Haukur Holm – AFP November 5, 2011
Three years after Iceland’s banks collapsed and the country teetered on the brink, its economy is recovering, proof that governments should let failing lenders go bust and protect taxpayers, analysts say.
The North Atlantic island saw its three biggest banks go belly-up in the October 2008 as its overstretched financial sector collapsed under the weight of the global crisis sparked by the crash of US investment giant Lehman Brothers.
The banks became insolvent within a matter of weeks and Reykjavik was forced to let them fail and seek a $2.25 billion bailout from the International Monetary Fund.
After three years of harsh austerity measures, the country’s economy is now showing signs of health despite the current global financial and economic crisis that has Greece verging on default and other eurozone states under pressure.
“The lesson that could be learned from Iceland’s way of handling its crisis is that it is important to shield taxpayers and government finances from bearing the cost of a financial crisis to the extent possible,” Islandsbanki analyst Jon Bjarki Bentsson told AFP.
“Even if our way of dealing with the crisis was not by choice but due to the inability of the government to support the banks back in 2008 due to their size relative to the economy, this has turned out relatively well for us,” Bentsson said.
Iceland’s banking sector had assets worth 11 times the country’s total gross domestic product (GDP) at their peak.
Nobel Prize-winning US economist Paul Krugman echoed Bentsson.
“Where everyone else bailed out the bankers and made the public pay the price, Iceland let the banks go bust and actually expanded its social safety net,” he wrote in a recent commentary in the New York Times.
“Where everyone else was fixated on trying to placate international investors, Iceland imposed temporary controls on the movement of capital to give itself room to maneuver,” he said.
During a visit to Reykjavik last week, Krugman also said Iceland has the krona to thank for its recovery, warning against the notion that adopting the euro can protect against economic imbalances.
“Iceland’s economic rebound shows the advantages of being outside the euro. This notion that by joining the euro you would be safe would come as news to the Spaniards,” he said, referring to one of the key eurozone states struggling to put its public finances in order.
Iceland’s example cannot be directly compared to the dramatic problems currently seen in Greece or Italy, however.
“The big difference between Greece, Italy, etc at the moment and Iceland back in 2008 is that the latter was a banking crisis caused by the collapse of an oversized banking sector while the former is the result of a sovereign debt crisis that has spilled over into the European banking sector,” Bentsson said.
“In Iceland, the government was actually in a sound position debt-wise before the crisis.”
Iceland’s former prime minister Geir Haarde, in power during the 2008 meltdown and currently facing trial over his handling of the crisis, has insisted his government did the right thing early on by letting the banks fail and making creditors carry the losses.
“We saved the country from going bankrupt,” Haarde, 68, told AFP in an interview in July.
“That is evident if you look at our situation now and you compare it to Ireland or not to mention Greece,” he said, adding that the two debt-wracked EU countries “made mistakes that we did not make … We did not guarantee the external debts of the banking system.”
Like Ireland and Latvia, also rescued by international bailout packages and now in recovery, Iceland implemented strict austerity measures and is now reaping the fruits of its efforts.
So much so that its central bank on Wednesday raised its key interest rate by a quarter point to 4.75 percent, in sharp contrast to most other developed countries which have slashed their borrowing costs amid the current crises.
It said economic growth in the first half of 2011 was 2.5 percent and was forecast to be just over 3.0 percent for the year as a whole.
David Stefansson, a research analyst at Arion Bank, told AFP Iceland hiked its rates because it “is in a different place in the economic (cycle) than other countries.
“The central bank thinks that other central banks in similar circumstances can afford to keep interest rates low, and even lower them, because expected inflation abroad is in general quite (a bit) lower,” he said.