Sigrún Davíðsdóttir's Icelog

Iceland, capital controls and foreign pundits

with one comment

One of the problems with the debate in Iceland on capital controls is that so few seem to grasp the essentials. Consequently, politicians and special-interest agents on a mission can get away with saying almost whatever they fancy without being challenged. Once in a while, foreigners dive in, equally ill-informed, thwarting the debate further for Icelanders who, as so many small nations, tend to swallow everything coming from abroad. A case in point is a recent FT article by Gillian Tett with a somewhat misleading description of the Icelandic situation only some weeks after the IMF published a most informative report on Iceland. IMF gives some intriguing hints on two key issues: the Central Bank of Iceland and the legal routes out of the capital controls’ impasse.

Practically all nations forced to save themselves by slamming on capital controls struggle to get rid of them. It is by now an all too familiar problem that the shelter, provided by the controls for solving the original problem calling for controls, tends to turn into a hammock for in-action. Iceland is no exception.

The situation in Iceland however offers further complexities: getting rid of the controls will not prove easy at the best of times – but the overwhelming sense among control-watchers is that there might be wheels within the capital control wheels: first of all, steering the two new banks, Arion and Íslandsbanki, now owned by the failed estates of respectively Kaupthing and Glitnir, into hand-picked, politically-palatable ownership in what could be called “the asset sale of the century” (Icelog on this topic). Secondly, the government is seeking to preferably score a “victory” (à la Argentina) over the foreign creditors by securing funds from them for the state.

Iceland’s attraction for pundits in search of a good case to prove their point

Over the past few years, Iceland has been seductively attractive to economists and pundits looking for a story to prove their points/theories. Writing in July 2010 à propos an article by Paul Krugman on Iceland I pointed out that “when it comes to small countries (or exotic topics) it seems permissible to express opinions without knowing very much – or even anything at all.” – Those in the know and understanding are few and far between.

One myth has been that by letting its banks fail, Iceland’s cost of the collapse was almost negligible (more on this here). The cost partly rose from misguided attempts to save two private banks, possibly because of some domestic interests at stake. In addition, there was the cost of propping up the Icelandic “Sparkassen-system.” Thus, the cost of the collapse and resurrecting the country’s economy is more likely to be one of the highest for every country over the last few decades, ca. 20-25% of GDP.

In a recent article in the FT Gillian Tett joins the company of Krugman and many others on the well-trodden path of misunderstandings regarding the Icelandic collapse, subsequent events and the state of affairs right now. Apart from it being slightly shocking that such an esteemed paper as the FT does not take more care with what it prints the article provides a good opportunity to sum up the essentials on post-collapse Iceland and the capital controls. However, Tett’s general point certainly is valid: there is an essential topic for debate on emergency measures that are used as delaying tactics instead of a necessary shelter to work on solutions.

What happened when the banks collapsed?

Tett writes:

When the three banks collapsed, the government decided to save the domestic parts of the system (and its own taxpayers) by piling pain on to foreign creditors and depositors. So bank bonds held by foreigners were tossed into default and turned into implicit equity claims on the collapsed lenders – and bank deposits that foreign investors held in Icelandic krona were trapped in the country by capital controls.

True, the idea was to save the domestic part. The dilemma was how to dismantle a banking system ca. eight times the GDP of Iceland without drowning the whole economy at the same time. (The Icesave saga is about depositors in Landsbanki’s accounts in the UK and the Netherlands and EU’s passport rules for the financial sector; remarkable there was a mini-rerun of the passport conundrum in the UK following the Cyprus crisis; some aspects of Iceland vs Cyprus here).

Consequently, the operations of the three largest banks were divided into domestic and foreign operations. There were, and still are, persistent rumours that during the hectic days in early October 2008, when the emergency Act was being finalised, the policy really was called “f**k the foreigners.” Hardly shocking: a country staring into the abyss will go to great lengths to save itself, thinking less about others.

As explained in the Financial Services Authority, FME’s, annual report 2009 (there was no annual report in 2008) following the emergency Act (Act 125/2008) passed on October 6 2008 the three largest banks – Kaupthing, Landsbanki and Glitnir – were taken over by the FME and divided into “old” banks (destined to be wound up or liquidated at some point) and “new” banks. Like any estate of a failed private entity these failed banks are controlled on behalf of creditors, now by Winding-up Boards, one for each bank.

The three so-called new banks were turned into fully operating domestic banks. Following a crash settlement in the days after the October 2008 collapse the FME oversaw the finalising of financial instruments, based on valuation of assets transferred, between the old and the new banks. The new banks for Kaupthing, Landsbanki and Glitnir are respectively Arion, Landsbankinn and Íslandsbanki.

Thus there was a clear dividing line – not that “bank bonds held by foreigners were tossed into default.” And as in any failed company the creditors hold claims in the three failed/old banks.

According to the FME assets and liabilities of the new banks the “principal asset classes were loans to customers, on the one hand, which were further subdivided into loans to large corporations, small and medium sized enterprises and retail loans and, on the other hand, other assets. Liabilities consisted almost solely of deposits, which were valued at principal value. Gross loans to customers (that is the outstanding loan balances before any provisions or adjustments) represented over 80% of gross assets in each of the three new banks. Large corporate group loans (with liabilities in excess of ISK 2.5 billion) represented ca. 40%-70% of total gross loans to customers and ca. 55%-85% of corporate loans to customers across the three new banks at the respective carve-out dates.”

The problem that called for capital controls

The original problem, calling for capital controls, was foreign-owned ISK, or “nonresident holdings of liquid krona” as the IMF calls it. At the time these funds were over ISK600bn, but following CBI auctions these funds now amount to ISK322bn (at the end of February 2014) or 18% of GDP; 67% of gross reserves. These funds mostly originated from so called “glacier bonds” – bonds issued in Icelandic króna, ISK, often sold to wealthy individuals, popular in Germany and the Netherlands. At the time, both the government and the CBI chose to ignore the potentially destabilising effect of these, in spite of the effect of similar flows on some Asian countries in the 1980s and the 1990s.

These funds are no longer the greatest threat to Icelandic financial stability. In addition, it seems that at least some part of these funds willingly stays in Iceland because of the (still) high interests there.

But what is now the problem if it is no longer these liquid foreign-owned ISK? Tett talks about the bank bonds held by foreigners being “tossed into default and turned into implicit equity claims on the collapsed lenders – and bank deposits that foreign investors held in Icelandic krona were trapped in the country by capital controls.

The main obstacles towards lifting the controls are the ISK assets of Glitnir and Kaupthing, in total ISK450bn (end of 2013; further here) and the two Landsbanki bonds of which ISK226bn is still unpaid (more here; more on the numbers and how they are found in CBI’s latest stability report).

The bondholders now hold a claim on the estates, as happens in any other failed company. They were inevitably mostly foreigners since the banks’ fast growth was fuelled by international lenders and not by domestic deposits and domestic bond sales.

It is also worth noting that in total, 5.7% of the claims are owned by Icelanders, or just over ISK100bn, mostly held by the Eignasafn Seðlabanka Íslands, ESÍ (the CBI holding company). These funds could possibly be part of the solution, i.e. used in swaps with foreign creditors. (See here for numbers and facts, in my digest of the latest IMF report and here for my latest overview of numbers and possible solutions).

Why is it important to lift the controls?

In the past few weeks the government has indicated that it wants to start removing these controls to attract more investment to the energy sector and to create a more “normalised” financial system,” writes Tett.

The story is a lot longer than just a few weeks. The left government, in power from spring 2009 until the elections last spring, did got very far with plans to remove the capital controls – also because it was too weak to tackle the issue towards the end – but some progress was made. The CBI presented a plan in 2011, still the basis as no new plan is in place (here is an Arion bank analysis from December 2011 of that plan; the time frame has since been lifted, meaning that the plan is no longer anchored in time but to certain benchmarks).

During the election campaign the Progressive party, which until early last year seemed destined to be close to a wipe-out in the spring elections, attracted an unexpected following by promising voters debt relief funded by creditors, i.e. funds that would “inevitably” flow to the state as the controls on the two bank estates would be lifted. The numbers mentioned escalated from ISK300bn to as much as ISK800bn mentioned just before the election. However, when the debt relief was presented last November it was not funded by these “inevitable” sources of money but from a bank levy, also on the estates and from people’s own pension savings, a step IMF warns against in its last Iceland report.

It is misleading to say that the scope for lifting the controls is only to attract FDI for the energy sector. And it certainly is not just to normalise the financial sector, but to normalise the whole economy. As the CBI now points out at every opportunity the capital controls do in themselves induce a long-term risk, i.a. here:

Capital controls limit possibilities for cost-efficiency in business and distort the premises for investment decisions. The longer the control regime remains in force, the greater is the risk that investment options will be determined to a growing extent by possibilities of returns within the controls, while at the same time emphasis grows on seeking ways to circumvent the controls. The structure of business and industry could therefore in time develop differently within the control regime than without it. Options decline in number, and output growth and living standards deteriorate.

This spring, numerous individuals and organisations in the business community univocally called for government action towards lifting the capital controls. But no matter the policy it will realistically take some years until the controls are lifted. In addition, Iceland will also have to come up with a credible vision for the króna and the future. There are also those who believe some controls will be needed for years and possibly decades to come.

Correct proportions, correct numbers

According to Tett, Iceland’s “sovereign debt is “just” 84 per cent of gross domestic product, according to the International Monetary Fund. But if you add the remaining liabilities of the banks – which are implicitly owned by the government – the total debt ratio is 221 per cent, and there is little chance of the island repaying it in full.” (Emphasis mine).

According to the IMF’s latest report Iceland’s sovereign debt was 89.9% last year and projected to be 86.4% this year. The three new banks are not “implicitly owned by the government”: the state owns 13% of shares in Arion and 5% in Íslandsbanki with the estates of Kaupthing and Glitnir respectively owning the rest. The government owns 97.9% of Landsbanki with the employees owning the tiny rest.

Further, Tett writes that “any relaxation will force a new debate about that debt mountain, since the $7.4bn of krona held by foreigners in Iceland’s banks will almost certainly flee if controls are removed without any clarity on how creditors who hold Icelandic bank debt will be treated. And a flight of capital could spark a fresh crisis.”

“That debt mountain” seems to refer to the 221%. What the $7.4bn of foreign-owned krona assets refers to is not entirely clear: the foreign-owned ISK in Glitnir and Kaupthing are in total ISK450bn, $3.9bnbn – and the original overhang is ISK322bn, $2.8bn.

Thinking that the controls will be lifted “without any clarity on how creditors who hold Icelandic bank debt will be treated” seems to indicate a fundamental lack of understanding of the problem: this is exactly the main problem now being worked on and no lifting can or will happen until it is solved. As the CBI and the IMF have repeatedly pointed out any steps towards lifting the controls will have to include a plan as to how to deal with foreign-owned ISK in Glitnir and Kaupthing. And not until then can the estates start paying out to the creditors (see here).

The good news,” according to Tett, “is that the government announced this week that it has appointed external advisers for talks with creditors. But the bad news is that finding any resolution could prove very hard. A group that represents about 70 per cent of bond holders wants its claims to be settled by selling the successors to the collapsed Icelandic banks to new foreign owners.”

True, it is good news that there are foreign advisers (given that their expertise will be used wisely). The bad thing is not, as Tett points out, that it could prove hard to find a solution. The bad thing is, as I have pointed out earlier, if the government does not have any plan to get their advise on – or is not ready to accept their proposals (perhaps because it is focused only on a solution that will move the ownership of Arion and Íslandsbanki to Icelandic owners with the right political pedigree).

Finding a solution is indeed not necessarily very hard (see here). Again, it will not be easy if the government is hell-bent on not just lifting the controls but also securing some special interests at the same time. According to the Act on Financial Undertakings  no. 161/2002 (the “Act on Financial Undertakings”) votes of parties controlling at least 2/3 of share capital or guarantee capital need to accept all major decisions of the estates.

Iceland is not Argentina – or at least not just yet/does not need to be

Tett is not the first to mention Iceland and Argentina in the same sentence as if the two countries shared the same problems: “So there is every likelihood the country will either end up in a protracted court fight, like the one between Argentina and its “holdout” creditors; or that the government keeps playing for time by extending those supposedly “temporary” controls indefinitely.

Argentina defaulted and has for a long time (in)famously been involved in legal warfare with some of its creditors (my favourite Argentinian commentaries are those by Joseph Cotterill on the FT Alphaville). Iceland has not defaulted and its problems are, so far, contained in the estates of the three failed private banks.

However, if the Icelandic government strides into the field and incurs liabilities by legal measures, which might make the creditors sue the government, i.a. because of breech of property rights, the situation could turn Argentinian. With foreign advisers, no doubt aware of all of this, as well as being concerned about reputational risks, as is indeed both the IMF and the CBI, it seems unlikely (though by no means unthinkable) that the Icelandic government will by accident or recklessness (or both) unwittingly find itself exposed to legal wrangling with the creditors.

I have argued earlier that the government is incidentally already exposed to such a risk. After a change in the capital controls Act last year, the minister of finance has to agree to certain steps regarding the fate of the estates. It is easy to think up several such scenarios resulting from this. I.a. the creditors could take legal action if they at some point feel that by inaction the minister is indeed a hindrance to payouts.

As many other pundits Tett is recounting the Icelandic financial disaster saga to prove general points. “The first is that “emergency” policy measures that distort the financial world tend to become addictive. Second, this addiction is very hard to break when there is an unpleasant debt overhang, be that of the public or semi-public sort.

With gross debt rising in the world these are indeed important and never too oft repeated lessons to be learnt from the Icelandic collapse saga. The Icelandic reality is not quite what Tett makes out of it but does never the less support the lessons she wants to draw from the Icelandic fall and recovery.

*All the essential information on Iceland, its economy and capital controls are here: the IMF pages on Iceland – and the CBI financial stability reports.

Follow me on Twitter for running updates.

Written by Sigrún Davídsdóttir

July 28th, 2014 at 3:35 pm

Posted in Iceland

One Response to 'Iceland, capital controls and foreign pundits'

Subscribe to comments with RSS or TrackBack to 'Iceland, capital controls and foreign pundits'.

  1. […] wrong. (I have earlier written about the right to be wrong about Iceland; more recent example here). In addition, much of what has been written on Iceland and the króna is part of polemics on the […]

Leave a Reply