim Leaviss, head of retail fixed interest at M&G Investments is quoted as saying in an article on Ireland in the FT (subscription needed). “Iceland and Ireland were a test of whether it was better to let your bank system collapse or bail it out. So far it is not clear which was best. Irish bond yields have fallen a lot but that was skewed by the ECB’s actions.”

On the basic indicators, growth and unemployment Iceland, is doing much better.

Unemployment: Iceland: 4.5% – Ireland: 15.1%

Growth 2011/2012 (forecast): Iceland: 2.6% / 2.5% – Ireland 0.7% /  0.9%

The Irish ray of light these last days is the notch up by Fitch: from negative to stable (for those who still take any notice of the big rating firms), at BBB+.

As I’ve pointed out earlier it is however a myth that Iceland didn’t bail out its banks. It did bail out some smaller financial institutions to quite a cost but it didn’t bail out its three big banks – Kaupthing, Glitnir and Landsbanki – in October 2008. From early 2008, the Government (a coalition of the Independence Party, conservative and the social democrats, who now lead the Government) and the Central Bank did try to get loans from all and sundry to prepare for this eventuality – it did get a credit swap from the Scandinavian central banks of €1.5bn – but not enough to save the banks. The reality was that the banks couldn’t be saved.

The Icelandic Government has posted what amounts to 20-25% of GDP in bailing out – or trying to bail out – various other financial institutions and one insurance company. Some of this might be recovered later on but some of it is already lost. It is therefor not correct to say there were no bailouts in Iceland and therefore Iceland is not a crystal clear case of no bailouts vs bailouts.

As I have also pointed out earlier, the recovery in Iceland can partly be attributed to wide-reaching write-downs, both for companies and individuals and for changes in the bankruptcy law. All of this helps but it is over-simplification to say that there is any one policy that has made all the difference.

Ireland and Iceland have been very much in my mind for the last two days. I’ve been immersed in all things Irish, attending a conference at Goldsmiths University on the Future State of Ireland, brilliantly organized by Derval Tubridy senior lecturer in English Literature and Visual Culture at Goldsmiths. With illuminating lecturers like columnist and adviser to the EU on corruption Elaine Byrne, Roy Foster professor of Irish History at Oxford, Luke Gibbons professor of Irish Literary and Cultural Studies at National University of Ireland and journalist and writer Fintan O’Toole, this was bound to be an interesting event.

When I first saw the programme for the conference (which Elaine drew my attention to; thanks Elaine) and saw there were some artists involved my first thought was that this was most likely going to be a pretty fluffy event. It turned out to be the contrary – a very dense event with a fascinating insight into Irish History, culture and the Irish psyche.

The artist duo (Gareth) Kennedy (Sarah) Browne showed a video of ‘How Capital Moves’ – taking inspiration from an American company moving from Ireland to Poland. The story of this move is told from several aspects by creating several characters, all lovingly portrayed by one Polish actor. It’s funny and witty but also sadly true, based on words from people working for this company.

The photographer Anthony Haughey has been photographing the Irish and their surroundings for over 20 years, immigrants in this country of emigrants, as well as looking at parallel stories in other nations. His light is the living light caught by long exposures during the night. This profound realism – real as it gets – turns into strangely surreal scenes. The almost disturbingly beautiful photos reveal tension and troubled lives – portraying at the same time striking, still images and strong stories.

Foster’s stories of Irish radicals in the early 20th century seemed to indicate that something is lost in modern Ireland. Where is the radicalism now? Yet, listening to O’Toole and Byrne there doesn’t seem to be any lack of radical thought among journalists and columnists – and interestingly, Jim Clarke at Trinity College pointed out that the tabloids, though conservative in many ways, have been better at portraying people’s anger and disgust, than others.

There is one thing that Ireland has and not Iceland: a strong diaspora. That enriches the debate since it is easier being an outsider looking inside. Ireland is a small country where people speak carefully because everything and everybody is connected. A journalist who in the 1970s spoke of politicians taking bribes, proven right 40 years later, was at the time ostracized and forced to emigrate.

“Shame” and “blame” were two words that ran through the debate. For foreigners it’s easy to forget the other great power in Ireland, next to the state – the Catholic Church. The Irish have not only been thrown into economic turmoil, seeing the political class fail – but also seen grotesque moral failure and criminal child-abuse exposed in the church. Interesting times for the Irish – as was so strongly born out at the conference.

What the Irish still lack is a comprehensive overview of the collapse of their banks. To my mind, the Irish still have only a sporadic evidence of how they have been governed this last fateful decade before their main banks collapsed. The feeling in Ireland is that they do know it all. Before the SIC report was published in April 2010, Icelanders thought the same. The report showed that things had been much worse than even the most pessimistic thought: a complete failure of politicians, regulators, the Central Bank, the business “elite” – and of course the private banks, where bank managers are now being charged by the Special Prosecutor and sued by the three banks’ Winding-up boards. – In terms of legal action against bankers there is peculiarly little happening in Ireland.

It’s difficult to say which of the two countries will fare better. I still believe it’s been wrong for European governments to save failed banks. In Iceland, it was a relatively easy decision to take – there was no alternative regarding to the three big banks. The fact that the creditors were foreign financial institutions – mainly German banks – made it easier, both politically and financially.

Interestingly, it was the same with the Irish banks. Also there, the creditors were mainly foreign and yes, mainly German. But the sums in Ireland were much bigger – and the European Central Bank and the Germans weren’t happy to see banks fail in the euro zone: the ECB because of principles and euro pride; the Germans because German banks were at risk. The Germans are rather sanctimonious about their banks – after all, they are still standing. But the story is that German banks were prudent at home but wrecked havoc abroad – the German banks have been like teenagers who are model kids at home but cut up the furniture and paintings on the walls when they go partying out of their parents’ sight.

As has later become evident, the troika treatment of Ireland in November 2010 set the example of private bank debt migrating to the state, turning the state into an unsustainable borrower – as has now happened in Greece, Portugal and Cyprus, with Spain fiercely resisting to pick up that lethal same burden.

For every imprudent borrower there is a risk-blind lender. With the one-notch up on the Irish rating scale some will hope that the example made of Ireland will turn out to be the good example. There are voices in Ireland saying it is just not fair for the state – and the taxpayers – to be paying the privately accrued debt. It is painful to see the Irish struggling with the debt, which was so recklessly showered over them.

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Written by Sigrún Davídsdóttir

November 19th, 2012 at 12:48 am

Posted in Iceland

11 Responses to 'Ireland and Iceland – better to let fail or to bail out?'

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  1. Shedding clarity in the fog of economic war.
    I feel that the main force is the need of the huge quantity of unattached capital or credit (purposely created) to get invested, to provide rent.
    Maybe there is also the need of captured politicians to provide jobs.
    The result is debt, either of states, private individuals or enterprises, banks included.
    Regulation is fuzzy, it allows state money to fund private enterprises like banks but forbid funding of others ?
    Control of capital flow through taxation is one of the solutions
    There were rumors as such German banks (Deutsch bank or some credit Ansthalt) weren’t in good shape


    19 Nov 12 at 10:10 am

  2. The precursor to the Irish demise:

    In the US, in the first decade of the new millennium, the shadow banking system creates a Tsunami of cheap credit.

    In the EU, the Euro was born, Germany keeps interest rates low to suit it’s reunification phase and the rest of Europe inherited this IR via the new currency.

    A once in a lifetime opportunity came to build infrastructure and invest in the future.


    Between 1997 and 2007 Irish house prices go up almost 400%.

    In 2003 Taoiseach Bertie Ahern splits the regulation of the banks between the Central Bank of Ireland (CBI) and the newly formed Irish Financial Services Regulatory Authority (IFSRA). The seeds of light touch regulation are sown.

    In 2004 Brian Cowen becomes Minister of Finance. He kept property tax breaks in place in a classic asset bubble and refused to put any tax on CFDs.
    The previous incumbent, Charlie McCreevy, is (in)famous for his gombeen economic theory – “When I have it, I spend it.”

    Mike Soden, Ex-CEo of Bank of Ireland, stated that it took the bank 200 years to have a loan book of €100 Billion.

    From 2004 and 2007, they doubled this.

    Ireland had a classic asset bubble in the image of Japan, allied with this was a massive personal debt binge in the image of Iceland.

    Ireland had gone Japlandic.

    Anatomy of a Banking+Sovereign bust:

    July 2007: Taoiseach Bertie Ahern makes a speech bemoaning people talking down the economy and wonders why they don’t commit suicide.
    14 months before the storm… tick, tock…

    August 2007: BNP Paribas terminated withdrawals from three hedge funds citing “a complete evaporation of liquidity”.
    13 months before the storm… tick,tock, tick…

    September 2007: A run on Northern Rock starts.
    12 months before the storm… tick,tock,tick,tock…

    March 2008: A “Golden Circle” is formed, with apparent political blessing, to help support the share price of Anglo Irish Bank. Also in March 2008 Bear Stearns goes bang.
    6 months before the storm… Tick,Tock,Tick,TOCK…

    May 2008 Brian Cowen becomes Taoiseach and Brian Lenihan becomes Minister of Finance.
    5 months to go… Tick,Tock,TICK,TOCK…

    The Green Jersey brigade – Financial Regulator, Central Banker, Taoiseach, Minister of Finance, Bankers – start having meetings in strange places. Phone calls with winks and nods are exchanged.

    September 2008 Anglo, with the knowledge of the regulator, got Irish Life & Permanent to move €8 Billion onto it’s book, in what was called a “Bed-And-Breakfast” arrangement to massage the figure before accounts were published in order to hide the true state of the bank’s
    1 month to go… Tick,TOCK,TICK,TOCK…

    15 Sept 2008 – Lehmans goes bang.
    2 weeks to go… TICK,TOCK,TICK,TOCK…

    Ireland has had the maddest of mad property bubbles. All it’s bank, domestic and foreign, are massively exposed. All the domestic banks have borrowed enormously from European counter-parties to keep the bubble expanding. Liquidity is disappearing from the global financial system. The end is nigh – unless you can find someone else to throw in front of the bus…

    Enter the Government blanket guarantee…

    29th September 2008 – BOOM!!!

    The result:
    – Irish Nationwide Building Society (INBS) is the worst bank failure – (€5 Billion bad of a €6 Billion loan book) – one wonders why this is not enquired into more?
    – Anglo Irish Bank was mostly commercial and a €30 Billion hole.
    – Allied Irish Bank was a mixed residential, commercial disaster and €21 Billion and counting.
    – Bank of Ireland is €8 Billion and counting – yet this is the one that doubled it’s loan book from €100 Billion to €200 Billion in 4 years! Huh???

    What Goes Up...

    19 Nov 12 at 10:37 pm

  3. Again, with regard to Iceland you are deliberately (as it seems) mixing up bail-outs with both:

    a) regular lending by Central Banks (yes, these loans were considered regular by any standard at the time – turns out the standards were faulty), which resulted in short-term debt which the Government later converted to long term loans,

    b) establishment of new banks (to safeguard deposits), capitalising them to fulfil FSA requirements.

    In (a) there was new no funds given to (at the time) distressed banks. Criticize the Central Bank for these loans until your throat hurts, but they were not bail out loans.

    In (b) the old banks, their owners and creditors received no compensation from the state whatsoever. You could even criticize how this went down, but you can’t in good faith call them bail outs.

    I’m sure you’re hoping your story gets picked up by the big press, but keep to the facts if you can. A less shameless approach would be to post a recognised definition of a bank bail-out, and explain how the Icelandic approach does not fit that definition.* You could term it an “Ice-out”.

    (Here’s a randomly chosen definition of the word bailout: A capital infusion offered to a business with a national or multi-national footprint that is in danger of bankruptcy, insolvency, or total liquidation. …)

    This all being said, I think you could point out two bailouts in Iceland during the crisis:
    1) The huge Kaupthing loan by the Central Bank.
    2) The Glitnir takeover (which was later abandoned, perhaps it should be called “almost bailout”).

    Kristján Birgission

    19 Nov 12 at 10:38 pm

  4. Kristján, the numbers are based on a report from the National Audit Office (Ríkisendurskoðun), out in last June: – as is pointed out in the report – and as I point out – it still remains to be seen how costly the “bail-out” (I use the word normally used for these operations) will be.

  5. I am familiar with the report Sigrún.

    It is not a report on bailouts, but on the sum total of the capital a) already lost or due to the financial collapse, and b) invested in financial undertakings. The report does not distinguish between investments, regular central bank lending and bailouts.

    So I’m sorry, but you’re not using the word bailout correctly. That was the whole point of my raving above.

    All that’s left for me is to suggest you ‘look it up’.

    Kristján Birgission

    20 Nov 12 at 7:46 pm

  6. The money put into VBS, Saga and the new banks was, to my mind, a bail out. In the blog above there is this caveat, that we don’t know the final number: “The Icelandic Government has posted what amounts to 20-25% of GDP in bailing out – or trying to bail out – various other financial institutions and one insurance company. Some of this might be recovered later on but some of it is already lost. It is therefor not correct to say there were no bailouts in Iceland and therefore Iceland is not a crystal clear case of no bailouts vs bailouts.”

  7. The Gov risking or losing money on financial institutions does not equal bailout, the actions behind the amounts cannot be considered bailing out.

    There are certain conditions, first of which that the bank in questions should be in distress.

    Kaupthing received a bailout. Glitnir was close to receiving a bailout.

    The capitalisation of the new banks (including Byr and Spkef) were not bailouts of companies that had gone astray. These were new companies, while the old ones went the of Northern Rock. So nobody was bailed out, neither an owner, nor a creditor of the failed firms.
    As I said, one can criticize the establishment of those new banks and the methods used, but calling the money that went into them bailouts is just not correct. If they were “to your mind”, then in my humble opinion you should warn your readers that you’re using the word bailout in an unusual way.

    It’s good that you bring up VBS and Saga. Those companies were perhaps bailed out, but only by way of conversion of claims which derived from their ordinary business with the Central Bank, at a time when they were not considered to be in any difficulty.

    The same goes for the guarantees that were lost with the fall of the big banks. These were large guarantees, given before they were even privatised in the naughties. Calling the money that was lost due to these guarantees “bailouts” is, well … almost silly.

    So no, sorry but the 20-25% of GDP you refer to cannot all be earmarked as bailout (or bailout attempts).

    Part of this percentage is bailouts, a much larger part is funds that were lost in the collapse but never granted to bail anybody out. A third part is capitalisation of new companies (something that the Irish maybe wish they’d done, instead of bailing out the existing banks). That last part you could in some sense call bailout, as the domestic operations were kept afloat (to the benefit of deposit holders only).

    I guess my point is that no dictionary would support your use of the word bailout, to describe the 20-25% GDP as bailout.

    Even the State Auditor explains this in the introduction to the report you refer to above (computer translated to English):
    “It should be noted that contributions, guarantees, loans and other financial obligations of the state are very different in nature and it is therefore not possible to display the total for them. The risk is that adding these numbers would give a misleading picture of the situation.”

    Kristján Birgission

    20 Nov 12 at 11:16 pm

  8. Bailing out of the crashing plane the banker got away with his golden parachute :)
    Forgive me just brain storming


    21 Nov 12 at 10:21 am

  9. Kristján, we can disagree about the amount – but my point is that it’s not correct to say that Iceland didn’t put any money into saving failed banks. Which is why it’s not quite clear cut to say that Ireland bailed out banks and Iceland didn’t.

  10. Thanks so much for your kind words and exceptionally astute and considered response to the conference.
    I think this is the crux of the entire issue, as far as I and many Irish people are concerned, especially since the rogue banks were largely run by and for a self-selecting elite: “There are voices in Ireland saying it is just not fair for the state – and the taxpayers – to be paying the privately accrued debt. It is painful to see the Irish struggling with the debt, which was so recklessly showered over them.”

    Jim Clarke

    22 Nov 12 at 6:19 pm

  11. Yes, I agree with your point *, Sigrún, Iceland did bail out banks. Financial assistance was given to failed or failing banks (the extent of the bailouts is debatable, as we’ve proven). And the myth that Iceland did no such thing should be eradicated.

    The big difference between the two counties’ approach, in my opinion, is that Ireland guaranteed “everything that moved”, whereas Iceland didn’t have that option (thankfully, as it turned out).

    * “that it’s not correct to say that Iceland didn’t put any money into saving failed banks. Which is why it’s not quite clear cut to say that Ireland bailed out banks and Iceland didn’t.”

    Kristján Birgission

    22 Nov 12 at 11:13 pm

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