Sigrún Davíðsdóttir's Icelog

Liberalising capital controls on Icelanders – who don’t really notice

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The Ministry of finance has now introduced the third and last significant step towards lifting capital controls. After lifting controls on the estates of the failed banks last year and the disputed action earlier this year to solve, or box in, offshore króna holders, it’s now as promised since the elections in 2013 time to lift controls on Icelanders, both individuals and companies, just in time for the coming election on October 29. All but the very wealthiest Icelanders will now be outside controls. And Icelanders? They don’t pay much attention to this latest step.

Ordinary Icelanders have not much felt the capital controls in their daily lives since the capital controls only cover investment but now those wealthy enough to want to buy property abroad or invest in foreign companies etc. can do so. The main points are the following, according to the Ministry of finance press release:

  • That outward foreign direct investment be unrestricted but subject to confirmation by the Central Bank of Iceland.
  • That investment in financial instruments issued in foreign currency, other monetary claims in foreign currency, and prepayment and full payment (retirement) of foreign-denominated loans be permissible up to a given amount, upon satisfaction of specified conditions.
  • That individuals be authorised to purchase one piece of real estate abroad per calendar year, irrespective of the purchase price and the reason for the purchase.
  • That requirements that residents repatriate foreign currency be eased and that they be lifted entirely in connection with loans taken abroad by individuals for real estate or motor vehicle purchases abroad, or for investment abroad.
  • That various special restrictions be eased or lifted entirely, including individuals’ authorisation to purchase foreign currency for travel.
  • That the Central Bank of Iceland’s authorisations to gather information be expanded so that the Bank can promote price stability and financial stability more effectively.

As of 1 January 2017, the following are to take effect:

  • The ceiling on investment in financial instruments issued in foreign currency, other monetary claims in foreign currency, and prepayment and full payment (retirement) of foreign-denominated loans will be raised.
  • Transfers of deposit balances will be permissible for amounts below  a certain ceiling. The requirement for domestic custody of foreign securities investments will be revoked. This will enable residents and non-residents to transfer deposits and securities to and from Iceland and to trade in securities abroad within the limits specified in the bill.
  • Individuals’ authorisation to purchase foreign currency in cash will be expanded significantly.

Capital controls lifted in a record boom

All of this is made easier since Iceland is enjoying a record boom with tourism flourishing and more foreign reserves compared to more or less any time in the country’s recent history. As I’ve mentioned earlier, Icelandic authorities don’t regard it as a problem that the largest offshore króna holders are preparing to test in court(s) the earlier decisions regarding the offshore króna, i.e. either a haircut in an auction or a lock-in with 0.5% interest rates, effectively negative in Icelandic context and no expiry date. Nor does the comparison with Argentina seem to cause worries in Iceland.

Easing out of the capital controls is obviously a hugely important step for Iceland. Yet, it has mostly gone unnoticed in the media. The reason is that people normally haven’t noticed the controls except in minor things like having to bring a flight ticket in order to buy travel currency. For those running companies it’s been a different story, the controls have both been annoying and harmful. Measuring losses due to capital controls isn’t easy but in 2014 The Icelandic Chamber of Commerce estimated it to be ISK80bn annually. As the CBI and others have frequently pointed out the longer controls remain in place the greater the harm.

The CBI has put in place safety measures re foreign inflows. Some claim this means that controls are still in place but that’s certainly not how I see it. By 2012 the CBI had already announced in a reportPrudential Rules Following Capital Controls, that as well as lifting capital controls the bank would also develop financial stability rules in order to temper foreign inflows if needed, much like other countries with have done such as Asian countries under similar circumstances.

Collapse measures out, political distrust in

Alors, after almost eight years with capital controls Iceland has now almost entirely graduated from that part of the banking collapse, certainly a significant step towards normality. The question is still if the second measure, i.e. re offshore króna holders, will come back  to haunt the country.

Though the emergency measures from 2008 have disappeared over the years politically the collapse still looms large in Icelandic politics. It’s not that the collapse itself is frequently discussed, not at all, but it shapes the hues and colours of the political debate. Quite specifically, the collapse has inter alia stoked distrust in politicians both in general and in certain politicians, due to their stories, still looms large. Icelanders are willing to throw their trust on new parties, next to be tested in the coming election.

One obviously prudent measure not introduced in Iceland is the separation of retail and investment banking. Three governments have ignored doing this, meaning that there is probably a silent political will to sell Landsbanki and Íslandsbanki without this safety measure. Hugely indicative of the influence of powerful private interests, quite worrying for the public interest.

Now, mostly free of restraining controls the Icelandic króna, the currency of the world’s smallest independent economy with own currency, will again be free (with the safety jacket of financial stability rules) to float in the large ocean of international finance. Trying times await booming Iceland, testing if the right lessons were learnt in 2008.

*Here is an earlier blog on the offshore króna problem and potential litigation; here is the latest one on offshore króna holders and their US political contacts.

Fitch has downgraded “Iceland’s Long-Term Local Currency (LTLC) IDR to ‘BBB+’ from ‘A-‘. The Outlook is Stable.” – The downgrade results not from Icelandic conditions but are due to changes Fitch has introduced to reflect regulatory changes, see here.

Follow me on Twitter for running updates.

Written by Sigrún Davídsdóttir

August 19th, 2016 at 10:07 am

Posted in Uncategorised

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  1. […] controls an issue since they have now been lifted on domestic entities and individuals. I’ve earlier pointed out that Icelanders didn’t really seem to notice when measures to lift capital […]

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