Sigrún Davíðsdóttir's Icelog

A revealing leak in Morgunblaðið

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A journalist at Morgunblaðið, Hörður Ægisson, has a remarkable access to mole/moles within the CBI and/or the civil service who provide him most lavishly with one leak after the other. Ægisson has earlier touched upon Project Slack, apparently the code name for the plan being hatched on the capital controls. Today, he not only mentions the plan by name but seems to copy and paste parts of it: interesting information on exit tax etc. with most interesting ramifications. The leak might be good news for creditors as it gives them the time to figure out a line of defense. But whether it will be used is another matter: it does not seem in line with the minister of finance vision of a simple route steering well away from legal risks.

One of the key concepts mentioned again and again to justify exit tax – i.e. the omnibus one on the whole of Iceland – is equality: exit tax should be equal for everyone, both foreign creditors and Icelandic businesses. This never sounded plausible; after all, those who want the state to make money out of lifting the controls aim at getting that money from the estates and foreign creditors, not from just everyone in Iceland. The leak in Morgunblaðið clarifies this strife for “equality.”

Morgunblaðið writes (p. 16 of print copy; my translation; emphasis in bold and additions in brackets are mine):

In other words, the (exit) tax is a declaration on behalf of Icelandic authorities that cross-border payments, for example due to possible exemptions for the estates (of the failed banks) accompanying a composition agreement, would be treated as is the case with other Icelandic entities. There would be no difference if the payment was in ISK or foreign currency. … Further, the aim is to find ways for domestic entities, both pension funds and businesses, to bring funds out of the country without having to pay the exit tax planned to be introduced as part of the plan of lifting capital controls.

So much for the declared intention of equality. This is a plan where there are foreign creditors on one hand, domestic entities on the other and some are more equal than others. I.e. first there is a general rule for everyone and then exemptions for some, who all happen to be Icelandic.

This does of course not come as any surprise. It has long been clear that a) the Progressive Party wants to channel funds, not only ISK but also FX, from the estates to the Treasury; b) if this channeling were an easy path to follow it would have been done as soon as the government came to power. – The path towards the funds has to be done under the sign of equality but in order for these measures only to hit the foreign creditors some special paths are needed. It is never easy to formulate “equality” that effectively is discriminatory; which explains why it is taking so long. And even more difficult since Bjarni Benediktsson minister of finance defined the route he wants to take: simple and avoiding legal risks.

Further, Morgunblaðið writes: “The estates’ foreign assets will not be treated separately, as creditors had planned, since they only own claims in ISK in Icelandic estates.”

It remains to be seen if this somewhat narrow definition matters or not. Following a Supreme Court ruling on November 10 (an unofficial English translation here) creditors can now ask for a payout in FX, even to the degree that the estates are free to buy FX to provide for a payout.

As to levying the exit tax (or “exit levy” – Morgunblaðið uses the term “levy,” as in the 2011 capital control plan, not “tax” as has been used lately) Morgunblaðið writes: “The exit levy will however cover offshore ISK owned by foreign entities (which is odd to mention because the definition of offshore ISK is “foreign-owned ISK” – does this indicate that there is no levy on offshore ISK owned by Icelandic entities through foreign bank accounts? Or is this just a manner of writing?) after they have been forced to convert their ISK, with a haircut, into FX bonds with maturity of more than 30 years. According to Morgunblaðið’s sources the proposal is to issue these bonds with fixed interest rates below 3%. It is likely that the sovereign would have to pay close to 50% higher interest rates by issuing comparable bonds in international markets.

Here it is of interest to note that these (foreign) offshore ISK owners would be subjected to haircut twice: first when they would be forced (how? By law?) to convert their ISK into FX bonds – and then when they take the bonds abroad.

Interestingly, long maturity is normally imposed to keep funds inside a country, i.e. to prevent it from leaving, when capital controls are lifted. This double-fencing in does, at first sight, not quite seem to add up.

Also, this only seems to fit offshore ISK holders in the original overhang, not the foreign-owned ISK in the estates but that might be my misunderstanding.

The worrying, or out-right scary, news for Icelanders is however that this plan seems built on the belief that with this plan Icelandic sovereign bonds will stay near to a junk/below-investment-grade level if the authors of this mighty plan calculate that 3% is a way for Iceland to get cheap interest rates. That is definitely bad news for Iceland and for Icelandic businesses, which to a great degree are dependent on the sovereign rating. After all, lifting the controls is meant to provide market access for Iceland and Icelandic businesses, not to keep them stuck under a new name in capital-control environment for another 30 years.

As Bjarni Benediktsson put it so well in a speech in October foreign investors tend to mistrust countries that need capital controls to survive.

The original overhang offshore ISK owners (now amounting to ISK307bn; 16% of GDP) are in for some changes if Morgunblaðið is in possession of the real plan: “Investment provisions of offshore ISK owners, who now hold ISK130bn in deposits and ISK170bn in sovereign bonds, will be tightened so they will have a choice either to participate in such a sovereign bond exchange or hold their ISK on non-interest bearing accounts in the CBI without any investment provisions. Offshore ISK owners who have invested in sovereign bonds will be forced into a bond exchange when their bonds mature. Foreign entities own ca. ISK80bn in state securities maturing in 2015 and 2016. The (exchange) bond, issued by the sovereign, is tradable but if investors wish to sell their bonds they will have to pay a 35% exit levy.”

It would be most interesting to know if Project Slack has already been blessed and signed by the foreign advisers or if this is “home-knitted,” to use an Icelandic idiom, i.e. if it is put together by Icelandic experts fulfilling the wish of the powers that are. My understanding is that the foreign advisers are indeed familiar with this project. The leak might hone their understanding of the political territory they are operating in.

In an interview with Viðskiptablaðið CBI governor Már Guðmundsson throws some cold water on speculation regarding an exit tax. In a most becoming governor-like Delphic utterance he points out that such a tax was already part of the 2011 plan but it is untimely to speculate what role it might play or how high it might be used. – Keeping in mind the original 2011 exit tax, targeted at foreign-owned ISK against the all-encompassing exit tax now discussed it is indeed appropriate to mention its role and eventual usage as something that needs to be pondered on.

Whoever named the project must be complemented for his (must be a “he” – no women working on this project) sense of irony given the myriad of connotations it can have: the slack legal framework, the slow-moving project etc.

Perhaps creditors know all of this already and have themselves acquired copies of Project Slack, just like Morgunblaðið. But if not, Morgunblaðið has done the creditors a huge big favour providing their lawyers with stuff with which to prepare for the eventualities listed above. Unless of course the slack project in the end neither fits the CBI, IMF, EU and Benediktsson’s sense of practicality and enforceability, not to mention irony.

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Written by Sigrún Davídsdóttir

December 11th, 2014 at 9:31 am

Posted in Iceland

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