Sigrún Davíðsdóttir's Icelog

Iceland and the capital controls: to-ing, fro-ing and tortuous steps

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So far, every move by the Icelandic government towards lifting the capital controls has taken more time than anticipated and yielded less than promised. Now a managing committee to steer a whole crowd of foreign advisers is in the making: again, it was announced a while ago and although the foreign advisers have already had meetings in Iceland the managing committee is still not in place. If this isn’t to be yet another underwhelming exercise the government has to resolve the tension centring on an orderly composition agreement for Glitnir and Kaupthing or a disorderly bankruptcy and “ISK-ation” creating a mountain of foreign-owned ISK – and whether the Landsbanki bonds agreement passes or not. After all the political rhetoric the solution has to look like victory – but even that would not be too difficult.

The foreigners are coming – not the foreign creditors but foreign advisers. After shunning any foreign assistance the government now has it in abundance. According to Rúv, JP Morgan will advise on the financial side, White Oak Advisory London will advise on the legalities and to figure out what needs to be done there is Cleary’s Lee Buchheit, in Iceland of Icesave fame, and Anne O. Krueger IMF’s deputy manager 2001-2006.

Deciding on foreign advisers has clearly been a tortuous step. Already in April, two months ago, the rumour was that the names would be announced “next week.” Having gotten this far is promising. What is less promising is that in order to orchestrate these formidable forces there is to be an Icelandic managing committee, which – as so often – the government seems to be in great difficulty to agree on. The setting up of this committee was announced some weeks ago, then apparently just about to happen, but no, so far no committee although the foreign advisers have already visited Iceland.

The non-existent managing group is unfortunate in itself but even more so because the delay indicates that the government has not yet made up its mind as to how to proceed regarding the lifting of the capital controls. The greatest obstacle is, as explained earlier on Icelog, how to resolve the estates of Glitnir and Kaupthing: the government still seems to dally with the idea of bankruptcy, including converting fx assets into ISK, in effect an “ISK-ation”of the assets.

In addition, the government has sent the Central Bank of Iceland on an uncertain course, apparently because of a disagreement within the government. With reforms in 2009 the independence of the bank was strengthened. The question is if there will now be a U-turn with the appointment of a new governor.

The two party leaders, prime minister Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson and minister of finance Bjarni Benediktsson, have oscillated between optimism and pessimism as to how hard the task was and the time it would take to take decisive steps towards lifting the controls. It is now over a year since the present coalition led by the Progressive Party with the Independence Party came to power. In terms of action regarding the capital controls that is mostly a lost year.

The all-Icelandic working group, set up in November, presented its results in March but there was little there in terms of realistic scenarios or solutions. Apparently the approach to Glitnir and Kaupthing and composition or not, i.e. “ISK-ation,” split the group.

A solution leading to a market access – or a specific Icelandic solution

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.

The above is how the CBI spells out in its latest Financial Stability Report the goals regarding the lifting of the capital controls. There has to be a comprehensive solution – and any solution that doesn’t ensure access to international credit markets is no solution at all.

Market access is an excellent measure. A specific Icelandic solution, which converts fx assets into, for foreign creditors, useless ISK, thus creating new mountains of foreign-owned ISK for which there is not enough fx, does not seems to be a market-opening solution.

An important lesson from the Greek and Argentine default is that the large majority of creditors do indeed want to negotiate a deal. The Icelandic situation is not comparable to Greece and Argentina – Iceland isn’t about to default – but as explained earlier on Icelog the state could incur liabilities if creditors deem the state is blocking payments from the estates or impairing recovery, such as inducing “ISK-ation.”

So far, the government has refused to negotiate with Glitnir and Kaupthing creditors, clinging to its mantra that these are estates of failed private banks. True, but solving the ISK problem of the estates is a key step towards lifting the controls, truly an issue of supreme national importance. By hiring foreign advisers, the government seems indirectly to accept it has to negotiate.

The three problems that need to be solved

It is often heard in Iceland that surely the problems underlying the capital controls are fiendishly complicated. In a way, they are actually not complicated though certainly not risk free. Three things need to fall in place:

*ISK assets of Glitnir and Kaupthing, in total ISK450bn (end of 2013)

*Remnants of the old ISK overhang (“hot” foreign-owned ISK which originally caused the outflows that demanded capital controls), in total ISK322 (at the end of February 2014)

*The two Landsbanki bonds of which ISK226bn is still unpaid

The Kaupthing ISK assets are mostly tied in its ownership of Arion. If Arion could be sold for fx the Kaupthing ISK problem is solved. Glitnir poses more of an ISK problem: selling Íslandsbanki for fx will only solve ca. half of its ISK problem. Here, the classic solutions would be a write-down, extended pay-outs or a combination of both.

The original overhang no longer poses a major problem. Judging from the CBI auctions these offshore-ISK owners do not seem strongly inclined to leave the high interest environment in Iceland for the low interests in Europe and the US. As long as interests remain low in the Western world the international environment is favourable for lifting the controls – but this favourable situation will of course not last forever.

On May 8 an agreement on the Landsbanki bonds was signed. The CBI is now assessing the agreement and the exemption from controls that is part of the agreement. Application for exemptions seems to have been sent in some time after the agreement was reached, which together with vacation time explains that it is taking the CBI some time to conclude on the Landsbanki bonds packet. As far as I understand the government will not make its own assessment but follow the CBI advice on the agreement.

New Landsbanki is state-owned, those who negotiated on behalf of the bank will have kept the ministry of finance informed and the new agreement broadly followed what the CBI had outlined. Yet the minister of finance, who formally needs to accept the agreement, has expressed some doubts.

In an interview with Rúv July 6, Benediktsson said he foresees a sale of Landsbanki. He envisages that the state keeps 40% of Landsbanki with the rest sold off, limiting other shareholders to 10-20% share of the bank. Strangely enough Benediktsson did not mention that according to the bank’s CEO last December the bank would need to extend its debt to the Landsbanki estate – and, as if in a parallel universe, the minister did neither mention this nor the Landsbanki bonds agreement.

Who is really in charge?

During the election campaign last year the Progressive Party repeatedly stated that there would unavoidably be money for the state coffers from the resolution of Glitnir and Kaupthing. These funds should be used for a debt relief for those who were too well off to have profited from earlier debt relief. When the debt relief plan was presented in November it turned out that it was funded with a banking levy, both on living and dead banks.

At the time I took it to imply that after all Benediktsson, known to doubt funding from the resolution of the estates, did after all have the upper hand in the government. That seems less certain now. Reviewing the first year I would now rather conclude that the prime minister clearly has enough political strength to decide whatever he wants to and then lets Benediktsson pick the policies the prime minister does not have strong views on. This is worrying because political clientilismo has long been strongly connected to the Progressive Party.

Whatever the power divide, this government clearly suffers from lack of communication. Time and again the prime minister says one thing and the minister of finance another. Most tellingly, the disharmony is spelled out in lack of action, on lifting the capital controls in general and now, specifically, in appointing a managing committee and deciding on the next steps.

The CBI under siege

Part of the disharmony within the government has been policies regarding the CBI. After much back and forth – if there should be a reform, three governors instead of the one now, if present governor Már Guðmundsson should continue or not – the position of governor was finally announced but without any clarifications on changes or not.

Guðmundsson has now applied, as have nine other candidates. None can really match Guðmundsson’s professional qualifications but there is a lot of speculation that professor Ragnar Árnason is the government’s favourite. Some doubt his qualifications – his expertise is fisheries economics – but the rumour is persistent. Another candidate, and now possibly more likely though he is less mentioned, is professor Friðrik Már Baldursson.

Morgunblaðið, with former prime minister and leader of the Independence Party Davíð Oddsson as its editor, has waged a forceful campaign against Guðmundsson. The story is that after Guðmundsson took office as governor his salary turned out to be less than he had been made to understand it would be. He sued the bank but lost. Morgunblaðið exposed earlier that the CBI had paid his legal bill. The National Audit Office has now investigated the matter and in its report finds no fault with Guðmundsson. Morgunblaðið claims the investigation is untrustworthy because the sister of the director of the National Audit Office is the head of internal audits at the CBI. In Iceland, many feel certain that Oddsson, who was ousted as a CBI governor, will not rest until Guðmundsson has been driven out of office, even though Guðmundsson played no part in ending Oddsson’s CBI career.

Many feel that the selection process has already been undermined by the choice of a selection committee, which has two lawyers and only one economist. One of these two lawyers, Stefán Eiríksson, is at present the head of the Reykjavík police and is applying for a new public position, as the head of a governmental body that oversees transport in Iceland. Central Banking has already published an article about what it calls “a bizarre committee.”

Who will be chosen as the next CBI governor will be an important indication as to whether the government respects the independence of the bank – or not.

No pay-outs to creditors until the resolution route is chosen

There has been much toing and froing from prime minister Gunnlaugsson and finance minister Benediktsson regarding how and when the controls could be lifted. Considering how tortuous every step has been there is little to underpin optimism on a quick solution as to what to do. Yet, there seems to be determined optimisms amongst the creditors and they have shown remarkable cohesion.

The foreign advisers will most likely need some time to delve into the Icelandic situation. But the fundamental thing is for the government to make up its mind as to what needs to be done and what its aim is and yes, who should be on the managing committee. The lack of clarity explains the sluggish moves so far and in spite of advisers, the latest moves are not entirely convincing.

In the Landsbanki estate priority creditors will get the lion share of the estate’s assets and they have already been paid out along the way. But that has now stopped and since last year the CBI has not given the necessary exemptions. The CBI has also closed down the route for Icelanders to buy foreign life insurance and make limited capital payments towards pension: buying insurance was legal but the capital transfer goes against the controls although this has been going on for some years. This hardening attitude can be interpreted in various ways: that the controls are here to stay, that the CBI is showing the government its tough side etc.

Glitnir and Kaupthing now hold ca. ISK1000bn of fx, that could mostly be paid out without a risk to Icelandic financial stability. However, pay-outs are only possible once the estates are resolved. And they cannot be resolved until either a composition agreement is in place or the estates forced into bankruptcy.

The pension funds and the capital controls

Voices in Iceland have complained that creditors will be able to exit before the Icelandic pension funds. Before the collapse, the funds placed 30% of its investments abroad, which means that its Icelandic investments and the Icelandic investment environment is, under all circumstances, crucial to the funds.

Icelandic business leaders have increasingly voiced their frustration and CEOs of both big and small companies have aired the possibility of moving their companies abroad. Fewer investment options in Iceland due to the capital controls would raise the cost of the controls for the pension funds. It can be argued that lifting or easing the controls, thus improving the business environment in Iceland, is more important for the funds even though they have to wait for a while to invest abroad.

With the sluggishness so far, the advisers and the lost times it now seems unlikely that any negotiations with the creditors will start until September, at the earliest. Even more so, if the advisers will be given the task of doing all calculations, balance of payment and everything else, from scratch.

Getting foreign advisers on board has been seen as a necessary prerequisite for negotiations. That may be true – but hiring advisers and consultants is also a tried and tested, and usually an expensive, option when no one has a clue what to do and those in charge cannot make up their minds.

Complicated but not complex solutions

Given the fact that over the last few years the CBI has worked hard on issues related to the estates and capital controls it is frustrating that the government does not dare negotiate with the creditors but chooses to start a time-consuming process with an apparently unclear course and yet another committee with a difficult birth.

This is all the more frustrating because there really are some relatively simple solutions in sight. This is not to say that negotiating would be easy – no doubt the creditors will drive a hard bargain. It would be strange if they would not. But it is clear that the creditors do want to negotiate and find an end to this matter.

Last November, Lord Eatwell presented an independent report at the behest of Glitnir on macroeconomic balances and capital account liberalisation in Iceland where he pointed out balance-of-payment neutral solutions to the foreign-owned ISK. I have heard others air the same opinion. This is just one of many ways that could be explored. Using assets owned by the CBI asset holding company for swaps is another. Und so weiter.

According to the rumour mill in Iceland the creditors do not want to negotiate. Nothing could be more far from the truth. In general, creditors do wish to negotiate and the same counts for creditors to the Icelandic estates. This is, as far as I can see, a way to create a reason for not even attempting to negotiate but go straight down the bankruptcy route. Any solution has to look like a big fat victory for the Icelandic government – and even that would not be too difficult.

Again, having found experienced advisers might seem promising. But if the course of events will be a version of “if you don’t know where you are going you ain’t likely to get there any time soon” the outlook is bleak. Apart from the political disharmony it is no less worrying that there are strong forces pushing for bankruptcy: some Icelanders are apparently hoping to make a lot of money out of the tumult it would lead to and political favours have long been part of Icelandic politics. All of this is worrying for the Icelandic economy and for all those living in Iceland.

*Update July 9 2014: here is the press release, sent out today, regarding the foreign advisers. After announcing a managing committee, as mentioned above, to work on behalf of the Ministry of Finance and Economic Affairs and the so-called “Ministerial Committee on Economic Affairs and the Steering Group on Removal of Capital Controls” it turns out that no formal group will be set up. Instead,  four experts have been engaged to work alongside the foreign advisers: Benedikt Gíslason adviser to Benediktsson; Supreme Court attorney Eiríkur Svavarsson, earlier in the In Defense group, fighting against the Icesave agreement; Freyr Hermannsson head of reserves management at the CBI and Glenn Victor Kim, currently at Moelis & Co and LJ Capital, served previously as senior adviser to the German Finance Agency re the European Financial Stability Facility (EFSF). Kim will lead the work of the four external experts. – According to the press release, the first task of White Oak Advisory and Anne Krueger will be “to set out the macroeconomic conditions considered necessary with regard to maintaining economic stability.” Tomorrow, the report of the IMF mission to Iceland in spring is expected to be published. Both the IMF and the CBI have worked extensively on these issues. Hopefully, the new advisers will not need to start from scratch here.

*Here is an earlier Icelog on the May 8 agreement on the Landsbanki bonds – and here is a blog on the numbers and the main issues regarding the capital controls.

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Written by Sigrún Davídsdóttir

July 9th, 2014 at 12:09 am

Posted in Iceland

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