Sigrún Davíðsdóttir's Icelog

Cyprus, Iceland and capital controls

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As Cypriots get used to the idea of capital controls, the first indictments in a big alleged capital control fraud case surface in Iceland. But why did Iceland need capital controls?

Capital controls have been in place in Iceland since November 28 2008, almost two months after the emergency legislation was passed, on October 6 2008, marking the beginning of the collapse of the Icelandic financial sector. With its own currency, the krona/ISK, access to liquidity was not a problem but dwindling foreign currency reserve posed an acute problem.

“Glacier bonds” and other foreign-owned assets in Iceland

With high inflation and high interest rates in a world with low inflation and low interest rates in the years 2005 to 2008 Iceland was a popular destination for money looking for a place to collect interest rates. Foreign banks, notably Toronto Dominion, offered so called “glacier bonds” issued in ISK. At the time of the collapse, ca. foreign-owned ISK680bn, now €427m, were nesting on bank accounts in Iceland – the Icelandic GDP is now around 1600bn. This number is now believed to be about ISK400bn, 25% of GDP (CBI, see p. 12 here).

Although a part of these inflows were “patient money,” i.e. money being placed in Iceland to gather high interest rates for longer term, the sense was that ca. ISK 300bn was short-term investment. Foreseeing rapid outflow, causing major instability and draining the foreign reserves of the Central Bank of Iceland, the capital controls were put in place – and money could no longer flow freely in and out of the country.

Much of this money is in short and long term Icelandic sovereign bonds and other sovereign papers and on accounts with the CBI or the retail banks. Following recent change in the laws on capital controls the offshore krona investments are now greatly restricted.

In addition to the “glacier bond” overhang foreign creditors of the holding companies of Kaupthing and Glitnir (which own the new banks, Arion and Islandsbanki) own additional Icelandic assets, ca. ISK600bn. The plan now is to solve the underlying causes for the capital controls together with negotiations on composition of the two banks – but so far, it is unclear what happens. The CBI would like to see at least one of the two banks sold to foreigners so as to make the sale “currency neutral” but as I’ve written about earlier strong forces in Iceland favour a sale of both banks at knock-down prices to Icelanders.

Icelandic capital controls – no bother in daily life except for companies and investors

To begin with, Icelanders planning to go abroad had to visit a bank, with their flight ticket to buy foreign currency. People could no longer transfer money abroad from their bank accounts, as they had been able to earlier. Otherwise, ordinary people did not much sense the capital controls. Icelanders traveling abroad can use debit/credit cards.

Unlike Cyprus, there were no caps on how much money people could take out from their bank deposits in Iceland. The Icelandic capital controls were not put in place to hinder outflows from deposits in Iceland but strictly to hinder pressure on CBI’s forex reserves and to hinder that the offshore krona – krona owned by foreigners – could flow into the Icelandic economy.

As it is now, the capital controls permit only internal trading in offshore ISK among non‐residents, i.a. they restrict capital transactions between residents and non‐residents. Companies with regular foreign interaction can seek dispensation and many companies now operate under a dispensation scheme.

But with capital controls companies in Iceland are restricted in their investments abroad, all forex earnings by Icelandic companies abroad have to be repatriated, i.e. brought back to Iceland and placed with the CBI. Of course, companies have learnt the hard way to live with it but as someone said to me recently, it is the capital controls’ mentality that is so deadening – this restriction of activities that the controls bring.

Efforts to lift the capital controls – so far, little progress

The CBI has outlined the long-term risk of capital controls. Too many krona chasing too few investment opportunities can lead to an asset price bubble and this might already be happening. Corruption may very well grow around dispensations and other forms of exemption, as well are around attempts to circumvent the laws.

The CBI policy to lift the capital controls was introduced in August 2009 but without any time limits:

This first phase of the strategy was implemented in late October 2009, but at the same time a strengthening of the regulatory framework was aimed at prohibiting inflows of offshore krónur, which were the main channel for circumvention until that time and had greatly undermined the foreign currency repatriation requirement. Subsequently, controls on long‐ term holdings – which were already held to a large extent by long‐term investors or would soon find their way into the hands of such investors (such as domestic pension funds) – were to be lifted gradually. Finally, controls on short‐term assets would be lifted, in part through auctions where market prices would determine which investors could convert ISK assets to foreign currency first. The strategy assumed that this problem would not be addressed until late in the liberalisation process, as a vast amount of highly liquid assets were owned by non‐residents likely to want to or be forced to sell them at the first opportunity. It was also assumed that the offshore krónur problem would eventually diminish to some extent through internal trading by non‐residents, where investors with a longer horizon and more tolerance for distress would acquire ISK assets from distressed investors willing to sell at lower prices.

On the introduction of this plan in August 2009 it was pointed out that it would take longer than anticipated to create the conditions necessary to lift the controls. Now, it has clearly taken much longer – because of Icesave, finalising the balance sheet of the new banks, restructuring, adverse conditions in international forex markets, Iceland’s low credit ratings etc – and there is no end in sight.

The capital controls gave rise to a manifest difference between the rate of ISK in Iceland and ISK offshore rate. As a step towards lifting the controls the CBI has held auctions where the rate is ISK/€ ~240 compared to bank rate of ISK/€ ~165. This indicates the still substantial spread between the offshore and onshore krona.

Capital controls and fraud

Shortly after the capital controls were in place it was rumoured that former bankers strategically placed both abroad and in Iceland were offering offshore krona deals too good to be legal. As the custodian of the controls CBI was to investigate alleged breaches.

It has, to say the least, taken time but last week the Office of Special Prosecutor in Iceland indicted four men who in 2009 are alleged to having facilitated trades amounting to ISK14.3bn in 748 transactions. The investigation opened in early 2010 and was announced, quite exceptionally, with fanfare and a press conference by the police. Those indicted – Karl Löve Johannsson, Gisli Reynisson, Olafur Sigmundsson, all former employees of Straumur Investment Bank and Markus Mani Maute – are all former bankers, aged between 39 and 50. Maute and Sigmundsson are living abroad, the former in the US, the latter in the UK.

According to the Icelandic media, this is the largest fraud case connected to the capital controls, but other 10-15 cases are being investigated. In the writ no mention is made of names of individuals or entities, 84 in total, that did business with the four. As I understand it, Icelanders in Iceland who made use of the service of the four would have violated the law as well but so far, it is unclear if any clients of the four will be indicted.

It seems that each of the four earned ISK164, just over €1m, on the transactions. It is assumed that the payments never came to Iceland – the charges indicate that the fees earned have not been found – but ended up in offshore companies owned by the four. It is known that a company or companies were set up on their behalf – most appropriately in Cyprus.

Cyprus and capital controls

Although Iceland is not a member of the EU it is a member of the single market through the EEA, which forbids capital controls. Iceland holds an exemption from the EEA and the IMF. With capital controls in Cyprus it is clear that many will try to find loopholes in the new law or directly violate them. If the authorities want to a) make them work b) avoid corruption the controls have been clear and easily enforceable. And it takes a specialised enforcement team to make sure the controls are not breeched. And in case of breeches, indictments have to follow.

As can be seen from the Icelandic experience, lifting capital controls is not easy. If things go as Cypriot authorities claim, there will be no reason for a deposit flight once the Bank of Cyprus has been restructured – and that is planned to take no more than a month, after which the controls can be abolished.

This sounds easy and straightforward but it remains to be seen if the plan works out. It has been indicated that the controls in Cyprus will be lifted in stages – as has been the plan in Iceland. The Cypriot authorities better make sure they know from the beginning what the aim is and how to get there. And they better take into account that fraud is an unavoidable part of capital controls.

*The two announcements from the Ministry of finance, Cyprus, regarding capital controls can be found here.

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Written by Sigrún Davídsdóttir

April 1st, 2013 at 11:40 pm

Posted in Iceland

One Response to 'Cyprus, Iceland and capital controls'

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  1. To put it in a satirical way:
    Should the European hen coop be left open for the international fox ?
    So far indeed the only cure for the Dutch disease seems to be for the elected farmer to carefully control the turnpike :)


    2 Apr 13 at 9:39 am

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