Now Ireland and Portugal wish they too had got tough with the markets
* Aditya Chakrabortty
o The Guardian, Tuesday 12 April 2011
Remember Iceland? In the autumn of 2008, it became the first national casualty of the financial meltdown; the first rich country in more than three decades to take an IMF bailout. Commentators declared it the Icarus economy, which had finally come crashing back down to earth. It became both parable and laughing stock. What's the difference between Iceland and Ireland, joked traders – one letter and a few months.
You don't hear much about the insolvent island any more – apart from occasions such as this weekend, when Icelandic voters were asked to repay the £3.5bn owing on collapsed bank Icesave, and replied with a firm "Nei".
Unnoticed it may be, but Reykjavik now serves as a very different kind of parable, of how to minimise the misery of financial collapse by ignoring economic orthodoxy. And in those other broke European economies – from Dublin to Athens to Lisbon – politicians and voters are starting to pay attention. After its three biggest banks – 85% of the country's financial system – failed in the same week, Iceland did two remarkable things. First, it let the banks go under: foreign financiers who had lent to Reykjavik institutions at their own risk didn't get a single krona back. Second, officials imposed capital controls, making it harder for hot-money merchants to pull their cash out of the country.
These policies were not just controversial; they represented a two-fingered salute to the polite society of academics and policy-makers who normally lay down the laws on economic disaster management.
Compare Iceland's policies with those followed by another tiny country in the North Atlantic, which also has a banking industry much bigger than its national economy. When the credit crunch came to Dublin, the government decided to underwrite the entire banking industry – including tens of billions of euros of loans made by foreign investors. That landed the country with a debt worth something like €80,000 for every household – a debt that effectively bankrupted the country.
"A reverse Robin Hood – taking money from the poor and giving to the rich," is how Anne Sibert, a member of the Central Bank of Iceland's monetary policy committee, describes the Irish policy. But Dublin was merely following the old free-market tradition that rules governments should never break faith with financiers.
Yet looking at the two countries now, it's hard to say that Ireland has prospered out of being orthodox, or that Iceland has suffered an especially terrible punishment for not sticking to the Way of the Markets.
Indeed, the evidence seems to point the opposite way: Iceland has come through in better condition than anyone in 2008 dared hope. The worst of its recession is over, even though it's still too early to talk about sustained growth, and the unemployment rate (7.5%) is just over half that of Ireland (13.6%). Remarkably, after the krona lost more than half its face value, inflation is also coming down quite sharply. And without having to pay back foreign creditors, the government's finances are also in better shape. In Ireland, on the other hand, the government has just injected more money into its banking sector – the fifth time it has had to do so.
Now, this is a picture that needs more qualifications than a brain surgeon. For a start, you wouldn't wish Iceland's fate on any economy. Huge spending cuts are still to kick in, and a lot more pain is in store. Thor Gylfason, an economist at the University of Iceland, reckons it will take another seven to 10 years before his country recovers from one of the worst economic disasters in recent history. This will be a long, slow haul.
But landed with an almost unbearable burden, Iceland has made the load easier on itself – and it has done so by getting tough with foreign speculators who lent money to the country at their own risk. In Dublin, on the other hand, as Irish MP Stephen Donnelly puts it, "the entire Irish people were made collateral for the banking system" – and its economic performance has not been remarkably better. More than that, there is a basic point about fairness: in Ireland, keeping the markets on side was deemed to be more important than keeping people in jobs – in Iceland, the priorities have been reversed.
Donnelly says that the Icelandic example is beginning to attract interest in the Dáil and in the media. An Icelandic politician was recently interviewed by Vincent Browne, the Irish equivalent of Jeremy Paxman. In the bust countries of southern Europe they're also starting to take notice. Last week, on the day that Portugal finally admitted it would need a bailout from Brussels, I was talking to Joana Gorjão Henriques, a journalist from Lisbon. She told me that her contacts were pasting stories about Iceland on Facebook, and that newspaper columnists were using Iceland's case as an example that Portugal, Greece and Ireland should follow – make an allegiance and say to the EU that they won't pay the debt.
There are echoes here of the Asian financial crisis of the late 90s. Then Malaysia's prime minister Mahathir Mohamad brought in capital controls to shore up a battered financial system – and he was pilloried from Washington to Wall Street. Nobel laureates in economics predicted imminent catastrophe for Malaysia; the International Monetary Fund effectively told Mohamad off. But the year after, Malaysia began a strong economic recovery, and now the IMF issues papers on the usefulness of capital controls.
Iceland was a country wrecked by implementing free-market dogma crudely and quickly; it may yet became another such lesson of how an economy can ignore free-market dogma – and come out far better than its critics predicted.