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Archive for March, 2017

IMF (still) worried: political pressure on bank supervisors in Iceland

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It beggars belief: over eight years from a calamitous financial crash in Iceland, much to do with failed financial supervision, there is still reason to worry about financial supervision in Iceland. Or rather, there is again reason to worry now that the sheltering capital controls are for all intents and purposes abolished Iceland. All of this, according to the latest IMF Concluding Statement of the 2017 Article IV Mission on Iceland. To Icelog Ashok Vir Bhatia who led the IMF mission says that “worried” wouldn’t be the right word regarding the Icelandic financial supervision but there certainly was cause for concern, as the Statement reflects.

‘The economy of Iceland is doing very well,’ Ashok Vir Bhatia said to Icelog today. With growth of 7% of GDP Iceland is clearly doing well indeed. This rapid growth might be another cause for concern but according to Bhatia the growth seems sustainable.

In short, this is the IMF summary:

Iceland is stepping into a new era of financial openness. It should stride with confidence and care. The top priority must be a decisive strengthening of financial sector oversight. Risks associated with capital flows should be addressed by ensuring that macroeconomic policies, financial sector regulation and supervision, and macroprudential measures act in concert. Current strong growth rates—more than 7 percent last year—are driven by tourism and private consumption, not leverage. Nonetheless, overheating risks are evident. Króna appreciation is a dampening mechanism. Should further króna strength drive inflation prospects lower, there may be room for interest rate cuts. Fiscal policy should be tightened this year in response to demand pressures, but over the medium term there may be room for additional public spending on infrastructure, healthcare, and education.

What the IMF is worried about, is political pressure on Fjármálaeftirlitið, FME, the Icelandic supervisory authority. FME “is not sufficiently insulated from the political process.” The outline of political pressure is there to see. FME needs to go hat in hand to the Parliament every year to beg for a slice of the budget. The present chairman of the board, appointed by prime minister Bjarni Benediktsson during his time in office as a minister of finance, is a young ex-banker; difficult to imagine anyone with her CV in the same position with any regulator in the neighbouring countries.

In Iceland, the IMF Statement will be read with the people at FME in mind, how fit they are at their job. From the point of view of the IMF this criticism is about institutions, not people. If the institutional framework is robust, there is less scope for political pressure. As it is, the institutional frame isn’t as robust as it should be – and that’s what the IMF is emphasising here.

Banks and ownership is one thing to worry about now that things in Iceland will slowly be normalised, post controls. The fear is that the old normal – few big shareholders in each of the three largest banks, not only the largest owners but also the largest borrowers – will be normal again.

The recent purchase of creditors of Arion (via Kaupskil the holding company of Kaupthing) all through totally opaque offshore vehicles, has led to a furious debate in Iceland of fit and proper owners. Here the FME took a rather weak stance as to identifying beneficial owners, after all these new owners have been in Iceland for some years, not exactly new faces.

The new owners are Taconic Capital Advisors, Attestor Capital, Och-Ziff Capital Management Group and Goldman Sachs. Reading between the lines the IMF Statement indicates these are not necessarily ideal bank owners: ‘The recent purchase of the one privately owned pillar bank poses a test for Fjármálaeftirlitid. Financial stability considerations and fairness require that the mandatory fit and proper assessment be thorough, uncompromising, and evenhanded.’

The phenomenal, compared to other European countries, growth of the Icelandic economy is mainly due to tourism and as Bhatia points out to Icelog experience from other countries suggests that tourism doesn’t normally vanish over night. ‘The effect is not just temporary. Tourism is fundamentally good for the economy, a real blessing.’

In Iceland, the attitude towards the booming tourism has been that surely this is like the herring: it comes and goes and while it’s there it should just be exploited. This is answered in the new Statement: ‘Evidence from elsewhere suggests the shoal of tourists is not about to swim away abruptly: tourists are not herring.’ – The Statement emphasises the need for holistic tourism strategy.

A real friend is the one who doesn’t shy away from criticising – this old Icelandic saying comes to mind reading the latest IMF Statement on Iceland.

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Written by Sigrún Davídsdóttir

March 28th, 2017 at 8:08 pm

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Capital controls abolished – offer to offshore króna holders

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As Már Guðmundsson governor of the Icelandic Central Bank, CBI underlined at a press conference today ordinary Icelanders have not felt the capital controls for a long time. Today, the controls are lifted for not only individuals but also for companies and the pension funds. Earlier limits have been lifted – de facto the capital controls are coming to an end in Iceland, more than eight years after they were put in place end of November 2008.

What remains in place is the following, according to the CBI press release:

i) derivatives trading for purposes other than hedging; ii) foreign exchange transactions carried out between residents and non-residents without the intermediation of a financial undertaking; and iii) in certain instances, foreign-denominated lending by residents to non-residents. It is necessary to continue to restrict such transactions in order to prevent carry trade on the basis of investments not subject to special reserve requirements pursuant to Temporary Provision III of the Foreign Exchange Act and the Rules on Special Reserve Requirements on New Foreign Currency Inflows, no. 490/2016. Guidelines explaining the above-mentioned restrictions will be issued to accompany the Rules.

The measures announced today were mostly as could be expected. However, the unknown variable was what offshore króna holders would be offered. Last summer they were offered a rate of ISK190 a euro; the onshore rate was ca. ISK140 at the time. The four large funds holding most of the remaining offshore króna – Loomis Sayles, Autonomy, Eaton Vance and Discovery Capital Management – refused that offer and have since been locked into low interest rates with an uncertain date of exit.

Now the offer is quite a bit more attractive: ISK137.50 a euro; the onshore rate is today ISK115.41. Last year, the offshore króna holders were offering ISK160 a euro, quite a bit better had the government been willing to accept it last year.

The CBI has lowered its bar, presumably because getting rid of the offshore króna holdings is seen as a bonus for Iceland. The sums captured inside the capital controls now amount to ISK195bn, less than 10% of GDP. Settling this last important part of trapped offshore króna means that Iceland can now take a step out of the shadow of the 2008 banking collapse – a chapter is coming to an end.

Former prime minister and former leader of the Progressive party Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson, forced to resign because of his offshore holdings exposed in the Panama papers, wrote today on Facebook that now the vulture funds were being rewarded; the funds had known they could crush the Icelandic government and that’s what they have now done. Others will beg to differ.

According to governor Guðmundsson the amount of offshore króna exiting at the new offer is just under ISK90bn. As far as I’m aware three of the four large funds have agreed to the present offer, which remains in place for the coming two weeks. One fund is considering its options, which must include testing the legality of earlier measures, a route the funds had already embarked on.

In total the four funds hold ISK120bn, further ISK12bn are holdings in shares, which are not being sold (thus nothing volatile there) and ISK60bn are deposits owned by various investors (some of whom might well have forgotten about their holdings or who are for some reason unaware of being the lucky owners of some Icelandic króna).

This means that although ISK90bn is less than half of the remaining offshore króna it’s roughly 3/4 of the offshore króna that could potentially move (though the funds do indeed want to keep their Icelandic relatively high-interest króna assets but that’s another saga).

What now remains in place is hindrance on inflows – as I’ve said earlier some would call it another form of capital controls but I side with the CBI that already in 2012 announced the conditions after capital controls would not be like before November 2008. Iceland isn’t interested in being the destination of money flows looking for lucrative interest rates. Consequently, prudent measures are in place since last summer.

Benedikt Jóhannesson minister of finance called today “a day of gladness.” Given that the controls had already been eased it’s unlikely the Icelandic króna will move much tomorrow or the coming days. The pension funds have good reasons to be vary of moving abroad. Though foreign investments would be wise as means of hedging foreign markets of low interest rates and high asset prices are not inviting.

Iceland is booming – the economy grew by 7.2%(!) of GDP last year. No exaggeration that there are good times in Iceland but good times aren’t necessarily easy times in a small economy with its own currency. With capital controls out of the way Iceland there is one thing less to worry about, the rating agencies will see this as a favourable move that might soon be expressed in more favourable ratings, eventually meaning lower interest rates in Iceland – so as to end on an optimistic note.

PS Why was the government keen to act now re offshore króna holders? Well, first for the entirely obvious reasons that Iceland is doing very well with large foreign currency reserves (not entirely trivial to invest them sensibly) and consequently it’s difficult to claim that economic hardship bars solution. In addition, as the minister of finance mentioned today: the rating agencies have indicated that the rating might move up, with the benefits such as lower interest rates when the sovereign borrows, spilling over into lower interest rates in Iceland. Last, it seems that the International Monetary Fund, very patient so far, was starting to air its worries: Iceland couldn’t keep boxing in the offshore króna holders indefinitely.

Pix-BB

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From top prime minister Bjarni Benediktsson, minister of finance Benedikt Johannesson (the two ministers are closely related, both from one of the most prominent business families in Iceland) and Már Guðmundsson governor of the CBI. Screenshots from the press conference today – notice the painting behind the two ministers: by Jóhannes Kjarval (1882-1972) the most iconic Icelandic artist, whose favourite motive was Icelandic landscape, most notable the lava landscape like here.

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Written by Sigrún Davídsdóttir

March 12th, 2017 at 4:34 pm

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Will the last bit of capital controls soon be removed?

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Now that ordinary Icelanders can invest ISK100m abroad a year and buy one property abroad, life is returning back to normal after capital controls or at least for the 0.01% of Icelanders that will be able to make use of this new normal. This new CBI regime was put in place on the last day of 2016.

For all others, capital controls have for a long time not been anything people sensed in everyday life. The controls really were on capital, in the sense that Icelanders could not invest abroad, but they could buy goods and services, i.e. ordered stuff online and, mostly relevant for companies, paid for foreign services.

The almost only tangible remains of the capital controls regard the four large funds – Eaton Vance, Autonomy, Loomis Sayles and Discovery Capital Management – still locked inside the controls with their offshore króna (by definition króna owned by foreigners, i.e. króna owned by foreigners who potentially want to exchange it to foreign currency).

I’ve written extensively on this issue earlier, recently with a focus on the utterly misplaced ads regarding the policy of the Icelandic government (the policy can certainly be disputed but absolutely not in the way the ads chose to portray it; see here and here; more generally here). From over 40% of GDP end of November 2008, when the controls were put in place, the offshore króna amounted to ca. 10% of GDP towards the end of 2016 (see the CBI: Economy of Iceland 2016, p. 75-81.) The latest CBI data is from 13 January this year, showing the amount of offshore króna at ISK191bn, below 10% of GDP.

It now seems there have been high-level talks and as far as I can understand there is great willingness on both sides to find an agreement, which would most likely involve an exit rate somewhat less favourable than the present rate (meaning there would be some haircut for the funds, i.e. some loss) and also that they would exit over some period of time (they have earlier indicated that they are in no hurry to leave).

As before, the greatest risk here is political: will the opposition or parts of it, try to use this case to portray the government as dancing to the tune of greedy foreigners? Icelanders have had a share of the populism so prevalent in other parts of the world but Icelandic politics is by no means engulfed by it.

Arguments in this direction can’t be ruled out but the argument for solving the issue is that Iceland should be moving out of the long shadows of the 2008 collapse, the Central Bank has been buying up foreign currency in order to fetter the ever-stronger króna and this is a problem easier to solve now with the economy booming rather than at some point later in a more uncertain future.

Obs.: on 4 June 2016 the CBI announced a new instrument to “temper and affect the composition of capital inflows.” Some people call this a new form of capital controls. I don’t agree and see these measures, as does the CBI, as a set of prudence rules, announced as a possible course of action already in 2012. Over the last decades other countries have taken a similar course to prevent the inflow of capital that could in theory leave quickly.

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Written by Sigrún Davídsdóttir

March 10th, 2017 at 12:01 am

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