Iceland sees the first anti-bailout revolt

Allister Heath
SOMEONE should give Gordon Brown a copy of John Maynard Keynes’ The Economic Consequences of the Peace. Published in 1919, it addressed post-war Germany – but the book is uncannily relevant to the situation in today’s Iceland, explaining how crippling reparations enforced by powerful foreign nations on an unwilling population are counter-productive. Iceland – unlike Weimar Germany – won’t turn to extremism, though an eventual descent into national bankruptcy and hyperinflation is a real possibility, with Fitch yesterday downgrading the country’s debt to junk.

The UK and Dutch governments have been too harsh towards Iceland, to deflect the attention from their own stupidity – and now its people, who fear being pushed into poverty, are revolting. It is the first successful grass-roots anti-tax, anti-bailout revolt since the onset of the credit crunch.

The row boils down to Landsbanki’s Icesave unit, which like the rest of the Icelandic banking system collapsed in 2008. A small group of Icelandic entrepreneurs pushed the crazed Northern Rock banking model to its extreme, borrowing vast amounts to build financial giants with massive European property assets. These were often operated out of London and given the seal of approval by the FSA, academics and “experts”. But when the credit markets imploded, the banks collapsed.

British and Dutch depositors in Icesave were bailed out by their governments; Iceland had said it would cover the first €20,887 in accounts but didn’t have the foreign currency to meet its obligations. It was a worthless promise which should have been seen as such by the UK authorities: tiny nations are physically unable to guarantee all the foreign liabilities of any giant bank that they happen to host. Either they shouldn’t host the banks; or they should explicitly state that they are unprotected and in a real free market; or their banks should take part in pre-funded insurance schemes.

The bankers were incompetent, as were the Icelandic authorities, the UK authorities, the EU and the depositors who didn’t do their research. Egged on by price comparison websites and personal finance pages, the public assumed regulators would ensure every newfangled online bank was safe and forgot that high returns often mean high risk. Instead of acknowledging this, Brown is pursuing a vendetta against Iceland, trying to recoup all of the cash from its government.

Bailouts have been unpopular all over the world. Until now, however, voters were never consulted – but after a fifth of Iceland’s entire population signed a petition against the terms of a proposed £3.6bn reimbursement (at a 5.5 per cent rate of interest and a 14-year schedule) the proposal will now be put to a referendum and crushed. The sums involved are huge: 40-60 per cent of Iceland’s national income, taking the national debt to 200 per cent of GDP. Each of Iceland’s 304,000 citizen would have to pay £11,700 without getting shares or any assets in return. The money would be gone for good. Imagine if UK taxpayers were asked to pay £700bn to overseas governments because one of our banks had messed up. We too would be up in arms.

Iceland will hopefully hand over some money, albeit on more sensible terms. But the last thing we need is for Britain, the IMF and the EU to push Reykjavik into total bankruptcy or nobody will get anything. Shame that Brown, a self-professed Keynesian, has actually failed to heed his master’s warnings.