Last week started with a TV interview where prime minister Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson spent the best of half an hour arguing with the journalist, much to the dismay of many TV watchers. Then there was a report on Iceland and the EU, which led to the government deciding to break off EU membership negotiations, in spite of earlier promises to vote on continued negotiations; a decision ex prime minister Þorsteinn Pálsson called the greatest political betrayal in Icelandic history. And lastly, it was also last week that the government, at the 12th hour, announced it was going to take time to set up a committee to ponder on changes, or not, at the Central Bank. This which means that the CBI will clearly not be taking any major decisions until new governor(s) are in place, which again must set some creditors thinking – and perhaps also some Icelanders.
For two days protesters have gathered outside the Icelandic Alþingi, parliament. It is not an angry mob, more like a crowd during an interval at a theatre waiting patiently for the second half. What started out as an awkward election promise is now a millstone around the neck of prime minister Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson but more seriously minister of finance and leader of Independence Bjarni Benediktsson. At the time, Benediktsson himself now against Icelandic membership of the European Union (but pro EU some years ago) but trying to avoid alienating pro-EU voters, eased out of anything final on the matter by promising a referendum on continuing the negotiations or not.
A history of broken promises
Both parties promised in no uncertain terms that they would not break off negotiations without a referendum but instead hold a referendum on whether to continue the membership negotiations. What the two parties had not foreseen was that there would be a clear majority for continuing.
Many voters now seem to feel that this promise has been broken in spite of the coalition parties offering various different version of actually-not-broken-promise. The government had said it would make up its mind on EU after a report it had promised already last autumn. Now that the report is out, a balanced overview of the negotiations and options, the government intends to skip earlier promise and instead break off the negotiations without any further ado. It even seemed to want to rush the matter through parliament last week, holding a parliamentary debate only a day after the 1000 pages report had been published thus giving MPs no time to study the report but it was forced to change its tempo and give more time.
This awkward promise of a referendum on continued negotiations now haunts the government. Benediktsson tries to spin it as being impossible to continue though he struggles to explain what should have changed since the promise was given. He did however say in a TV debate last night that he could “not completely” keep his promise.
This issue is particularly difficult for Benediktsson, less for Gunnlaugsson whose party is firmly against EU membership. Although opinion polls indicate that majority of Independence party voters are against EU membership the business elite, except for those with interests in the fishing industry, is for membership. This is turning into a major problem for the government. One Independence party member, Vilhjálmur Bjarnason, has said he will reflect the opinion of many party members and vote against breaking off the negotiation. The government’s majority is however still secure.
One who voices dismay in no uncertain terms is Benediktsson’s fellow party member ex prime minister Þorsteinn Pálsson who calls the change of course “the greatest political betrayal ever” in Icelandic politics. Pálsson is a respected commentator and many well-known Independence party members from the business community who side with him.
In addition, Iceland also now has its very own version of Sarah Palin. Last week, Progressive MP and chairman of the budgetary committee Vigdís Hauksdóttir stated during a radio debate: “There is famine in Europe now” and later said that Malta is “a self-governing zone within a larger country. It is not a country.” Before these remarkable statements her most memorable statement had been (during a TV interview on earlier promised action on the health service “at once” her party were in power) that the phrase “at once” was an “elastic concept” – a novel and highly creative interpretation that has now turned into a saying in Iceland.
CBI in limbo
By stepping in to make changes at the CBI the government has effectively kicked the CBI off the field of any major decisions regarding the estates of the collapsed banks and ultimately of the capital controls for some time, probably most of this year. This is seen a cause for worry in the business community tired of non-action on the capital controls. The bigger companies, often with foreign operations that ease the pain of the controls, find their way within the controls but smaller and medium sized companies are complaining loudly.
The first step towards changes is to set up a working group (no names yet) apparently to come up with suggestions as to what the changes should be. As pointed out earlier, it seems that the government was going to set all of this in motion at a later date but then realised, at the last moment, that by waiting it might have to pay the present governor Már Guðmundsson salary of the rest of his 5 year term, which would have been renewed automatically February 20 unless he had been notified. Which he then duly was, on that day. *
The situation now is of completely opacity as to the procedure. Also there is a complete lack of policy as to where the government is heading with the CBI. It is unclear who will come up with proposals, unclear what the government policy is (some indication that the FME, financial supervisory authority, might be put under the CBI as it was until 1998) and it is also unclear as to what the criteria will be for hiring a new governor and if there will be more than one governor. And obviously it is completely unclear as to how long all this will take and when new governor(s) might be in place.
Will the past replace the future?
Generally, countries where the government meddles in matters of the central bank do not fare well. Right now, it is not only the Icelandic government that is creating such headlines but also the governments in Hungary and Nigeria. Not exactly countries that Iceland has been comparing itself to over the years.
One of the more interesting remarks made by the prime minister in the TV interview a week ago was when he stated on CBI independence that “it would be good to have an independent central bank if we had a different government.”
The fact that the CBI had criticised the “correction” – debt write-down for borrowers who could afford their loans and consequently had not profited from earlier write-downs by the previous government – was obviously a matter of great irritation to the prime minister.
This ill-prepared intervention against the CBI has instigated a feeling in Iceland that the country is about to be steered back to the past where all public institutions and state-owned companies were carved up between the political powers. People were chosen to leading offices of power not according to merits but according to party affiliation. It came as a great surprise when Benediktsson recently appointed a young ex banker, Halla Sigrún Hjartardóttir. She has no previous experience of bank supervision but is an investor with rumoured connections to wheeling and dealing connected to the oil company Skeljungur. Not exactly a career similar to her opposite numbers in the neighbouring countries. The question is if this was only the first of similar nominations.
The question is if old politicians will now be put into power as once was the rule rather than the exception. Might ex prime minister Davíð Oddsson become the chairman of the board of Landsvirkjun? And will his successor as party leader and later prime minister Geir Haarde. So far, the rumours are utter speculations but they indicate a state of mind prepared to see the past turn into the future.
The past practices of the old banks live on (in hidden assets)
It remains to be seen if the strong feeling of the political past being projected into the future materialises. What clearly lives on from pre-collapse Iceland is the effect of the old banks’ operations, both its earlier practices and that most of the big borrowers still have access to considerable assets.
Post-crisis bankrupt companies with humongous debt and hardly any assets (left) shows how assets did migrate out of these companies to somewhere mostly out of sight and reach of administrators. Most of the well-known holding companies, supporting the ownership of the major shareholders of the banks have followed this pattern, i.a. Novator, Baugur, Exista, Fons etc. This alleged migration of wealth out of sight was facilitated by the banks’ lenient lending practices: the banks took all the risk, the favoured borrowers got covenant-light loans.
The clearest shift of risk took place during the winter of 2007 and 2008 when foreign banks, reacting to falling share price in the Icelandic banks, initiated margin calls affecting almost all of the big Icelandic bank shareholders who had placed their Icelandic bank shares as collaterals with foreign banks. The Icelandic banks, rather than seeing their shares flood the market evidently precipitating further falls in share price if not a total meltdown, stepped in and increased their lending to these shareholders. By Easter 2008, this shifting of risk and rapidly increased exposures was over and done with.
In only a few months these moves, well documented in the SIC report, hugely increased the Icelandic banks’ already considerable exposures to their largest shareholders and their business partners, in some cases going over legal limits (though in some cases the banks’ lending hovered under the legal limits by abstruse definition of “related parties”: i.a. Glitnir did not consider Jón Ásgeir Jóhannesson and his wife as related parties nor did Landsbanki classify Björgólfur Guðmundsson and his son Björgólfur Thor Björgólfsson as related parties).
Coming soon: transfer of wealth of historic magnitude
What is at stake in the coming months and years? The banks have amassed a great amount of assets that will be sold. Already, there is anecdotal evidence that the practice from the old banks, of issuing loans to favoured clients against shares with non-too punishing haircut, is abounding. After all, the banks do want to lend money and inside capital controls bad practices can fester.
The most prized assets, already for sale, are the two new banks, Íslandsbanki and Arion, owned by foreign creditors. Most likely these assets are highly coveted by certain forces in Iceland where banks have always bastions of political power and centres of handing out assets to favoured clients.
How the foreign-owned ISK assets of the estates – not only if Glitnir and Kaupthing but also of Straumur and Icebank – will be dealt with decides to a certain degree the price tag on Íslandsbanki and Arion. Any government action, affecting the price, such as converting all foreign assets into ISK/paying foreign cash out in ISK will be of huge interest to Icelanders with money and ambition to buy into Íslandsbanki and Arion.
It is no understatement that the sale of Arion and Íslandsbanki will greatly affect the business climate in Iceland in the coming years and possibly decades. If these assets could be sold on the cheap, aided by pension funds willing to act as silent owners by the side of active investors, the past might indeed be the future, not only in politics but also in the business community.
And now, over to creditors and mobile and educated Icelanders
By the end of 2012 both Glitnir and Kaupthing had presented the CBI with drafts of composition. The matter is still unsolved. Most of last year was lost to election and then a run-in time for the new government. That year went by without any bringing any clarity as to the abolition of the capital controls and the steps needed to solve the problem of the foreign-owned ISK assets.
Now the CBI is in limbo. What will creditors do when faced with an uncertain future of the CBI and an uncertain effect on how to resolve the problem of the ISK assets in Iceland? The creditors have various possibilities. Do they deem the government to be hindering access to the estates’ fx assets? If so, they could try to sue the Icelandic state abroad, i.a. in London. Argentina is the scare example of a country that for years has been kept under pressure from creditors. Not necessarily the Icelandic saga any time soon.
Some drama might come later. Then, on the other hand there will not necessarily be any big drama: some of the creditors might just silently choose to sell their claims. In troubled times the buyers are investors looking to recover their claims by litigating every penny, or in this case, every króna.
Ireland is now back in the market though the country is by no means on a safe ground yet. When will Iceland be in the market to refinance its debt? Judging from the government’s tendency to prolong problems instead of solving them it might take a while. Even a long while.
For Icelanders locked inside capital controls there is yet another “if”: if Iceland will be further isolated from other countries the effect of the growing income difference of the mobile and well educated classes compared to the neighbouring countries might take its toll. As counts for much in Iceland the changes are very gradual. Lost opportunities or loss of work force who does not return to Iceland after studies abroad is difficult to calculate.
* In his letter to CBI employees, Guðmundsson noted that he should have been alerted before midnight February 19. However, he was apparently not notified until evening of February 20. It remains to be seen if this will pose a problem for the government: if Guðmundsson will/cannot reapply, i.e. he could possibly claim that he should be paid for the rest of his term. Judging from his previous dealings regarding his salary, where Guðmundsson maintained earlier promises had been broken – he lost a court case on this issue – Guðmundsson will no doubt explore his position were he to lose his job.
See below for recent three blogs on power and politics in Iceland. The latest blog on capital controls is here.
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