NY Times Columnist
The Great Iceland Meltdown
By THOMAS L. FRIEDMAN
Who knew? Who knew that Iceland was just a hedge fund with glaciers? Who knew?
If you’re looking for a single example of how the globalization of finance helped get us into this mess and how it will help get us out, you need look no further than British newspapers last week and their front-page articles about the number of British citizens, municipalities and universities — including Cambridge — that are in a tizzy today because they had savings parked in Icelandic banks, through online banking services like Icesave.co.uk.
As Dave Barry would say, I’m not makin’ this up.
When I went to the Icesave Web site to see what it was all about, the headline read: “Simple, transparent and consistently high-rate online savings accounts from Icesave.” But then, underneath in blue letters, I found the following note appended: “We are not currently processing any deposits or any withdrawal requests through our Icesave Internet accounts. We apologize for any inconvenience this may cause our customers.”
Any “inconvenience?” When you can’t withdraw savings from an online bank in Iceland, that is more than an inconvenience! That’s a reason for total panic.
So what’s the story? Around 2002, Iceland began to free its banks from state ownership. According to The Wall Street Journal, the three banks that make up almost the entire banking system in Iceland “grew quickly on easy credit” and “their combined assets rose tenfold in five years.” The Icelandic banks, while not invested in U.S. subprime mortgages, had gone on their own borrowing and lending binges, wooing savers from across Europe with 5.45 percent interest savings accounts.
In a flat world, money can easily seek out the highest returns, and when word got around about Iceland, deposits poured in from Britain — some $1.8 billion. Unfortunately, though, when global credit markets closed up, and the krona fell, “the Icelandic banks were unable to finance their debts, many of which were denominated in foreign currencies,” The Times reported. When depositors rushed to get their money out, the Icelandic banking system had too little reserves to cover withdrawals, so all three banks melted down and were nationalized.
It turns out that more than 120 British municipal governments, as well as universities, hospitals and charities had deposits stranded in blocked Icelandic bank accounts. Cambridge alone had about $20 million, while 15 British police forces — from towns like Kent, Surrey, Sussex and Lancashire — had roughly $170 million frozen in Iceland, The Telegraph reported. Even the bobbies were banking in Iceland!
So think about it: Some mortgage broker in Los Angeles gives subprime “liar loans” to people who have no credit ratings so they can buy homes in Southern California. Those flimsy mortgages get globalized through the global banking system and, when they go sour, they eventually prompt banks to stop lending, fearful that every other bank’s assets are toxic, too. The credit crunch hits Iceland, which went on its own binge. Meanwhile, the police department of Northumbria, England, had invested some of its extra cash in Iceland, and, now that those accounts are frozen, it may have to reduce street patrols this weekend.
And therein lies the central truth of globalization today: We’re all connected and nobody is in charge.
Globalization giveth — it was this democratization of finance that helped to power the global growth that lifted so many in India, China and Brazil out of poverty in recent decades. Globalization now taketh away — it was this democratization of finance that enabled the U.S. to infect the rest of the world with its toxic mortgages. And now, we have to hope, that globalization will saveth.
The real and sustained bailout from the crisis will happen when the strong companies buy the weak ones — on a global basis. It’s starting. Last week, Credit Suisse declined a Swiss government bailout and instead raised fresh capital from Qatar, the Olayan family of Saudi Arabia and Israel’s Koor Industries. Japan’s Mitsubishi bank bought a stake in Morgan Stanley, possibly rescuing it from bankruptcy and preventing an even steeper decline in the Dow. And Spain’s Banco Santander, which was spared from the worst of this credit crisis by Spain’s conservative banking regulations, is purchasing America’s Sovereign Bankcorp.
I suspect we will soon see the same happening in industry. And, once the smoke clears, I suspect we will find ourselves living in a world of globalization on steroids — a world in which key global economies are more intimately tied together than ever before.
It will be a world in which America will not be able to scratch its ear, let alone roll over in bed, without thinking about the impact on other countries and economies. And it will be a world in which multilateral diplomacy and regulation will no longer be a choice. It will be a reality and a necessity. We are all partners now.