Sigrún Davíðsdóttir's Icelog

The Landsbanki agreement: a first step towards orderly lifting capital controls or into turmoil?

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Last December, Landsbankinn announced it would need to extend its two bonds of December 2009 with maturity 2018. On May 8, Landsbankinn and the LBI, the estate of old Landsbanki, reached an agreement to extend the final maturity from 2018 to 2026. In return, creditors want a pay-out of fx cash funds with the LBI, only possible with an exemption from the Central Bank of Iceland, CBI, with the blessing of the minister of finance. – With a time clause in the new agreement there is now pressure on the government to find the holistic solution to the estates both the CBI and ministers have talked. At stake is saving the state-owned Landsbankinn or the cataclysm of a failed state-owned bank. Judging from the debate in Iceland it seems that there are those who would either favour some turmoil or do not realise the risks involved in some special Icelandic solution.

The nature of the estates of the three biggest Icelandic banks, which all failed in October 2008, is not the same. This is also reflected in the ownership of the three new banks. On one hand there is Landsbanki, on the other Glitnir and Kaupthing.

Due to Icesave, priority-claim holders, i.e. deposit guarantee schemes of the UK and the Netherlands, will get ca. 90% of the Landsbanki estate, LBI. Not until December 2009 was the ownership of Landsbankinn, the new bank, in place: the state brought equity in addition to a loan from LBI, which due to imbalance between domestic and foreign assets, mostly had to be paid in fx.

The state now owns 98% of Landsbankinn with employees holding the rest. Instead, in Glitnir and Kaupthing creditors holding general claims, i.e. myriad of banks and other financial institutions, get the lion share of the estates. After the collapse in October 2008 creditors of these two estates agreed to fund the two new banks, now Íslandsbanki and Arion, taking a stake in them. The state owns 13% of Arion and 5% of Íslandsbanki.

It was clear from early on that Landsbankinn would not be able to meet the bonds’ payment schedule; the bank is not generating enough fx funds. At the time it seemed a solvable problem for another day, certainly the bank would gain market access before crunch time and be able to refinance. Now, with capital controls still in place etc., this is not about to happen meaning there was no other way but to negotiate with LBI.

Negotiations have been ongoing, on and off, for a year, at times in a rather frosty atmosphere. Already a year ago, the rumour was that an agreement would be reached before the end of the year; 2013 passed, no agreement – until now.

Agreement on extending the Landsbankinn bonds

Those two who negotiated were Landsbankinn, the payer of the two bonds and LBI, i.e. its Winding up Board as well as representatives of both the priority and general creditors.

According to the Landsbankinn press releaseInterest rates will remain unchanged at 2.9% margin until October 2018. Thereafter, the margin steps up to 3.5% for the 2020 maturity, increasing up to 4.05% for the 2026 maturity. Each of the maturities between 2020 and 2026 will be equivalent to approximately 30 billion ISK.” – This is more or less what the other banks get offered. Improved conditions will help Landsbanki refinance.

The intriguing bit is this part of the press release: “The agreement is conditional upon the Winding up Board of LBI obtaining certain exemptions from the capital controls.

The story here is that creditors know full well that saving a state-owned bank may be worth something. This “something” is not spelled out in the press release but it refers to the fact that LBI creditors want to make sure they will actually be paid out their assets in LBI. As it is now, they do not: LBI has i.a. not paid out ISK50bn, paid by Landsbankinn on the bond because the CBI has to grant exemptions to currency law and it has not.

In order to secure their interests, the new agreement states that conditions precedent to closing are that the CBI:

– grants existing exemption requests from the capital controls for Partial Payments to creditors,

– grants a permanent exemption to the capital controls for payments received on the Bonds, and

– grants exemption requests for future payments LBI receives on FX assets of LBI or to the extent such exemptions cannot be granted, a confirmation by the Central Bank that it will consider future exemption requests in good faith

In short, the relevant facts regarding the agreement are:

Outstanding part of the bonds is ISK226bn; eight years extension, from 2018 to 2026; tranches will be paid out every two years instead of every year; the bonds can be paid at a faster rate without any penalties; until current final maturity 2018 the interest rates are the same as earlier agreed, i.e. 290 basic points on Euribor/Libor, the 350bp 2020 ending in 406bp 2026; the agreement is made on condition that CBI grants exemptions.

From positive to negative

The first reception of the agreement was largely positive. After all, extended maturity of the Landsbankinn bonds seems broadly in accordance with CBI’s views in its financial stability reports: Landsbankinn has funds to pay the 2014 and 2015 instalments but the main burden on Icelandic balance of payment in 2016 stems from the two Landsbanki bonds. Once they are extended things will brighten up – which is just what has now been done in the new agreement, or rather the head of terms reached.

Major news regarding the estates and other matters close to the CBI has recently often been leaked to Morgunblaðið. The news of the agreement came fresh from Landsbankinn. Since the CBI position on the importance of extending the maturities was known this was reflected in the first news – a problem that needed to be solved and had been seeking a solution for a long time had indeed found a solution. Without taking a stand, Már Guðmundsson governor of the CBI said the bank would now analyse the agreement.

But after the first surprise of an agreement dissident voices were heard. Prime minister Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson has said that creditors must not be favoured over ordinary people and the new agreement must not be allowed to impair standard of living in Iceland. Other Progressive voices sounded the same warning. As often, minister of finance Bjarni Benediktsson was more cautious and Delphic.

The strongest and much noted criticism came from Heiðar Már Guðjónsson. In an article in Morgunblaðið Guðjónsson wrote that the new agreement smacks of Icesave, meaning it was too onerous for Iceland. He claims the problem is not solved with extending maturities since the interest rates are too high and that foreigners should not get an exemption from the currency laws until a holistic solution is found; in the end the Icelandic people will only pay the price for this.

Guðjónsson, introduced as an economist (he graduated from University of Iceland) in Morgunblaðið, is better known in Iceland as an investor. His family lives in Iceland but he himself is domiciled in Switzerland where he moved from London after working at Novator. Novator is the investment company owned by Björgólfur Thor Björgólfsson who with his father was Landsbanki’s largest shareholder from when they bought the bank in 2003 until the bank failed only five years later.

In 2010 Guðjónsson led a group of investors who wanted to buy the insurance company Sjóvá. He has later claimed that governor Guðmundsson personally intervened to prevent his offer being accepted. On the other side there are rumours that the CBI did not want to accept the offer because it was conditional on using offshore króna. Last year, Guðjónsson published a book about Iceland and the Artic and he has various investments in Iceland.

Interestingly, those who have sought financial power in Iceland have always sought to own/control a bank, an insurance company and a media – preferably all three. This was true in earlier decades and was still true after the privatisation of the banks.

Precedents and the glaring risk on Landsbankinn

For some reason, none of those who have opposed the new agreement mention the glaring risk that Landsbankinn – and its owner, the state – is facing by not being able to pay off the bonds in 2016. Also, the CBI has time and again called for a holistic solution.

The agreement has been said to constitute a dangerous precedent. The fact is that the LBI is still paying out to priority creditors whereas these have already been paid out in Glitnir and Kaupthing – in fx. In total, the priority creditors in the three banks have been paid out close to ISK1000bn (ca ISK700bn to LBI creditors, the rest to creditors of Glitnir and Kaupthing), amounting to more than half of 2013 Icelandic GDP. Obviously without upsetting the Icelandic economy since this has been paid from fx assets in the estates.

In total, LBI priority claims – mostly rising from Icesave – amount to ca. ISK1330bn. With extended maturity this will not have been paid out until towards the end of the extension. General creditors will most likely get ca. ISK200bn – but not until close to 2026.

Consequently, a pay-out from LBI does not set any precedent regarding pay-out to priority creditors since Glitnir and Kaupthing have already paid their priority creditors. Some people worry about the precedent it sets to give exemptions to pay-out in fx. The interesting thing here is again that this has already happened: as mentioned above the equivalent of ISK1000bn in fx has already left the country/or more likely, been paid out of accounts abroad since most of the fx is actually kept abroad.

A new and unexpected time limit for the government

What the government now faces is that the new agreement has a time limit: LBI and Landsbankinn commit to finalise documentation before June 12 and completion within three months from that time. This means that the government has a thing or two on its plate now.

The CBI grants exemptions but the minister of finance has to agree to exemptions of this magnitude. After seemingly having eternity to make up its mind as to how the estates should be wound up it now has… until September 12 (I have heard there might be a month or even three in grace period but according to a copy of the presentation of the head of terms the date is September 12).

At first glance, Landsbankinn and the LBI have no doubt had in mind to extend in line with the CBI balance of payment forecast. It is difficult to see that the agreement might threaten standard of life in Iceland as prime minister Gunnlaugsson has stated. What is however threatening Iceland are the capital controls.

The nature of capital controls is to give shelter from an imminent danger that cannot be solved imminently – in Iceland it was the situation after the collapse when more króna was seeking to be converted into fx than could be serviced without causing the króna to collapse. However, the danger is that with time the controls turn into a cosy shelter substituting the reforms and changes that need to be made to solve the original problem/danger. Exactly when this happens is difficult to estimate. With Iceland now well into the sixth year, business leaders in Iceland are smarting, complaining loudly about the lack of a credible plan to lift the controls without threatening financial stability.

The asset sale of the century

There are interesting times in Iceland. It is clear that two – and possibly three – banks will be for sale in Iceland in the foreseeable future. Ironically, an agreement on the Landsbanki bonds removes the largest obstacle for the state selling the bank, recovering its funds now tied in that bank.

The sale of two – Arion and Íslandsbanki – or even three banks will clearly be the largest asset sale in the history of Iceland. There might be foreign buyers and that is what the Winding up Boards of Kaupthing and Íslandsbanki are actively looking into, helped by creditors. Selling one or two of the banks would resolve the problem of converting the ISK assets of the Glitnir and Kaupthing into fx.

Some say that foreigners should not own any Icelandic banks, which in the light of the experience of home-run and –owned banks is a remarkably forgiving opinion.  And yes, there might also be Icelandic buyers.

There are the pension funds, which might very well be tempted/lured into (depending on the point of view) to buy a bank or two with their foreign assets. Interestingly, most major Icelandic investors, who got rich by being actively involved with the three banks in the five to eight years up to the collapse and who still have the urge to invest in Iceland, are all living abroad.

The political choice: negotiations or turmoil

The government has to make up its mind as to how to deal with the estates. It will now feel emboldened by having paved the way to debt relief – the two necessary Bills have been passed in Althing and the website for applications is up and running. The coming local elections in Iceland May 31 will most likely be bad news for the government though the successful introduction of the debt relief might pull some votes for the Progressive party in the election’s final spurt.

The debt relief, though carried out by the Ministry of finance, is the Progressive’s big project. Its realisation will greatly strengthen the party’s credibility in the eyes of the voters. It will also strengthen the party in government, which again might strengthen the party’s view on the estates. Its former views on money accruing to the state from the estates have not been heard much lately. It is however clear that some of the government’s local advisers are of the same view though it is safe to say that if this were an easy route it would already have been taken.

Anyone bringing fx to Iceland in order to buy assets now gets ca. 20% discount, compared to those with investors holding króna in Iceland. The rumours in Iceland are that if the government chooses some unconventional way in resolving the problems related to the bank estates, releasing legal action and other unforeseen consequences, the resulting turmoil might drive down prices in Iceland. Turmoil might benefit those intending to buy assets in Iceland but it will certainly not benefit the average Icelander who would yet again see the economy in jeopardy.

The CBI has preached the importance of keeping an eye on financial stability. The IMF still keeps an eye on Iceland and certainly has all the expertise needed to deal with the situation. Lately, some international advisors, specialised in sovereign debt issues have been visiting Iceland. If the government hires such advisors it might make it more likely that the route of negotiations will be chosen. By following the example of how other countries have escaped capital controls and how big financial estates are dealt with, the CBI goal of financial stability and market access might be within reach. Or as the CBI writes in its last financial stability report:

The next stages of the winding-up proceedings must safeguard financial stability and ensure that domestic entities have access to foreign credit markets. Finding a comprehensive solution to the estates’ affairs is a prerequisite for lifting of the capital controls.

Follow me on Twitter for running updates.

Written by Sigrún Davídsdóttir

May 19th, 2014 at 8:46 am

Posted in Iceland

5 Responses to 'The Landsbanki agreement: a first step towards orderly lifting capital controls or into turmoil?'

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  1. Thanks again Sigrun for keeping us informed of the goings son in Iceland, which seem to get more and more convoluted.

    I note that, following comments made by your Prime Minister in a television news interview, where it was apparently stated that Kaupthing’s composition proposal had not been presented to the Icelandic Authorities, the Kaupthing winding-up committee has deemed it necessary to put out the following statement:

    “On 24 October 2012, Kaupthing’s Winding-up Committee applied to the Central Bank of Iceland for an exemption from Iceland’s capital controls on the basis of provisions of the Icelandic Foreign Exchange Act. The application included a draft composition proposal. The purpose of the exemption application is to create the necessary basis for submitting a composition proposal to creditors and thereby concluding Kaupthing’s winding-up proceedings.

    The exemption application is still under consideration at the Central Bank of Iceland.”


    20 May 14 at 7:00 am

  2. Yes, thanks for these continued reports, Sigrun Davidsdottir. It is a while since I thought about this issue, so I thought I’d check in for an update. I must say though that I would expect foreigners to be wary about buying Icelandic assets in future, having seen the legal gymnastics that Iceland is capable of when deals with foreigners go against Icelanders – eg changing the creditor hierarchy on the eve of a bankruptcy, confirmed as perfectly legal….by Iceland’s parliament!

    Tim Young

    6 Jun 14 at 10:33 am

  3. […] 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 […]

  4. […] have earlier explained the intricacies and details around the Landsbanki bonds and the agreement. – The quotes […]

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