In a matter of 10 days in October 2008, Iceland’s banking system completely collapsed, sending a shock wave through the small island country in the North Atlantic. Yet as fast as the collapse occurred, it should not have come as a surprise to anyone. Its origins were a long time in the making.
There is no simple way to explain the Icelandic banking collapse, but a good starting point is the country’s long-standing support of free trade. Iceland’s economy has always been export-driven, and as such, the government there has promoted free international trade for quite some time. Iceland became a member of the European Free Trade Association (EFTA) in 1970 and a member of the European Economic Area (EEA) in 1994. The EEA allows EFTA countries, like Iceland, to participate in the European single market without joining the European Union.
One of Iceland’s obligations in becoming a member of the EEA was to relinquish state ownership of its banks—no small task as the state owned and controlled two-thirds of the banking sector. The timing of this bank privatization, however, was unfortunate. In the wake of 9/11 and the uncertain financial markets that followed, international banks were not about to invest in state-owned banks in little Iceland. Instead of turning to these international banks, as originally planned, the government decided to sell the stakes to Icelandic investors. In late 2002 and early 2003, controlling interests in two major commercial banks were sold to two groups of Icelandic investors.
In 2002 the size of the Icelandic banking system was less than Iceland’s GDP. By 2008, shortly before the collapse, it had grown to 12 times the country’s GDP.
These transactions would turn out to be a big mistake because the investors had no background in banking and finance. They were simply investors—and speculative ones at that. They soon turned the former state banks, which for some reason still enjoyed strong ratings from the major rating agencies, into their own private financing and co-investing vehicles.
The 9/11 tragedy would continue to impact the Icelandic banking sector even further. The Federal Reserve of the United States and other central banks had responded to the crisis and uncertainties by driving interest rates down to their lowest level in a century and printing money to stave off recession. The Fed was very successful—too successful, many would argue—as the easing policies following 9/11 paved the way for the housing bubble and subsequent liquidity crisis in capital markets that still haunts us.
The Icelandic banks, meanwhile, were rated as if they were still backed by the government, and cheap money was flowing all around. Big banks, like Deutsche Bank, Morgan Stanley and many others, were practically begging the Icelandic banks and their owners to borrow money. In 2002 the size of the Icelandic banking system was less than Iceland’s GDP. By 2008, shortly before the collapse, it had grown to 12 times the country’s GDP.
In the years leading up to 2008, Icelandic banks opened offices and branches abroad. London, Luxembourg, Geneva, New York, Stockholm, Helsinki, Copenhagen—in fact, the whole world—became their playground. The banks acquired banks in other countries and funded acquisitions for Icelandic and international companies, mainly on “High Street” in the United Kingdom (or “Main Street,” as it is known in the United States), but also in Scandinavia and elsewhere. Due to the ready availability of funds there was an equity price bubble in the making on High Street, and Icelandic investors often turned out to be the highest bidders. This scenario was fine as long as the bubble lasted, but once the bubble started leaking air, it turned out to be a curse.
Funding of the Icelandic banks was thin and highly dependent on wholesale. As a result, two of the banks introduced online deposit accounts in major markets (the U.K., the Netherlands, Germany and elsewhere) and were very successful in attracting depositors. Landsbanki operated its Icesave accounts in branches in the U.K. and the Netherlands, while Kaupthing Bank operated its Edge accounts in the U.K. through a subsidiary.
The distinction between branches and subsidiaries became very important in the aftermath of the banking collapse, as subsidiaries are regulated by the host country and thus covered by deposit insurance schemes in the host country. Branches, however, are regulated by the Icelandic Financial Supervisory Authority (FSA) and covered by the Icelandic deposit insurance scheme. The cost of the Icesave deposit insurance alone could end up bankrupting the Icelandic state, as cost per capita could reach $20,000.
Glitnir, the third bank, did not introduce deposit accounts internationally. This meant that Glitnir felt the liquidity squeeze in international capital markets much sooner than the others. Glitnir was facing a refinancing of almost $1 billion in mid-October 2008. After the collapse of Lehman Brothers on Sept. 15, 2008, confidence in financial markets evaporated. Banks stopped doing business with other banks as one could not be certain whether the counterparty would still be around the next day, let alone a month later.
At the end of September, Glitnir went to the Icelandic Central Bank and asked for a loan to cover the refinancing. The Central Bank—against the warning of the whole banking sector, economists and others—refused the loan and recommended instead that the Icelandic government put up the money in exchange for a 75 percent equity stake in Glitnir. The government went with the Central Bank’s recommendation.
There was a problem, however, with this approach. Each share of Glitnir stock, which on Friday, Sept. 26, had been trading at ISK 15.5, was valued at approximately ISK 2, thereby destroying any pricing built into the Icelandic stock market. This move put the pricing of other banks listed on the exchange in jeopardy. Also, to make matters worse, the owners of Glitnir had a billion-dollar loan from Landsbanki secured with their Glitnir stock.
The Glitnir nationalization was announced on Monday, Sept. 29. Immediately the rating agencies downgraded all Icelandic banks and Icelandic sovereign debt as well. In the early hours of Oct. 9, Kaupthing Bank became the last of the large Icelandic commercial banks to fall. The banking system officially had collapsed.
Trying to salvage what they could, the Icelandic government and parliament passed an emergency law, which gave the FSA unprecedented powers to take over and manage Icelandic financial institutions. The British government responded by invoking the anti-terrorism legislation from 2001 to freeze all assets of Landsbanki in the U.K.
The U.K. authorities also used their powers to bring down Singer & Friedlander, Kaupthing Bank’s subsidiary in the U.K., with brute force. This move guaranteed the fall of Kaupthing and was, in the eyes of many, a low blow by the British. On that very same day the British government announced a rescue package for U.K. banks—that is, all banks other than the one owned by an Icelandic bank.
The Icelandic Central Bank failed miserably in maintaining a responsible and stabilizing monetary policy. It brought interest rates up to 15.5 percent in a fight against imaginary inflation. This policy drove up the value of Iceland’s króna, the world’s smallest floating currency, and created an opportunity for carry trade, wherein investors borrowed in low interest rate currencies and invested in króna. This further drove up the value of the króna, resulting in a huge trade imbalance, which in the end caused the króna to collapse even before the banks.
When the monetary policy of the Central Bank is viewed in context, it is difficult not to put the brunt of the blame for the meltdown squarely in the lap of its directors. In fact, chances are anyone could have done better than they did. But, of course, the Central Bank was working under adverse conditions at the time, and it would be unfair to say that one group was more at fault than any other. In reality there was no single, simple reason for the collapse. It was the result of a confluence of unfortunate decisions and circumstances—ones that Icelanders hope will never be duplicated again.