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Iceland, capital controls and foreign pundits

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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.

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Written by Sigrún Davídsdóttir

July 28th, 2014 at 3:35 pm

Posted in Iceland

Iceland and capital controls: check the politics not just the economics

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Those who understood the Eurozone correctly were those who understood that politics mattered more than economics. It might very well be the same in Iceland: in order to understand the course of events regarding capital controls, foreign-owned ISK assets and the estates of the failed banks, politics might weigh more than the economics. And as in Europe the political weight might bode messy course.

To continue with the Eurozone analogy: the (at first hidden, later more overt) agenda of all action taken by the EU was to prevent any bank in the Eurozone failing. It was deemed to be bad for the reputation of the young currency area and in the Realpolitik it counted that the strong German and French governments were adamant in sheltering their own banks from unwise lending to the debt-ridden periphery. Both these agendas were politically driven and those who understood the political dominance over sound economic thinking got their predictions right: no euro-exit, good public money thrown in to reward bad lending.

In Iceland, there might also be an agenda, other than just abolishing the capital controls without jeopardising financial stability: the Progressive Party and its leader, prime minister Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson has time and again, since the election campaign early last year and after it came to power, stated that there will unavoidably be money for the state coffers when the bank estates will be dealt with in order to abolish the controls (see more on facts and figures in an earlier Icelog).

The Independence Party, led by minister of finance Bjarni Benediktsson, has appeared to be less focused on abolition as a way to enrich Iceland. Recently though he has faintly echoed Gunnlaugsson’s view that doing it quickly, via bankruptcy rather than the more long-term composition the creditors are keen on, might be a sensible way. It is not clear though if he really believes it or is just putting pressure on the creditors.

It seems increasingly clear that the abolition of the capital controls, which needs an action plan on dealing with the foreign-owned ISK assets of the estates, might well be more dependant on political solutions than purely finding a way to secure financial stability. Both parties will want as much of the credit for a plan to abolish the controls – but the Progressive party seems also keen to create a situation where it will be seen as having won over the foreign creditors. The Progressive narrative is that it secured an Icelandic victory in the Icesave case (though the Icesave problems are alive and kicking in the unsolved Landsbanki bonds) – and now it is going to secure a victory over other foreigners, the creditors.

The necessary solutions will be conjured up in the tense political sphere between the two parties.

What, when and how?

There is probably no one in Iceland who is as yet able to answer the question what exactly is needed to resolve issues preventing the abolition of the capital controls, when action will be taken and how it will all be brought about.

Because of the Progressive’s earlier promises the government’s agenda might not be only to abolish the controls and to secure financial stability but to make sure the state profits from it. Compared to other countries fighting to abolish controls, such as Cyprus, this is a novel situation and makes it a whole lot more difficult.

How much does the government want from the process of abolition? It clearly wants at least ISK120bn since that is what it is claiming in tax from the estates of Landsbanki, Glitnir and Kaupthing, albeit over the next four years. But judging from sources close to the government it seems that a whole lot more is desired – probably all the ISK assets of the two estates (Landsbanki is in a different place due to its creditors and the bonds between old and new Landsbanki) and a slice, let’s say 10-15% of the fx assets.

If this really is the goal then this is the “what” needed to solve the controls conundrum, from the point of view of the government.

When action will be taken is unclear. On a Rúv TV talk show (in Icelandic) February 9 Benediktsson once again said that the abolition could start this year, it would not happen over night but over some years and it all depended on if there could be some harmonisation of expectations. Recently he also said it might be seen as unfair to Icelanders that the creditors were the first ones to get out with their money.

There is now a working group at work on behalf of the government on issues related to the capital controls. It first seemed it would finish its taks in February but now March or April seems more realistic. The group consists of both bankers and lawyers (led by much respected banker, Sigurbjörn Þorkelsson living in London). The group is not expected to come up with one solution but various scenarios. If their indirect remit is to show that the only viable way out of the controls is that the creditors hand over both all ISK assets and a slice of the fx then that will surely be part of their solution.

Then there is the CBI working on current account forecast, which ideally should underpin a payment forecast – how much fx will there be for paying out creditors in the coming years? The next CBI Monetary Bulletin will be out now on February 12, clearly an important event. The last CBI currency auction was deemed to have gone well for the bank and the bank has been unexpectedly active in the currency market (see here a short overview from Íslandsbanki).

It will be interesting to see if the CBI stats appeal to the government and the working group or if they will seek other ways to underpin their own plan, whenever it emerges.

The goal will determinate the road to the goal. The thing to look for is if it will be a neat solution, nested within present rules and regulations or will it be an all-Icelandic messy solution, depending on special legislation.

Difficult decisions in tense political climate

Icelandic political pundits have noticed, from early on in the life of the coalition that the two party leaders rarely are in tandem on important issues. The first great big test of the government was the execution of the Progressives’ promise on extensive debt relief. That promise was defused by the Independence Party, which cut it down from vaguely promised ISK300bn to ISK80bn – and instead of funds coming from the resolution of the estates it will be financed by banking tax, albeit partly from the estates.

However, the promise could be said to have been kept. Thus the Progressives strengthened their reputation as a party to be trusted and the leadership of the Independence Party could feel quietly satisfied that it had delivered the promise in a way it deemed viable.

The second test was another Progressive promise, abolishing indexed loans. A committee delivered a split report – majority came up with several solutions to change loans but in no way supporting the Progressive view it should be chucked out fast; a minority report suggested the loans should and could be abolished right away. (The Icelandic debate on indexed loans is truly weird from a foreign point of view: the problem rather seems the chronic inflation rather than the loans per se but that is not reflected in the debate.) Again the Progressives could say this promise was now all on track though what exactly is the track is not clear whereas the Independence Party said little other than there was now material to study.

The outcome so far is that the Progressives have kept their promises. Although it has been done with cutting off a toe here and a heal there to make it all fit the party seems to have managed to stay its course. The Independence leadership can be quietly content that it has indeed managed to steer the toe- and heel-cutting to suit its own policies. So far so good for Benediktsson.

Some Independence supporters are feeling uneasy that the party has staked its own existence on carrying out Progressive promises that were far from the Independence line. The point of view of the Independence leadership might well be that the promises better be gotten out of the way as soon as possible in order to avoid distraction in focusing on other matters. Such as the capital controls.

In spite of smooth executions so far there seems to be quite some tension between the two parties, also regarding the capital controls. No matter the rhetoric the course so far it has been decided by the Independence party. This might indicate that Benediktsson really decides on the important issues regarding the economy. But the future is not always like the past.

Both coalition parties need to get the most out of their time in government. The Independence party because it is used to be in government; a leader who does not again firmly position the party for another term is politically dead. The Progressives need to turn their tide tangibly in order to escape what seemed to be their imminent future up until the Icesave ruling: that they would keep on hovering around 12% of votes.

Young politicians in an atmosphere of former times

The Left government put effort into breaking out of the old political mould i.a. by nominating people on merit more than for party allegiance. It seemed for a while that this was an answer to the call of the time. However, although the two coalition leaders are young their attitude seems to hark back to the olden times.

The biggest test when it comes to nominating people for leading positions is the governorship of the CBI; it expires in autumn. The position needs to be advertised six months in advance, i.e. by February 20. One rumour was that it would look bad to do it at the last moment so had nothing been done by end of January it was a sign that Már Guðmundsson would be reappointed.

Now the rumour mill is in overdrive. The Progressives are said to be hell-bent on getting rid of Guðmundsson. Allegedly they cannot forgive him for wanting to negotiate on Icesave and in addition the party would like to be able to influence the bank’s position on major matters, such as the capital controls. So much for the independence of the central bank.

However, the problem for the Progressives is that Guðmundsson is widely respected, not only in Iceland but even more importantly abroad. He has the high standing and trust that a governor of a central bank needs in order to be taken seriously and in order for a country to be taken seriously in terms of monetary policy. It seems highly unlikely, if not impossible, that the Progressives can come up with anyone anywhere near Guðmundsson’s format.

The Independence leadership has been said to be more bent towards keeping Guðmundsson, also in order to encourage trust and stability. One version has it that the government might keep Guðmundsson but make some other changes, i.a. add a vice-governor, favourable to the Progressives or change the present one, Arnór Sighvatsson, also well respected.

The new magazine Kjarninn wrote last week that the Progressives wanted to appoint a banker at MP bank, Sigurður Hannesson, for the CBI job. Hannesson is head of private wealth management and has, to say the very least, a CV that differs radically from the CV of central bankers in the neighbouring countries. But he is very close to Gunnlaugsson.

Kjarning also wrote that Benediktsson was in charge of this appointment and his idea was to appoint Ólöf Nordal, a lawyer who has just left parliament to follow her husband to Switzerland. Kjarninn pointed out that her credentials were that she practically grew up in the CBI where her father was a governor. It is not clear from the context if Kjarninn was serious about her merits but yes, yet an altogether different CV from central bankers in the Western world.

Should Guðmundsson not get reappointed the whole capital control conundrum will get postponed… until late this year. Should Guðmundsson get ousted for someone of much more inferior professional standing it bodes a return to the Icelandic past of clientilismo and political patronage. And that bodes ill for everything – also the abolition of capital controls – and everyone in Iceland, except of course those with the right connections.

The paradox of political (non-)intervention

It is not altogether a uniquely Icelandic situation that the government refuses to negotiate with creditors claiming it has nothing to do with winding up of failed private banks. This is often the case with semi-sovereign debt situations. However, the situation in Iceland is tricky because with the approval of all MPs parliament voted last year that the government should indeed be part of the estate equation.

This was what happened when parliament approved a change of the currency law stipulating that the CBI can only give exemption to the law, above certain sums (which firmly includes the estates) with the blessing of the minister of finance, after he has presented it to the parliament (which does not need to approve it but well, a minister is unlikely to go against the parliament on this issue.)

Therefore, there is this paradox that the government – or the minister in charge – denies to negotiate an agreement that cannot pass through the CBI without his political blessing.

This situation greatly frustrates creditors. They feel they are trying to do everything right, talking to the CBI, trying to figure out what write down is needed (obviously, from their point of view as small as possible) by studying the current account, studying what assets can be used to negotiate on (such as assets owned by the CBI holding company, ESÍ etc), stretching out payments and in general trying to figure out all variables that can be used in negotiations.

But so far, this is just a monologue – there is no one who wants to sit down on the other side of the table. And yet the government clearly indicates it does want certain things from the creditors – it is just not going to tell them what it wants and no, not negotiate with them. The creditors have to figure it out themselves and reach a conclusion that satisfies the government.

This is seemingly an impossible way to go about things. And it is even more impossible if the government wants not only to find a solution that safeguards financial stability and takes into account the current account balance over the coming years but, in addition, wants to secure money for the treasury.

But one day the government will, in some way, make its position clear. Until then, when, how and what are only things to be guessed. And as we know from the Eurozone crisis: figuring out the economics is easy – guessing the politics is a lot more difficult.

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Written by Sigrún Davídsdóttir

February 11th, 2014 at 4:10 pm

Posted in Iceland

Now what about Luxembourg and financial supervision?

with 8 comments

Three Kaupthing bankers and the bank’s second largest shareholder were recently sentenced in Iceland to 3 to 5 1/2 years in prison for market manipulation and breach of fiduciary duty. The story behind the case is a share purchase in Kaupthing in September 2008. At the time, all four now convicted – then chairman of the board Sigurður Einarsson, CEO Hreiðar Már Sigurðsson, Kaupthing Luxembourg manager Magnús Guðmundsson and investor Ólafur Ólafsson – were interviewed in the Icelandic media where they underlined the strength of Kaupthing by pointing out that a Qatari investor, al Thani, had bought 5.1% in the bank.

What they failed to mention was that al Thani was not so much risking his own money as Kaupthing money: via an intricate scheme based on a few offshore companies the funds for the share acquisition came from Kaupthing itself. And where was the master plan carried out? In Luxembourg.

Kaupthing subsidiary in Luxembourg was at the centre of the al Thani saga. That was were the idea was brought into action, money into one vehicle and out into another. It is a well known fact in Iceland that most of the banks’ most questionable deals were indeed carried out in Luxembourg. It is an intriguing thought that Luxembourg was time and again chosen at the preferred place for these deals.

In early 2011 I was in Luxembourg and had a meeting at the Luxembourg financial services authorities, Commission de Surveillance du Secteur Financier, CSSF.* I met with a few people in a meeting room. I was on one side of a huge table, four or five people on the other side. Already then it was clear that the Icelandic banks had been doing some rather “inventive” banking in Luxembourg. I presented some of the cases I knew of. On the other side of the table there were only expressionless faces and then I was told that rules and regulations were strict in Luxembourg. Nothing contrary to laws could take place in Luxembourg banks.

In the CSSF 2012 Annual Report its Director General Jean Guill writes:

During the year under review, the CSSF focused heavily on the importance of the professionalism, integrity and transparency of the financial players. It urged banks and investment firms to sign the ICMA Charter of Quality on the private portfolio management, so that clients of these institutions as well as their managers and employees realise that a Luxembourg financial professional cannot participate in doubtful matters, on behalf of its clients.  

“… cannot participate in doubtful matters…” – If only matters were that simple. Now four people have been sentenced to prison in Iceland for participating in doubtful matters that violate Icelandic laws, according to the Reykjavík District Court, but were carried out in Luxembourg, by using Luxembourg expertise and the so very favourable circumstances created in Luxembourg over decades.

A group of Landsbanki Luxembourg clients have for several years been trying to catch the attention of the Luxembourg authorities, a saga that Icelog has reported on time and again. This group had taken out equity release loans at Landsbanki. These clients have asked 1) serious questions about the dealings of Landsbanki Luxembourg before it went bankrupt – such as evaluation of property, calculations on loans breaching the collateral limit, investments related to the loans and how products were sold; 2) serious questions as to how the estate has been run, its misleading information or lack thereof, numbers that did not add up.

None of this has been addressed by the CSSF or other Luxembourg authorities so far. However, the Luxembourg paper Wort has reported that two cases related to Landsbanki Luxembourg are now being investigated, quoting minister of justice Octavie Modert.

So far, and to great cost and immeasurable emotional distress the bank’s clients – mostly elderly citizens living in France and Spain – have been left to battle on their own. In Luxembourg the State Prosecutor issued a press release in support of the Landsbanki Luxembourg administrator – unthinkable in most other European countries – thereby making it look as if the Landsbanki Luxembourg clients were trying to evade paying their debt. – Through court cases in Spain and France the group has made some advances but none of this is taken into any consideration at all in Luxembourg.

One client has shown me a set of calculations regarding one specific loan portfolio. Landsbanki Luxembourg, prior to its collapse, had claimed that this portfolio no longer covered the loan so the borrower was obliged to pay a certain amount in cash as a cover. As far as I could see, the number from the bank was wrong: the client was not in breach and should not have been obliged to pay. I could of course well be wrong. I sent this calculation to someone from Landsbanki Luxembourg with whom I had been in touch and whom I had told of this. I know for certain that this person got the calculation but I never heard back.

Only Luxembourg authorities can access documents regarding the operations of Landsbanki Luxembourg. Although the bank’s managers have been charged with criminal offenses in Iceland (case pending but due in the new year) by the Icelandic Office of the Special Prosecutor as well as being sued in a civil case by the Landsbanki Winding-up Board for misleading reporting Luxembourg authorities have not been willing to listen to well-founded claims by the Landsbanki Luxembourg clients: unanswered questions about the Landsbanki Luxembourg operations before the bank’s demise in October 2008 – as well as the administrator’s operations.

Noticeably, an administrator has the duty to investigate operations, as indeed the Landsbanki Winding-up Board has done. The administrator, Yvette Hamilius and lawyers working for her, have stated in Luxembourg media that everything the administrator has done is according to the law.

In one case that the Landsbanki Luxembourg administrator took to court, the administrator caused delays of, in total, 200(!) days. And on it goes.

The fact that the numerous authorities in Luxembourg, such as the CSSF and the State Prosecutor have either ignored pleas from clients or outrightly sided with the administrator, without any chance of the claims actually being heard or looked at, shows a horrendous lack of care for clients and a sound protection for the financial industry. And everyone can pretend that it is, as Director General Guill points out: that professionalism and transparency is such in the financial sector in Luxembourg that financial players “cannot participate in doubtful matters.”

One way to supervise financial institutions is by box-ticking: to look at each item in its narrow and isolated meaning, never look at connections or behaviour, never try to understand meaning and context. The institutions know this and prepare their material accordingly. Then there is little to fear. One reason why so little was seen and caught before 2008 was this attitude by regulators. Judging from the lack of interest in claims by Landsbanki Luxembourg clients this still seems to be the attitude among Luxembourg authorities. Authorities in Cyprus have announced that banks in Cyprus will be investigated, a little bit is being done in Ireland and the UK. When will Luxembourg follow suit? From anecdotal evidence there have been things going on in Luxembourg that merit investigations.

* See an earlier Icelog report on Luxembourg and the Icelandic banks. – Here is an earlier Icelog on Landsbanki Luxembourg.

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Written by Sigrún Davídsdóttir

December 18th, 2013 at 3:57 pm

Posted in Iceland

The plan for abolishing capital controls is… er, a “no-plan”

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Again and again prime minister Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson has been asked about his exact plans for the abolition of the capital controls. But so far, it is entirely unclear how the government plans to proceed on debt relief, the estates of Glitnir and Kaupthing, the issues concerning Landsbanki and ultimately the abolition of the capital controls. There are by now some indications that the two coalition parties find it difficult to advance on these issues because the two parties disagree much more fundamentally than has appeared hitherto.

During the election campaign Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson leader of the Progressive Party and now prime minister said there was scope to get a considerable sum of money out of the estates of Glitnir and Kaupthing. These funds were to be used for a “correction fund” to finance debt relief for those whose loans had gone up but who had not profited from the extensive debt relief, the so-called 110% way (explained here), put in place by the previous government.

The voters seemed untroubled by the fact that the Progressive Party never clarified in detail how exactly this considerable sum could be extracted from the estates, which after all are the estates of two failed private banks. The fact that the government needs to agreed to terms of the composition of these two banks – due to the foreign-owned ISK assets (not enough foreign currency to exchange the ISK assets) – has been presented by the Progressive Party as a way to create this, in Progressive-speak, “scope” to gain funds.

In the coalition agreement the following (in my translation) is stated:

As indexed debt increased and asset prices fell, i.a. because of the effect of the collapse of financial firms and because of their appetite for risk leading up to the collapse, it is right to use the scope – which will most likely be created parallel to the winding down of the estates (of the collapsed banks) – to assist borrowers and those who put their savings towards their homes, just like the Emergency Law (passed on October 6 2008) secured that the assets of the estates were put to use to defend financial assets and to resurrect domestic banking. The Government keeps open the possibility to set up a special correction fund to reach it goals.

This was neither elegant nor clear (the clunky prose reflects the Icelandic original). Then came the opening speech of the prime minister as Althing gathered in early summer but the speech threw no light on how this “scope” would be created.

Last week, the prime minister was interviewed on Rúv’s morning programme where the two journalists asked the prime minister if he could clarify what people could expect in terms of debt-relief, the funding of the “correction fund” and how the estates would be treated. The prime minister said he now was much more optimistic than earlier, the “scope” was much greater than he had expected but unfortunately he did not share with listeners what his exact plans are. He did say that he had by now talked about these issues so often that it should be clear what he had in mind but as the journalists pointed out it is still not clear because it has never be clarified.

Yesterday, Althing gathered again after the summer recess. In his speech (in Icelandic) there was one sentence on the capital controls (my translation):

New plan on the abolition of the capital controls is forthcoming. A special consideration will be given to minimising the possible negative influence of the winding-up of the collapsed banks and to strengthening the framework of the financial system, which is one of the prerequisites of a successful abolition of the controls.

Tonight, the prime minister was interviewed on Rúv and yet again he was asked about the by now usual topics: the “correction fund,” the capital controls and what people could be expect in terms of debt relief. Again, no clarity, no detail but the prime minister said one rather remarkable thing: if people wanted to understand better what to expect they could calculate it from the coalition agreement. – Having read the agreement back and forth, I can’t possibly find anything in the agreement that gives any clear indication as to what people can expect. (I have sent an email to the prime minister’s spokesman asking what part of the agreement the prime minister is referring to and how that part can be used in the way the prime minister indicates.)

Clear what the creditors want – unclear what the government wants

During the election campaign earlier this year Bjarni Benediktsson leader of the Independence Party and now minister of finance repeatedly said that abolishing the capital controls was easy and would not take long. That might be true if there were a plan in place to abolish them. That plan does not seem to exist – or at least, nothing credible has been heard of it.

The Central Bank of Iceland has clearly done extensive work in terms of clarifying the macro economic aspects of the economy. The estates of Glitnir and Kaupthing, as well as the creditors have also done extensive analysis of the financial situation of the estates.

The prime minister has indicated that he is now waiting for the creditors to make a move. However, he seems to ignore that the creditors have already made a move: both Glitnir and Kaupthing have presented a detailed draft of composition to the CBI – but so far no answer. It is abundantly clear to the CBI what the creditors want. The only unclear thing is what exactly the government wants to do and how it wants to proceed.

Keep Icelandic banks Icelandic

The CBI has indicated that if one of the two new banks – Íslandsbanki and Arion, owned respectively by Glitnir and Kaupthing – could be sold to foreign investors the sale, in foreign currency, would facilitate solving the problem of the foreign-owned ISK assets. There is already news that Hong Kong investors have shown interest in buying Íslandsbanki and other offers might surface.

Without intending to launch some conspiracy theories it is safe to assume that parts of the political establishment and parts of the Icelandic business community want to keep ownership of the Íslandsbanki and Glitnir on Icelandic hands. If the government listens to these voices, as it well might do, it is highly likely that part of its equation is not only how to create the “scope” for finding the money for the “correction fund” but also how to keep the two banks in Icelandic ownership.

This angle of the whole controls conundrum does not make it any easier to solve and it adds yet another political non-financial hurdle to the process.

Landsbanki – a special case

Landsbanki is owned by the Icelandic state because the two major creditors of old Landsbanki – the Dutch and the UK government (harking back to the old Icesave saga) – were not willing to assist in setting up the new bank, in the same way the creditors of Glitnir and Kaupthing agreed to when Íslandsbanki and Arion came into being. Therefor the state had to step in to capitalise the new bank.

There is now the problem that new Landsbanki owes the old one ca ISK270bn, €1.67bn, in two bonds, due in foreign currency by the end of 2018. The first step towards resolving the capital controls is to find a solution to the Landsbanki bonds, i.a. extending maturity of the two bonds, changing interest rates etc. The new bank has mentioned it needs a “few years” – 15-20 years seems a more realistic solution but nothing near this number has been mentioned officially.

Is there really a majority for the Progressive’s debt relief?

As explained in an earlier Icelog, many have criticised the debt relief ideas but that does not deter the prime minister from advocating this with great fervour. However, there is also strong criticism from some members of the Independence Party parliamentary group. The last few days I have heard musings that there really might not be a majority in parliament for the kind of debt relief the Progressive Party has been advocating. At least one IP parliamentarian, Vilhjálmur Bjarnason, has aired his views openly, saying he could not support the kind of debt relief the Progressives have in mind.

In addition, there seems to be disharmony at the core of the coalition government as to how to proceed regarding the capital controls. Some weeks ago it was announced that the government was just about to appoint “abolition coordinator” who would oversee the process towards abolishing the capital controls. Two names were mentioned as the most likely ones, one from each party. So far, nothing has been done because it seems the two parties cannot agree on whom to choose.

So far, there is a complete lack of clarity as to how the government will go about solving the problems that have to be solved in order to abolish the capital controls. The feeling is that since the government does not know where it is going it is not likely to get there any time soon.

*Here is an earlier Icelog explaining the financial aspects of the capital controls.


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Written by Sigrún Davídsdóttir

September 12th, 2013 at 12:55 am

Posted in Iceland

Creditors float the idea of a fund for public good in Iceland

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The foreign creditors of Glitnir and Kaupthing understand full well that they will not get the foreign assets of these two estates until a way has been found to deal with their ISK assets. There is not – and will not be for the many coming years – enough foreign currency in Iceland to convert their ISK assets. All of this is explained in an earlier Icelog.

Tonight, I reported on Rúv (in Icelandic) of an idea to put some of this ISK problem aside, so to speak. The idea is that considerable funds, perhaps ISK50bn from each estate, ISK100bn, €3.1bn, will be put in a fund, which will become the property of the Icelandic nation. The fund could be used for public good such as initiatives in education and health.

The government has said it wants to “extract” – how, is still unclear – considerable funds out of the liquidation process in order to fund an extensive debt relief fund, called “correction fund” for those who are too well off to have profited from earlier debt relief. It will be interesting to see what its reaction will be to this new idea – no comments forthcoming when Rúv sought comments tonight.

Meanwhile, the capital controls continue to hurt Iceland. Icelandic investors with money abroad shy away from bringing funds to Iceland. Salary is low in Iceland compared to the neighbouring countries. The government might think it is safest to wait and see – but that is actually a very expensive option for Iceland.

The Glitnir estate has hired the economist Lord Eatwell president of Queen’s College Cambridge as its special adviser in the winding-up process of the estate.

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Written by Sigrún Davídsdóttir

August 20th, 2013 at 10:41 pm

Posted in Iceland

Not everything right in Iceland – but Iceland does not shake the world, unless with volcanic eruptions

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Ever since the financial crisis erupted in Iceland in October 2008, foreign media has been obsessed with events in Iceland though it often seems to struggle to understand the financial issues at stake. However, that is of little real importance since the intensive media focus has drawn attention to Iceland as a tourist destination and life is too short to search for erroribus. But sometimes the errors and misunderstanding are  just so comical that it merits some attention.

“Another Icelandic meltdown may be coming. That would reignite investor fear, leading to yet another panic on the continent,” writes Cyrus Sanati for Fortune Magazine. – As happens in every country, Icelanders sometimes feel that they are the epicenter of the universe but Sanati seems to outdo most Icelanders. I can’t remember ever having run into anyone with any insight into finance or economics who thinks that events in Iceland have led to or are likely to lead to a “panic on the continent.”

Sanati seems partly to base his article on the latest IMF report on Iceland, though not quoting it, but seems to have read it rather hastily and to draw rather more alarming and far-reaching conclusions than the IMF economists.

According to Sanati “(s)ince 2008, the small island nation has been able to avoid an all-out economic meltdown thanks largely to government-imposed capital controls that have kept its currency from imploding. At the same time, the nation’s zombie banks have managed to avoid total collapse thanks to delay tactics that have allowed them to avoid settling with their creditors.”

The capital controls were introduced end of November 2008 at the advice of the IMF but in full agreement with the government. The new Icelandic banks were formed swiftly in early October 2008 by splitting the old banks into foreign operations, kept in the old failed banks and the domestic operations, in the new banks, the now operating banks.

The new banks are much less zombie-like than many other European banks, partly because bad loans were left with the estates of the three failed banks, partly because assets were moved into the banks at reduced value. The new banks have nothing to settle with the creditors of the failed banks. The two new banks, Íslandsbanki and Arion are owned respectively by the estates of Glitnir and Kaupthing, which in turn are owned by creditors who mostly are foreign financial institutions.

It’s quite right that the main problem in Iceland is the capital controls but the effect isn’t quite as Sanati depicts it:

Capital controls imposed by the government in 2008 are still in effect, forcing its citizens, and, more importantly, the nation’s massive pension fund, to invest mainly in Iceland. At the same time, Icelandic consumers still find it hard to buy foreign goods, forcing them to buy less-desirable local equivalents, giving an artificial boost to the domestic economy. Meanwhile, high interest rates have made borrowing expensive.

Yes, the nation’s massive pension funds are forced to invest in Iceland, which might in the longer run lead to too many kronas, ISK, chasing too few investment opportunities. Asset prices have been rising and are closely monitored by the Central Bank of Iceland and financial analysts in Iceland. So far, the rising prices are deemed to be sustainable but the bubble risk is certainly there, a well-known risk in countries with capital controls.

Consumers are however not much touched by the capital controls since importers can still import, just as exporters can export. There is no lack of foreign goods in Iceland and even if Icelanders were buying more of home-produced goods that is hardly artificial growth – the competition with foreign goods is still in place. The high interest rates in Iceland reflect inflation, which is high as has so often been the case in Iceland.

Re growth Sanati writes that “… real output in Iceland remains 10% below the pre-crisis peak. And while GDP did grow at around 2.9% in 2011, it slowed to around 1.6% last year and is expected to fall even further this year. This is the ugly side of capital controls. In short, by restricting what people can buy and invest in, i.e. only Icelandic goods and opportunities, individuals eventually stop spending.”

The IMF report states that legacy vulnerabilities weigh on growth. Real output is still 10 percent below its pre-crisis peak. GDP growth, which reached 2.9 percent in 2011, slowed to 1.6 percent in 2012 amid private sector deleveraging and weak external demand.”

IMF gives a rather more nuanced picture of the slowing growth:

Deleveraging is constraining consumption and investment. Private consumption weakened in the second half of 2012, as one-off supporting factors (early pension withdrawals and mortgage interest subsidies) waned and households and firms continued paying down debt (Box 2). Fiscal consolidation, while necessary to reduce high public debt, is limiting the public sector contribution to growth.

            Slow progress in removing the capital controls is undermining confidence. While the controls safeguarded external and financial stability during the crisis, slow progress in lifting them is undermining confidence and inhibiting investment. At the same time, uncertainty about exchange-rate developments following the lifting of controls has hindered the anchoring of inflation expectations.

            Legacy risks in the financial sector are holding back credit expansion. Banks are still burdened by bad assets and continue grappling with uncertain loan valuations and risks stemming from their reliance on captive funds locked in by capital controls.

            The challenging external environment is weighing on exports. In 2012, less favorable terms of trade and weak external demand for real goods exports more than offset the improvement in services exports, notably tourism.

According to Sanati domestic consumption and investment in Iceland are both down 20% from their pre-crisis levels and continue to fall. Icelanders are instead choosing to pay down their debts, which, while positive, comes at the expense of economic growth. And despite the debt paydown, household and corporate debt remain high, coming in at 109% and 170% of GDP, respectively.”

Again, the IMF report gives a more nuanced overlook:

Unique characteristics of Icelandic household debt complicate the deleveraging process. Household debt consists largely of home mortgages that are CPI-indexed, implying that the debt stock rises with inflation. Moreover, 85 percent of mortgages were issued in 2005–07 and have long maturities and back- loaded repayment profiles.

High private sector debt weighs on consumption and investment. Consumption is still 20 percent below its pre-crisis peak and 10 percent below trend, somewhat stronger than in euro area program countries but weaker than in other advanced economies. Domestic investment is about 20 percent below trend despite significant corporate debt deleveraging, likely reflecting factors such as capital controls. Growth will therefore likely remain modest for some time. To illustrate, average private consumption growth in Sweden and Finland hovered around 1 percent during the deleveraging period before rising to 21⁄2 percent post-deleveraging. Cross-country comparisons also show a negative relationship between private sector balance sheet stress and growth.”

The IMF report points at the comparison with crisis-struck Sweden and Finland in the 1990s:

International experience, however, suggests that further household adjustment should be expected. Peak-to-trough deleveraging of Swedish and Finnish households in the 1990s took as long as 8 years with debt declining by 30 percentage points.

Pointing only at the capital controls is an over-simplification. For the economy as a whole it does matter that Iceland’s largest trading partners, countries in the European Union, have been struggling. A returning growth in Europe is good news for Iceland. – And Icelanders, always great spenders, keep on spending, happily not restricted to Icelandic-only goods as Sanati seems to think.

Normalised household debt-to-disposable income peaked at 100% in 2010 in Iceland and is now ca. 85%, as shown in the IMF report.

So what now? According to Sanati The new government promised during the campaign to lift the capital controls and to force banks to cut people’s mortgage principals. This has understandably shaken the rating agencies. S&P lowered its outlook on Iceland to negative in June on concern that the new government will go through with its plans. The IMF has expressed similar reservations.”

This is a rather misleading description of the latest event. The new government did not promise “to force banks to cut people’s mortgage principals.” It aims at getting money out of foreign creditors of the two collapsed banks, Glitnir and Kaupthing. What has shaken S&P is the lack of clarity as to how the government is going to fulfil its promises of extensive debt relief and its effect on the economy. The IMF is worried about these same promises and its possible effect on the state finances and the economy as a whole. In an earlier Icelog I have gone into some detail re the capital controls and possible ways of abolishing them. The CBI has published extensive reports on these same issues.

As are some Icelanders, Sanati is worried about the perspectives in Iceland. Iceland has few good options. If it keeps the capital controls in place its economy will continue to shrink; lift them and asset values will fall as Icelanders ship their cash out of the country. The new government says that foreign direct investment will make up for the capital outflows, but they are either extremely optimistic or completely misguided. The lifting of capital controls will cause housing prices and other Icelandic assets to fall dramatically leading to yet another bank panic. In the wake of this chaos the Icelandic government believes foreign investors will come strolling in?”

It is true that Iceland has few good options but the new government isn’t planning on solving the problem of the capital controls with foreign direct investment. That would indeed be insanely optimistic as FDI has always been low in Iceland. The core of the capital control in Iceland is, as I have explained earlier (see the above Icelog link), that ISK exposure to foreigners is higher than the currency reserves can serve. The CBI is working hard on coming up with viable solutions as is the government and the foreign creditors whose kronas are stuck in Iceland.

Back to Sanati’s sense of importance of Iceland in Europe:

Iceland is facing many of the same issues afflicting much larger economies. For example, capital controls have been instituted in several European nations amid the fallout from the sovereign debt crisis. How and when those nations choose to lift such controls will have a profound impact on the value of the euro and thus the economic integrity of the entire continent.”

Eh, in Europe only Cyprus has capital controls and its economy amounts to 0.2% of the Eurozone. But that Iceland, neither part of the EU nor the Eurozone, and tiny Cyprus are both grappling with capital controls is unlikely to have the impact Sanati surmises.

Then there are further dizzying claims regarding the significance of Iceland:

Furthermore, Iceland’s banks are not unlike those in Spain as they both financed housing booms gone bust. How Iceland’s banks deal with the problem of its bad loans after capital controls are lifted could have a major impact on the way investors choose to look at Spain and its bank issues. Iceland’s banks are expected to force losses of around to 75% to 100% on their investors and large depositors, many of which are hedge funds that also buy and sell sovereign debt and the insurance linked to it. How these hedge funds will retaliate could be replicated in Italy or in France where sovereign debt continues to mount relative to the size of their economies.

The housing boom in Iceland bears little resemblance to the building boom in Spain nor did it cause the same kind of trouble for the Icelandic banks. I’m sure few investors will make the same assumptions Sanati does. Given that Spain has different kind of banking problems and no capital controls I doubt the major impact Sanati is expecting.

No, Icelandic banks are not expected to force any direct losses on their investors and certainly not on large depositors. The question of further write-down regards the creditors of the two failed banks and their ISK assets as mentioned above. Selling or buying of sovereign debt has nothing to do with the Icelandic sovereign. The foreign creditors are creditors to the two failed private banks, not the sovereign and this has no bearing on Italy (most of Italian sovereign debt is actually held by Italians and Italian institutions, unlikely to launch a financial terrorist action against their state) or France.

I rather agree with Sanati that “Iceland shouldn’t be ignored” but not for the reasons he lists:

After all, it was the first country to implode during the financial crisis and was one of the first ones to see its GDP rebound. Its small size and simple economy means that it is less able to bury its problems under a pile of confusing monetary actions. This forces Iceland to face the music much sooner than larger nations in similar predicaments. As such, investors will be watching what Iceland’s new government does intently. If it begins to falter, the rest of Europe could be next.

The problems in Iceland have been pretty clear from the beginning, also thanks to the fact that Iceland was in an IMF lending programme, consequently monitored by the Fund. And yes, everyone interested in Iceland, most of all Icelanders themselves, will of course closely follow what the government does.

But not even Icelanders with a healthy sense of self-importance think that it might take the rest of Europe with it if it falls. There might have been fears for the destiny of the country as Ireland, UK and other countries were fighting to keep their financial systems afloat in September and October 2008. But the fear in Iceland has long abated.

So far, with growth and lower unemployment, Iceland has something to be content with but there is no room for complacency. The capital controls are the most serious issue to solve and until they have been abolished Iceland can’t “graduate” from the financial crisis. But events in Iceland won’t shake the world – unless there is another volcanic eruption.


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Written by Sigrún Davídsdóttir

August 14th, 2013 at 9:58 pm

Posted in Iceland

Is Luxembourg waking up to the fishy smell of its finance sector?

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A group of investors in Luxembourg funds have been trying to lodge complaints with the Luxembourg financial services authority, CSSF, after enduring losses in 2008. According to the FT (paywall), the group got a negative answer and little understanding from the CSSF in 2011 and has since been trying to get their complaints taken seriously, lately by sending a flurry of letters to prominent politicians in Luxembourg, i.a. PM Jean-Claude Juncker and Minister of Finance Luc Frieden.

One of the group’s interesting discoveries is that although financial regulation in Luxembourg is, on paper, comparable to other EU countries, the enforcement lags far behind. The result seems to be that if things go sour, as in these investments, the CSSF allegedly is not there to protect the interests of investors. The feeling is that Luxembourg is a country where the interests of the financial sector are seen to be best served by doing very little about eventual rogue elements.

This attitude of the CSSF will not come as a great surprise to regular Icelog readers.* Icelog has earlier dealt extensively with the plight of a group of clients of Landsbanki Luxembourg to get authorities in Luxembourg take their complaints seriously. Complaints that both regard the dealings of the bank before its demise in October 2008 and also how the bank’s administrator has handled both complaints and these clients. This group has run into closed doors time and again. Only through the extremely diligent work of the Landsbanki Victim Action Group – at great cost, both pecuniary and emotional – is the group hopefully moving its case onward.

One of the most remarkable events in that whole saga was when the Luxembourg Prosecutor issued a press release to declare his support for the Landsbanki Luxembourg administrator, thereby alleging that the clients were seeking to avoid paying their debt. The fact that the State Prosecutor saw fit and proper to give his support to an administrator of a private company puts Luxembourg in a league of its own among EU countries.

The banking collapse in Cyprus has led the attention to other financial centers in small economies, such as Luxembourg. It seems that much of the shady money, previously nesting in banks in Luxembourg, has not gone back to countries of their owners, such as Russia, but is seeking shelter in other offshore places, Luxembourg being one of them. It seems that ties between Russian and Luxembourg might be strengthening.

The fact that the Luxembourg media and international media is now reporting more on irregularities in Luxembourg increases the hope that the Luxembourg finance sector will at long last operate under the rules and regulations as should be the standard in the EU. Though Luxembourg certainly is not the only country with questions to answer regarding its finance sector, it still seems too difficult for clients of the very potent financial sector to seek justice in cases of alleged irregularities and outright fraudulent behaviour.

*Here is one log on Landsbanki Luxembourg; here are logs related to “equity release” loans, which are at the core of the Landsbanki Luxembourg saga. A log on the CSSF and the Icelandic banks.

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Written by Sigrún Davídsdóttir

May 20th, 2013 at 11:21 pm

Posted in Iceland

Iceland – back in growth but at the mercy of foreign markets

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Under the demanding eyes of the IMF, the Icelandic Left Government turned the economy around – growth returned and unemployment went down. But Iceland is far from being on top of things. Both the sovereign and some of the big corporations have to meet tough payments in foreign currency in the next few years, several times more than the current account surplus. This gap can only be met with extended maturity and/or foreign loans. If the Icelandic Government is, at the same time, going to spirit money from the pockets of foreign creditors – in some cases the big banks that will most likely be asked for loans – it is difficult to see a happy ending to this saga.

“Iceland Chamber of Commerce recommends that Iceland stops comparing itself to the Nordic countries since we are way ahead of them in most respect.”  Instead, Iceland should compare itself to champions such as Ireland, Cyprus and Greece.

This statement, from a 2006 report on “Iceland in 2015” was published by the Icelandic Chamber of Commerce, at a time when it seemed Icelandic bankers and the business leaders closest to them could both fly and walk on water. The matter-of-fact statement perfectly captures the hubris in the Icelandic business community during the few years of expanding financial sector and is often quoted to demonstrate the mind-set at the time. Most of the apostolic twelve who wrote the report are tainted by the collapse in October 2008 and one of them has been charged with serious financial misconduct.

Now, anno 2013 the outlook for 2015 is rather different. In 2015, Iceland needs to have at hand current account surplus of ISK120bn, €787m, in order to cover exposure of some large enterprises like the national energy company, Landsvirkjun and Orkuveita Reykjavíkur, the Reykjavík Energy Company, OR. At present, a realistic sum to expect is ISK30-40bn, €197-262m. The outlook for the three following years is similar. The situation is carefully explained in the most recent financial stability report from the Central Bank of Iceland, CBI (so far, only in Icelandic; expected in English this coming week).

Fish and aluminium are the largest components of Icelandic exports – and since both of these are finite resources, i.a. cannot be produced ad infinitum, it is out of the question that increased exports can cover the lack of funds. Something more is needed – and this “something more” should at best be some combination of extended maturities and borrowing.*

During the election campaign, the leader of the Progressive Party Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson told Icelanders that ISK300bn, ca. €2bn, could be wrenched out of foreign creditors of the two collapsed banks, Kaupþing and Glitnir, and distributed to indebted households – nota bene, not households struggling to pay, just indebted households, which are in fact mostly the best off households (the household debt is explained in a CBI report from June 2012). Fetching this money – never quite explained how (the estates are private companies, unrelated to the sovereign) – would be easy since the foreign creditors were in great hurry to get their money out of a country with capital controls. And consequently, the capital controls would be abolished pretty soon.

None of the other parties in Alþingi, the Icelandic Parliament, wanted to follow this path. Some critics pointed out this debt-relief paid out in cash, would only fuel the already too high inflation. However, this is the promise the Progressives are working on winning support for now that they are conducting coalition talks.

No matter the outcome, finding a way to abolish the capital controls as well as solving the lack of foreign funds is the largest, most complex and most pressing task awaiting a new Government in Iceland. There is no lack of ideas in the public debate, many of them utterly unrealistic bordering on the dangerous, often aired by businessmen who never declare their own personal interests.

But who is really in hurry – and what are the issues at stake? In short, Icelandic entities are under huge financial pressure. This pressure can only be solved by foreign loans – which have to come from financial institutions some of which are creditors to the estates of the two banks, Kaupthing and Glitnir.

The claims, the creditors and the “glacier bonds”

Roughly half of the creditors of Kaupthing and Glitnir – there is quite an overlap – are the original bondholders, most of them big financial institutions. The other half are investors who bought claims post-collapse. The division is not clear-cut – bondholders often put forth some of the financing as they sell the claims in order to have a stake in the possible upside.

The original bondholders lost ca. 5-6 times the Icelandic GDP – at present ca. ISK1600bn, €10bn – the moment the three banks folded. Their losses were no doubt greatly diminished by credit insurance and most likely many of them incurred little losses. Anecdotal evidence indicates that some large loans in 2007 from foreign lenders to Icelandic entities did indeed cause losses because the lenders could not sell them on as they intended to.

Just after the collapse, the claims were sold for a song but the price rose quickly. Much is made of the astronomical profit of the creditors, often called vulture-funds in the Icelandic parlance even by those who should know that vulture funds pray on sovereigns in or facing default (trying to squeeze the sovereign to pay its bonds in full), not creditors to private companies (where the value of the estate depends on the recovery). During the election campaign Gunnlaugsson stated that there was no harm in squeezing the creditors who all, according to him, had bought their claims at 95% write-down and consequently made so much money that they had to accept some write-down. Though far from true, this statement seemed music to the ears of the voters.

For the time being Icelandic experts on the issue think the price of the claims is too high. There is a great turnover in the market for Icelandic claims – one claim has for example allegedly been sold over 60 times – but that seems to have little to do with value and more to do with incentive-structures in funds dealing in claims. The Landsbanki estate recently seized the opportunity and sold its claims in Glitnir.

In addition to the creditors of Glitnir and Kaupthing there are the owners of the so-called “glacier-bonds” – bonds sold in the years up to 2008 to profit from high interest in Iceland. The largest issuer was Toronto Dominion.

The assets at stake – and the core of the problem: ISK assets owned by foreigners

The creditors own assets worth roughly ISK2500bn, ca. 150% of GDP, whereof ISK-denominated assets amount to ca. ISK800bn. The foreign part, ISK1700 consists of ca. ISK1000bn in foreign currencies, cash and roughly ISK700bn in foreign assets, such as stakes in retail, foreign property etc. The “glacier-bonds” amount to ca. ISK400bn. All in all, the ISK “problem” amounts to ca. ISK1200bn (and could well be ISK100-200bn more, depending on valuation etc).

When the split between the old banks and the new banks was effectuated, the old banks were made to lend assets to the new banks in order to make them sustainable. This means that the estates of Glitnir and Kaupthing own the new banks almost entirely, their stakes valued at ca. ISK250bn – the Icelandic state owns 5% in Íslandsbanki and 13% in Kaupthing.

Because of the Icesave problem, Landsbanki (owned by the Icelandic state) is in a category of its own. When the new Landsbanki was founded, the new bank got a forex loan worth ca. ISK350bn, from the old bank, which it has to start repaying in 2014 but the largest repayments come in four instalments, 2015-2018. The loan being a forex loan it is a forex liability and has to be paid back in foreign currency.

The general understanding amongst those working on these issues in Iceland is that the repayment problems rising from the repayment of the Landsbanki bond, as it is generally called, have to be solved first, i.e. before the problems related to the foreign creditors. Some extension might be possibly but it is essential for new Landsbanki to refinance the loan by borrowing, obviously in foreign currency, i.e. borrowing abroad.

The core of the problem is assets owned by foreigners in Icelandic króna, these ca. ISK1200bn (though of different origin, the Landsbanki bond is part of this sum) – because there is not enough foreign currency to pay out the ISK assets. Although the scale of the problem was not clear, capital controls were put in place – weirdly late, not until November 27, 2008, almost two months after the collapse. Until the CBI and the coming Icelandic Government have figured out how to secure an orderly solution – most discussed is some sort of an exit levy, a write-down through the currency rate or a combination of both – the capital controls cannot be lifted unless greatly jeopardising the financial stability in Iceland.

None of this is news to most of the creditors many of whom follow things in Iceland closely, i.a. by being part of “Informal Creditors Committees of Kaupthing and Glitnir,” the ICCs, represented by restructuring firm Talbot Hughes McKillop Partners and the law-firms Bingham McCutchens and the Icelandic Logos Legal Services. There is now also an ad hoc committee with members from the IMF, the ECB and Icelandic institutions to discuss various ways of solving these problems. The ad hoc committee is not part of the process of solving the issues but is expected to come up with thoughts and ideas, so sorely needed. – In the end, the CBI and the Icelandic Government will have to solve the problems related to the capital controls.

But the creditors do not only have an eye on their ISK assets – they are very much vying for getting hold of their foreign assets, worth in total ISK1700bn, whereof there is ISK1000bn in foreign currency, ready for picking. Since these are foreign assets in foreign currency, they do not affect the stability of the Icelandic economy. However, the CBI will hardly want to let go of these assets until it is clear how the ISK assets are dealt with and eventual haircut.

The feeling is that the foreign creditors are ready to accept some write-down on the ISK assets against getting the entire foreign assets. As in any other Western country, the creditors are protected by property rights – and should be rather sure of their right to the foreign assets. The ISK assets are more problematic – there is not the currency to pay it out.

Composition or bankruptcy?

During 2012 creditors in both banks worked on terms of the compositions of Glitnir and Kaupthing. Because of the capital controls the CBI needs to agree to the composition. Both estates had hoped to have the composition in place by the end of last year but the CBI was not ready to negotiate the final terms. The feeling is that the CBI wanted to wait until new Government was in place; there might be some Icelanders quaking in their boots at taking these vital decisions that will affect the Icelandic economy for years to come.

With changes to laws on capital controls, made just before the Alþingi went into recess, the CBI now has to confer with ministers. When new Government is in place this will be one of its first tasks. As to time, it is difficult to imagine this will go speedily. Once source said it could take as much as 5-8 years – and obviously the repayment of the ISK assets might stretch over a very long time indeed.

There are clearly huge interests at stake but there are wheels within wheels here. The creditors want composition, which means that the estates (now holding companies not banks) will operate in the coming years to maximise recovery of assets, most noticeably the stakes in the two new banks, Íslandsbanki, owned by Glitnir creditors and Arion, owned by Kaupthing creditors. According to this plan, the banks would be sold when good buyers were found. The CBI has aired the view that it would be best to sell the banks to foreigners, or at least for foreign currency, not króna.

There are forces at large in Iceland who have been airing the opinion that the two estates should be denied composition and instead should go into bankruptcy. A bankrupt company cannot own assets, meaning that the two banks would be sold right away at an accordingly low price. This is very much against the interest of the creditors and very much in the interest of whoever wants to buy a bank at a fire-sale price.

It is another saga but the idea of the two banks again being owned by a few Icelandic shareholders with controlling stakes makes me shudder. The battle for the ownership of the two banks will be the largest battle of interests and ownership ever to be fought out in Iceland, since the 13th Century.

The unmentioned interest group: Icelandic owners of offshore ISK

During the election campaign the Progressives, who wanted to fetch money from the creditors for the party’s generous promise of debt relief, made much of their claim that the creditors were in a hurry to get their money and run.

Surely they would no doubt want to see their assets soon but these are financial institutions and investors, many of whom have great expertise in the field of distressed assets and will be familiar with the circumstances, even with operating inside capital controls. There is nothing to indicate they are in such a hurry that they have no patience for negotiating. On the contrary, they have both knowledge and experience to deal with whatever problem is thrown at them.

The development of the ISK rate in the CBI auctions indicates that investors who bought “glacier bonds” are satisfied with the high interest rates in Iceland, compared to rates in Europe and the US. It is safe to say that there is no particular rush among many or most of the owners of “glacier bonds.”

Those who might be in a rush to release their offshore króna are Icelanders who happen to own ISK, either legally or less so. Some Icelandic businessmen have been drumming on about the importance of solving all these issues – and abolishing the capital controls – as soon as possible. Preferably by a big haircut on the foreigners and preferably by bankrupting the estates, denying them composition. These people no doubt have the decency of having the interest of the country at heart but it is less clear where their own personal interests lie. Some of these people are rumoured, in Icelandic media, to be special advisers to the leadership of the Progressive Party.

And now to the real problem: Icelandic current account surplus doesn’t cover repayments in the near future

Capital control, the ISK assets that need to be paid in foreign currency and the Landsbanki bond are problems that need to be resolved in conjunction. But quite apart from this, Iceland is facing serious current account drought – there is not enough foreign currency coming into the country to meet outstanding obligations of payment.

This is very clearly described in the latest report on financial stability from the CBI (my translation):

Domestic entities, others than the sovereign and the CBI, are facing large payments on foreign loans until 2018. The expected payments rise from ISK87bn 2014 to ISK128bn 2015 when the repayment of the Landsbanki bond will start with full force. For comparison, current account surplus in 2012 is calculated to have been ISK52bn. If the surplus remains similar in the coming years, as it has been in the past years, ca. 3-3.5% of GDP, other entities than the sovereign and the CBI need to refinance what amounts to ISK265bn until 2018.

The repayment of the Landsbanki bond is too heavy for the economy as a whole. Its maturity must be extended or it must be refinanced. Without extended maturity or considerable refinancing it is clear that there is no scope in the coming years for using the surplus to release ISK assets owned by foreigner. The interaction between abolishing the capital controls and the repayment of foreign loans is the greatest risk in the system.

Really, the risk facing the Icelandic economy cannot be stated more clearly than this. And for foreigners holding ISK assets this is bad news. Again, the creditors are highly aware of the situation – the dire situation.

Iceland has been seen as the first of crisis-hit European countries to recover. True, the economy is in its third year of growth and unemployment has peaked. But until these issues of refinancing payment obligation are safely solved, Iceland is not free of the problems that hit when the three banks collapsed in October 2008.

Now, it is also pretty clear who is in a hurry to solve the issue of refinancing debt – it is Icelanders themselves, the sovereign and others who need to repay debt in foreign currency. As pointed out in the CBI report, it is important – really of vital importance to the Icelandic economy – that foreign financial markets stay open for Icelandic entities. Arion recently borrowed money in Norway. But with interest rates above 6% this loan was more to show it could borrow than this being some sustainable solution. OR borrowed recently from Goldman Sachs but it only seems to be a facility stretching over 18 months – again, no sustainable solution. Until we see loans of 10 years maturity with sustainable interest rates the problems facing Icelandic entities are not over.

The sovereign only has debt of 58% of GDP, below the European average. We all know that Ireland, Greece and Cyprus had to turn to the troika when they lost market access. The frosty reality in Iceland is that among the creditors of Glitnir and Kaupthing there are big financial institutions to whom Icelandic entities will have to turn sooner rather than later for refinancing. Election promises to fleece foreign creditors will hardly pave the way for the kind of sustainable solution Iceland needs – and in the end, these promises could turn out to be much more expensive than just their nominal value.

*Here is a video from Bloomberg where Sigríður Benediktsdóttir director of financial stability at the CBI explains the situation.

DISCLAIMER: please observe that these are complicated issues. Certainly, none of the above should be taken as advice for any financial transactions.

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Written by Sigrún Davídsdóttir

May 6th, 2013 at 1:10 am

Posted in Iceland

Economics vs politics and the (futile) search for bail-out/-in templates

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No one in his/her right mind would try to make a one-size pair of jeans – human beings are too varied in size and shape. It is the same for debt-ridden Eurozone countries: debt is the apparition of their problems that do however come in different sizes and shapes, making it impossible to look for any Eurozone template. As Mario Draghi emphasised, a lot of political capital is invested in the euro – and it is not a sliding door.

A good central banker never says anything that shakes the markets. Governor of the European Central Bank Mario Draghi was on central banker’s form at the ECB press conference last Thursday, April 4 with measured words, on interest rates, inflation and on Cyprus.

However, Draghi did throw in some interesting observation on two things that are a fixture in the euro debate. One is the dominance of politics vs economics in solving the Eurozone debt problems, crucial to the understanding of the Greek conundrum.  The other, brought to the surface by the Cypriot crisis, is the search for a Eurozone crisis-solution “template.”

What does ultimately decide actions in the Eurozone debt problems?

Since it took about two years (and more might be to come) to find a Greek solution that vaguely resembled a sustainable solution the coverage partly turned into febrile forecasting if Greece would leave the euro or not. Citigroup’s chief economist Willem Buiter and his Citi colleague Ebrahim Rahbari coined the word encapsulating a Greek exit – Grexit – in a research note in Februar 2012, estimating the Grexit likelihood to be 50%.

So far, the Grexit-league has not been right. But why was it that so many learned men – in spite of careful calculations, graphs and historical parallels – have, so far, been wrong on the Grexit? The simple answer is that they focused on the economics, not on the politics, of the euro.

At his April 4 press conference Draghi touched upon this topic. Showing a bit of his Italian animated character towards the end, Draghi made an interesting observation. It came as an answer to some very hypothetical questions: assume that the situation in Greece and Spain would deteriorate; is there or isn’t there some safety net in place, especially regarding derivatives?

Possibly because the question came from viewers on Zero Hedge, Draghi felt these possibly non-European viewers needed a lecture on the meaning of the euro. Saying first he had no answer to such hypothetical questions he added he might actually have a partial answer:

These questions are formulated by people who vastly underestimate what the euro means for the Europeans and for the euro area. They vastly underestimate the amount of political capital that has been invested in the euro. And so, they keep on asking questions like “if the euro breaks down” and “if a country leaves the euro area tomorrow”. The euro is not like a sliding door, it is a very important thing; it is a project in the European Union. So, that is why you will have a very hard time asking people like me “what would happen if?” There is no plan B.

Draghi is not the first senior European official to point this out – but his observation is succinct and strikes a few clear points. Yes, it can be difficult for non-Europeans – and indeed for economists of all nationalities – to understand the political importance of the euro and consequently the political capital invested in this political project over more than twenty years. But understanding this is necessary so as to understand that no, there is no plan B.

In the Eurozone, the Euro is the alfa and omega. There is no other option – and therefore no plan B. All solutions are about mending and fixing, not shrinking the Eurozone, even though bright economists suggest various solutions to the Eurozone woes by calculating certain countries out.

Unfortunately for the euro and the Eurozone, more and more Europeans have lost sight of the euro’s political importance. Practicing politics is partly about waking up every morning, assuming that everything said yesterday is now totally forgotten and therefore needs to be repeated.

Too little is been heard about the gains brought by the euro in countries like Germany where cost of bailing out others is indeed dwarfed by years of euro-gains. And politicians in debt-stricken countries are too often been too focused on saving their own reputation after years of bad policies by blaming the euro for the situation.

Will any country every leave the Eurozone?

The pondus of Draghi’s words is a good reference when it comes to gauging and forecasting measures in debt-stricken countries. Of course, the economics matter in concrete terms – and after all, the IMF and the ECB both are part of the troika, forming the solutions – but the policies do follow the over-arching Real-Politik of the Eurozone, which is to hold onto the Eurozone, no matter what.

From this logic it follows that the answer to the question above has to be “no.” If any one country leaves – no matter for what reason – the euro spell will be broken and the endlessly and chronic nagging doubt will be hanging over all other countries, which might be seen, according to some calculations, likely to leave. As Draghi said: “The euro is not like a sliding door…”

That said, the last few years have seen the doubt festering, partly because, as mentioned above, politicians have not always given the euro a good support. But the ECB, now under a very determined Draghi, the EU and the IMF (so far, always led by a European though that might to change one day), have shown a dogged grit and resolve to stick to the one and only euro-plan.

This is not to say the troika is blameless but the troika is only called – like the fire brigade – when the fire rages and all other solutions fail. The fire brigade may choose the wrong strategy but it would not be there if it weren’t for the fire.

A template – or tailored solutions?

The debate in every debt-stricken country always seems to centre on specific words. In Ireland it was the “Promissory Notes,” in Greece the “Grexit” – and in Cyprus the word is “template.” For some reason, and suddenly now, everyone is asking if the measures used in Cyprus will be a “template” for other countries.

It is not clear why the Cypriot measures are seen to be more of a possible template than measures in other countries. Four Eurozone countries have needed help to overcome debt problems and the troika-prescriptions have all been different, according to circumstances and the most pressing problems.

Here, Draghi also made a relevant observation. Cyprus is not a template,” he said. “Cyprus is not a turning point in euro area policy. We have said many times that our resolution… is to resolve banks without using taxpayers’ money and without disrupting the payment system. That is why we have to have a resolution framework in place. So, it is not a turning point. That is exactly the resolution framework that all other countries have and the euro area will have.”

Draghi makes it clear that there is no template as how to do things – but there is a clear goal: “to resolve banks without using taxpayers’ money and without disrupting the payment system.”

This goal was not clearly formed when the Irish Government felt compelled to pass a legislation issuing a blanket guarantee to safeguard the Irish banks. Quite interesting to read minister for finance the late Brian Lenihan’s speech and the following debate in the Irish Dáil September 30 2008 where the word “taxpayer” figures 46 times. As Lenihan said:

This legislation is not about protecting the interests of the banks; it is about the safeguarding of the economy and everyone who lives and works in this country… The guarantee provided by the State is not intended to insulate the shareholders of these financial institutions from the risks attached to the investments they have made, as much as they may have benefited from significant rewards over the years… The guarantee is not free and the taxpayer who ultimately underwrites this support will be remunerated for the value of the support provided. The terms and conditions on which the guarantee is provided will ensure the taxpayer gets value for money.

Unfortunately, the taxpayer got more burden than value in January 2009 when the Irish Government had to shoulder the bank debt it had guaranteed. Thus began the crippling Irish debt saga. The goal – to avoid using public money – springs from avoiding the repetition of the Irish saga, to avoid transforming bank debt into sovereign debt. It is still too early to tell if Cyprus will be a success – the situation there doesn’t quite look like a success for the moment (but neither did the situation in Iceland in October 2008 resemble a successful beginning).

Although repeatedly asked, Draghi did not give any clear answers regarding the unfortunate intention to collect necessary Cypriot funds by putting a levy on insured depositors. He could only be drawn on admitting that it “was not smart, to say the least, and it was quickly corrected in a Eurogroup teleconference on the next day. But that is what is past.” – Not quite the past since this has now become part of a perceived template for fixing a debt crisis. And although it seems that the idea came from the Cypriot government it is still inexplicable – and unexplained so far – that no one in that room on March 16 saw what Draghi admits “was not smart, to say the least…” – and prevented that idea from being let out in the open.

Politics, not economics, ultimately govern the euro

In spite of all the talk about “Super Mario,” Draghi will know better than most that neither the ECB nor the IMF will save the euro. It is a political task – which is probably one of the reasons why Draghi’s refrain is “within our mandate,” meaning the ECB. And as one-size jeans will never fit all, so one template cannot solve the present crisis in various Eurozone countries.

The banking union in spe is set to provide the much-needed framework to prevent the present situation where debt migrates from the private to the public sector. It will take some resourcefulness to survive the present debt debacle until the nirvana of the integrated approach that “will oversee the safety and stability of the financial system as a whole,” as described in a recent IMF report, is reached.

Maybe it is the general dominance of markets on government policy, which lead so many to conclude that the most likely solutions to the problems, caused by the deadly debt in some Eurozone countries, could be found through clever calculations leading to euro exit. Draghi’s words are a clear reminder that ultimately, the euro is governed more by politics than economics.

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Written by Sigrún Davídsdóttir

April 8th, 2013 at 12:05 am

Posted in Iceland

Time to start reading up on Slovenia?

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Is Slovenia the next Euro-domino to fall? That is a continuously repeated forecast. But what is the outlook and what are the financial facts?

Recently I spoke to a banker familiar with Slovenian banks. He was reasonably optimistic. The new Government seemed to be taking imminent problems quite seriously – but corruption remains a problem, he said.

According to a Eurobarometer 2012 study of perceived corruption in the 27 EU countries Slovenia topped the list of perceived increased corruption: 74% of Slovenian respondents thought the corruption was increasing, with 73% in Cyprus right behind. This bodes ill for Slovenia since a corrupt country might be less likely to taka the necessary but painful initiatives. However, the new Government has already shown some understanding of what is needed. Recent development in Cyprus might also have concentrated its mind.

On February 28 Prime Minister Janez Jansa, a conservative, lost a vote of confidence due to allegations of corruption amid economic gloom. The new PM is the leader of the opposition Alenka Bratusek, a liberal former civil servant. So far, the most serious allegation of corruption brought against Bratusek is that she had plagiarised one page in her PhD thesis – recently a common vice among German politicians. There are many intellectuals in the new Government, i.a. the minister of culture, Jernej Pikalo who since 2006 has been a visiting professor at the University of Bifroest, Iceland, lecturing on globalisation. Consequently, he should be familiar with what has and has not been done in Iceland post-collapse.

Fitch and the IMF on Slovenia

In a note 22 March 2013 from Fitch Ratings the assumption “remains that Slovenia will be able to avoid requesting international financial assistance. Maintaining investor confidence and therefore the ability to borrow in the market on reasonable terms will require the incoming government to finalise and implement legislation on a bad bank solution and state asset management company. Failure to tackle these issues in a timely manner would increase pressure on the ‘A-‘ sovereign rating.” (Emphasis mine in all quotes).

In the Concluding Statement March 18 2013 of the IMF staff visit to Slovenia the summary reads:

A negative loop between financial distress, fiscal consolidation, and weak corporate balance sheets is prolonging the recession. Prompt policy actions are necessary to break this loop and restart the economy. Repairing the financial sector and improving corporate balance sheets is of the essence. The Bank Asset Management Company is an effective way to clean bank balance sheets. Banks should be quickly recapitalized. A clear and coherent plan is key to access international capital markets quickly. Fiscal consolidation should continue to reduce the structural deficit, while letting the automatic stabilizers work. Recent labor market and pension reforms are steps in the right direction.

What needs to be done?

As can be seen above the IMF statement points out that a “negative loop between financial distress, fiscal consolidation, and weak corporate balance sheets is prolonging the recession.”

The numbers do not look promising. “Real GDP declined by 2.3 percent in 2012 as domestic demand shrank severely.” Here, Slovenia is in league with the worst performing countries such as Greece and the forecast for this year is a further contraction by 2%. However, growth is in sight for next year, depending on implementation of promised reforms, continued market access and – most elusive of all – growth in the Eurozone.

Quite promising, Slovenia has already set up the Bank Asset Management Company (BAMC) and a sovereign state holding company. This is the necessary framework to tackle much needed bank restructuring, debt overhang of corporate debt, improved governance and cutting back on state involvement in the economy. If all of this would be pushed in the right direction much could be achieved. Again, this “if” might prove elusive.

Fiscal consolidation, downsized public sector, labour market reform and more friendly attitude towards foreign investors (Slovenians seem even more hostile than Icelanders to foreign ownership in their economy) are all areas that are being worked on and need more.

The sick part of the economy: banks

No surprise here – the banks are under severe distress. That is of course ominous since we have seen banks causing severe problems in a country after country in the Eurozone (and of course beyond, Iceland being a case in point).

The rapid rise in non-performing loans is a sign of danger and distress in the Slovenian banking sector:

The share of nonperforming claims in total classified claims increased from 11.2 percent at the end of 2011 to 14.4 percent in 2012. The three largest banks saw their ratio increase from 15.6 percent to 20.5 percent in the same period with about of their corporate loans non-performing. Meanwhile these banks have repaid the bulk of their debt with foreign private creditors, while increasing reliance on the ECB.

With BAMC the first steps towards a spring-cleaning of balance sheet have been taken but now the brooms and detergents have to be put to a ruthless use. To its relief, the IMF mission notes that international experts have been appointed as non-exec members on the BAMC board.

But the corporate sector – intertwined with banks – is not too healthy either

If the Slovenian corruption is similar to what is coming to light in Cyprus, the danger is that some of these non-performing loans have been given more on grounds of cosy relationships than business rationale, which might then indicate that the collaterals are not water-tight. Again, of course this can be handled professionally if the political powers stay away and the experts are allowed to deal expertly with the problems.

Cross ownership between large corporations, financial holding companies and banks is reminiscent of Iceland pre-collapse. It is a very bad sign indeed. “The debt to equity ratio is among the highest in Europe.” Primitive bankruptcy law make bankruptcy procedures lengthy and are a serious obstacle in dealing with debt. – Hopefully, the new Government gives priority to new bankruptcy legislation since this a mundane but often overlooked problem.

And then there is this:

Viable publicly-owned undercapitalized companies should be recapitalized by the state or attract private capital. However, the mission cautions the authorities against taking actions on debt restructuring or recapitalization that can lead to ineffective use of public funds. Finally, Slovenia has to address corporate governance weaknesses. A Report of Standards and Codes on Corporate Governance by the World Bank and the OECD could help in this respect.

To me this looks like a loud and clear corruption warning without the C-word mentioned.

Funds needed

But even experts cannot be expected to make something out of nothing. The IMF mission points out that transferring bad assets to BAMC is no substitute for real money needed to recapitalise the banks. The three largest ones need around €1bn this year – and if economic conditions deteriorate more might be needed.

Financing requirements are particularly pronounced in summer, with bank recapitalization needed soon and a large 18-month T-bill coming due in June. In all, financing needs for the remainder of the year (excluding the bonds to be issued by the BAMC) could reach some € 3 billion, and possibly more depending on bank recapitalization needs. A large part of this financing need should be met via external borrowing, given banks’ inability to absorb large amounts of government paper, but also to improve the maturity structure of government debt and reduce rollover risk. This highlights the importance of safeguarding market access in the near term.

To give context to the figures above the Slovenian GDP in nominal terms amounted to €35,466m in 2012. The uplifting figure is that debt to GDP was, in 2012, 52.5%.

Over at least 18 months Cyprus had plenty of warnings, its banks were in ECB intensive care for months and yet nothing was done until the patient was almost thrown out of the intensive care, also called “Emergency Liquidity Assistance.”

The key issue is that Slovenia is ok as long as it manages to remain on good terms with the markets – or as long as the markets are keen and willing to be on good terms with Slovenia. And if not… Well, we all know – it ends with an all-night meeting in Brussels, a bail-out at sunrise – or more recently a bail-in – and since that is never enough, it is followed later on by easing of terms and an uncertain future.

But perhaps Slovenia will show that this time it can be different.

*Here is a link from Global Finance to key figures of the Slovenian economy such as GDP, debt, unemployment and all these things that make a nerdy heart beat faster. Here is a link on the economy from the Slovenian Statistical Office.

*Update May 2: here is a Bloomberg article from yesterday when Moody’s cut Slovenia’s rating to junk.

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Written by Sigrún Davídsdóttir

April 2nd, 2013 at 11:05 pm

Posted in Iceland