Sigrún Davíðsdóttir's Icelog

Capital controls: the essentials

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There are many misconceptions floating around regarding Iceland and capital controls. Here are the barest essentials:

Iceland introduced capital controls on November 29, seven weeks after the official collapse date October 2008. The reason was not money flowing out of banks, as in Cyprus but because foreigners, mostly those who had invested in Icelandic bonds, so called “Glacier bonds”, were converting their Icelandic funds into foreign currency, rapidly draining the none-too large currency reserves. At the time, these holdings amounted to 44% of GDP.

Over time, this original overhang of 44% of GDP has been reduced and now amounts to 16%. This is a process overseen by the Central Bank of Iceland, CBI, which has held auctions to match in- and outflows. The original overhang is further being worked on; the Central Bank of Iceland recently announced measures and more will come as part of a plan to lift capital controls.

The controls are on CAPITAL, meaning that capital, i.a. for investment can not be moved in our out of the country. This means that Iceland no longer adheres to the four freedoms of European Economic Area, EEA, i.e. freedom on goods, services, people and capital.

However, the controls are NOT on goods and services, meaning that money to pay for goods and services can move freely.

With time however another reserve of foreign-owned ISK has formed, i.e. ISK in the estates of the three failed banks. Since foreign creditors hold ca. 95% of the claims to these three estates the ISK assets of the estates are another pool of foreign-owned ISK, now ca. 25% of GDP. FX assets of Glitnir amount to 63% but the FX ratio in Kaupthing is 72%.**

These two pools of foreign-owned ISK holds the controls in place, which is why a plan needs to tackle both of them. As said earlier, the old overhang is already part of a process. What now needs to be tackled is the ISK pool within the estates of the three banks.

The simple and classic way to solve this kind of a problem (Iceland certainly is not the first country to face this problem) would be to negotiate with creditors on a haircut of the ISK assets in the estates. This is what the creditors have been hoping for and this is what the Icelandic government has not been willing to do.

The government’s reasoning has been that engaging with creditors was none of their business and could expose the government to legal risk. After all, the estates are of private companies, no relation to the state. However, the estates cannot be resolved unless it is clear how to deal with their ISK assets and since they cannot be taken out of the country the creditors cannot be paid out, i.e. the estates cannot be resolved. Which means that really, the government holds the threads, i.e. because it has put legislation in place regarding the estates and so, the government is already part of this equation.

Now it seems that the creditors will get some sort of an offer – maybe with a scope to negotiate, maybe only a take-it-or-leave-it offer. Remains to be seen until all the government’s cards are on the table, probably Monday afternoon.

What complicates matters is that the government seems to want not only to get a cut of the ISK assets but of the foreign assets as well. There is no balance-of-payment reason for taking foreign funds though the government refers to “stability tax.”

Further, the Icelandic capital controls are NOT a sovereign debt problem, such as lie at the core of the Argentinian dispute with creditors nor is it parallel to the Greek situation, another sovereign debt problem. And the Icelandic capital controls are not comparable to the Cypriot controls, which were put in place to keep money in the banks and prevent them from collapsing as funds flowed out.

*For data regarding the estates and capital controls see the latest CBI Financial Stability report.

**UPDATE: sorry, I wrote earlier that this was the ISK ratio – it is of course the FX ratio!

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Written by Sigrún Davídsdóttir

June 7th, 2015 at 11:36 pm

Posted in Uncategorised

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