Iceland – When an entire Country goes Bankrupt

Leave a comment

Stunned Icelanders Struggle After Economy’s Fall
By SARAH LYALL
November 9, 2008

REYKJAVIK, Iceland – The collapse came so fast it seemed unreal, impossible. One woman here compared it to being hit by a train. Another said she felt as if she were watching it through a window. Another said, “It feels like you’ve been put in a prison, and you don’t know what you did wrong.”

This country, as modern and sophisticated as it is geographically isolated, still seems to be in shock. But if the events of last month – the failure of Iceland’s banks; the plummeting of its currency; the first wave of layoffs; the loss of reputation abroad – felt like a bad dream, Iceland has now awakened to find that it is all coming true.

It is not as if Reykjavik, where about two-thirds of the country’s 300,000 people live, is filled with bread lines or homeless shanties or looters smashing store windows. But this city, until recently the center of one of the world’s fastest economic booms, is now the unhappy site of one of its great crashes. It is impossible to meet anyone here who has not been profoundly affected by the financial crisis.

Overnight, people lost their savings. Prices are soaring. Once-crowded restaurants are almost empty. Banks are rationing foreign currency, and companies are finding it dauntingly difficult to do business abroad. Inflation is at 16 percent and rising. People have stopped traveling overseas. The local currency, the krona, was 65 to the dollar a year ago; now it is 130. Companies are slashing salaries, reducing workers’ hours and, in some instances, embarking on mass layoffs.

“No country has ever crashed as quickly and as badly in peacetime,” said Jon Danielsson, an economist with the London School of Economics.

The loss goes beyond the personal, shattering a proud country’s sense of itself.

“Years ago, I would say that I was Icelandic and people might say, ‘Oh, where’s that?’ ” said Katrin Runolfsdottir, 49, who was fired from her secretarial job on Oct. 31. “That was fine. But now there’s this image of us being overspenders, thieves.”

Aldis Nordfjord, a 53-year-old architect, also lost her job last month. So did all 44 of her co-workers – everyone in the company except its owners. As many as 75 percent of Iceland’s private-sector architects have probably been fired in the past few weeks, she said.

In a strange way, she said, it is comforting to be one in a crowd. “Everyone is in the same situation,” she said. “If you can imagine, if only 10 out of 40 people had been fired, it would have been different; you would have felt, ‘Why me? Why not him?’ ”

Until last spring, Iceland’s economy seemed white-hot. It had the fourth-highest gross domestic product per capita in the world. Unemployment hovered between 0 and 1 percent (while forecasts for next spring are as high as 10 percent). A 2007 United Nations report measuring life expectancy, real per-capita income and educational levels identified Iceland as the world’s best country in which to live.

Emboldened by the strong krona, once-frugal Icelanders took regular shopping weekends in Europe, bought fancy cars and built bigger houses paid for with low-interest loans in foreign currencies.

Like the Vikings of old, Icelandic bankers were roaming the world and aggressively seizing business, pumping debt into a soufflé of a system. The banks are the ones that cannot repay tens of billions of dollars in foreign debt, and “they’re the ones who ruined our reputation,” said Adalheidur Hedinsdottir, who runs a small chain of coffee shops called Kaffitar and sells coffee wholesale to stores.

There was so much work, employers had to import workers from abroad. Ms. Nordfjord, the architect, worked so much overtime last year that she doubled her salary. She was featured on a Swedish radio program as an expert on Iceland’s extraordinary building boom.

Two months ago, her company canceled all overtime. Two weeks ago, it acknowledged that work was slowing. But it promised that there would be enough to last through next summer.

The next day, everyone was herded into a conference room and fired.

Employers are hurting just as much as employees. Ms. Hedinsdottir has laid off seven part-time employees, cut full-time workers’ hours and raised prices. The Kaffitar branch on Reykjavik’s central shopping street was perhaps half full; in normal times, it would have been bursting at its seams.

While business is dwindling, costs are soaring. When the government took over the country’s failing banks in October, Ms. Hedinsdottir’s latest shipment of coffee – more than 109,000 pounds – was already on the water, en route from Nicaragua. She had the money to pay for it, but because the crisis made foreign banks leery of doing business with Iceland, she said, she was unable to convert enough cash into foreign currency.

“They were calling me every day and asking me what the situation was, and they got really nervous,” Ms. Hedinsdottir said of her creditors. They got so nervous that they sent the coffee to a warehouse in Hamburg, Germany, where it now sits while she tries to find the foreign currency to pay for it.

Her fixed costs are no longer fixed. Five years ago, the company built a new factory, borrowing the 120 million kronur – about $1.5 million – in foreign currencies. But the currency’s fall has increased her debt to 200 million kronur. This summer, her monthly payments were 2.5 million kronur; now they may be double that – the equivalent of $38,500 in Iceland’s debased currency.

“My financial manager is talking to the banks every day, and we don’t know how much we’re supposed to pay,” Ms. Hedinsdottir said.

In a recent survey, one-third of Icelanders said they would consider emigrating. Foreigners are already abandoning Iceland.

Anthony Restivo, an American who worked this fall for a potato farm in eastern Iceland and was heading home, said all of the farm’s foreign workers abruptly left last month because their salaries had fallen so much. One man arrived from Poland, he said, then realized how little the krona was worth and went home the next day.

At the Kringlan shopping center on the edge of Reykjavik, Hronn Helgadottir, who works at the Aveda beauty store, said she could no longer afford to travel abroad. But the previous weekend, she said, she and her husband had gone for a last trip to Amsterdam, a holiday they had paid for months ago, when the krona was still strong.

They ate as cheaply as they could and bought nothing. “It was strange to stand in a store and look at a bag or a pair of shoes and see that they cost 100,000 kronur, when last year they cost only 40,000,” she said.

In Kopavogur, a suburb of Reykjavik, Ms. Runolfsdottir, the recently fired secretary, said she had worried for some time that Iceland would collapse under the weight of inflated expectations.

“If you drive through Reykjavik, you see all these new houses, and I’ve been thinking for the longest time, ‘Where are we going to get people to live in all these homes?'” she said.

The real estate firm that used to employ Ms. Runolfsdottir built about 800 houses two years ago, she said; only 40 percent have been sold.

By Icelandic law, Ms. Runolfsdottir and other fired employees have three months before they have to leave their jobs. At the end of that period, she will start drawing unemployment benefits.

Meanwhile, her husband’s modest investment in several now-failed Icelandic banks is worthless. “They were encouraging us to buy shares in their firms until the last minute,” she said.

She feels angry at the government, which in her view has mishandled everything, and angry at the banks that have tarnished Iceland’s reputation. And while she has every sympathy with the hundreds of thousands of foreign depositors who may have lost their money, she wonders why the Icelandic government – and, in essence, the Icelandic people – should have to suffer more than they already have.

“We didn’t ask anyone to put their money in the banks,” she said. “These are private companies and private banks, and they went abroad and did business there.”

Despite all this, Icelanders are naturally optimistic, a trait born, perhaps, of living in one of the world’s most punishing landscapes and depending for so much of their history on the fickle fishing industry. The weak krona will make exports more attractive, they point out. Also, Iceland has a highly educated, young and flexible population, and has triumphed after hardship before.

Ragna Sara Jonsdottir, who runs a small business consultancy, said she had met for the first time with other businesses in her office building. “We sat down and said, ‘We all have ideas, and we can help each other through difficult times,’ ” she said.

But she said she was just as shocked as everyone else by the suddenness, and the severity, of the downturn. When the prime minister, Geir H. Haarde, addressed the nation at the beginning of October, she said, her 6-year-old daughter asked her to explain what he had said.

She answered that there was a crisis, but that the prime minister had not told the country how the government planned to address it. Her daughter said, “Maybe he didn’t know what to say.”

Advertisements

How to Steal Money from the Stock Markets

1 Comment

Revealed: the dirty tricks of rogue traders
By Robert Winnett, The Daily Telegraph 3/21/08

A hedge fund based in London set up a “dirty-tricks unit” to manipulate share prices and get illicit information on companies in an attempt to make millions on the stock market, an insider has revealed.

  • Jeff Randall: Rumour Mill mafia is destroying our savings
  • Leader: HBOS mugging shows that crime pays
  • Email and Singapore call causes City frenzy
  • As the official hunt began for the rogue traders who tried to bring down Britain’s biggest mortgage lender, HBOS, The Daily Telegraph can reveal a whistle-blower’s account of how a multi-billion pound fund allegedly used illegal tactics to drive down stock prices.

    the dirty tricks of rogue traders

    Wanted: the trader who allegedly made £100m from the 17 per cent slump in HBOS shares
    Private detectives were allegedly employed to hack into executives’ emails and telephone records.

    Front companies were set up to allow the hedge fund traders to pose as independent researchers or journalists.

    Negative information on companies was then distributed to leading investment banks in the hope that rumours would spread and some share prices would fall.

    The hedge fund, which cannot be named for legal reasons, stood to make millions from “short-selling” the shares as they fell in value.

    The allegations – made in a sworn statement seen by The Daily Telegraph and which has been sent to financial regulators – will add to growing concern over the activities of rogue traders in the City.

    The Financial Services Authority, the City regulator, has begun a criminal investigation to find the trader who allegedly made £100 million from the 17 per cent slump in HBOS shares on Wednesday.

    white collar crimes pays big

    The shares fell after “malicious” rumours were spread in the City about the bank, sparking fears that the price had been illegally manipulated – a move described as “the modern day version of bank robbery”.

    FSA investigators are seeking emails sent to traders that are thought to have prompted widespread selling of HBOS shares. They claimed the bank was experiencing difficulties.

    advertisementIt has emerged that the rumours are thought to have originated in the Far East, with Singapore named as the most likely source. Nick Leeson, the notorious rogue trader responsible for the collapse of Barings Bank, also operated in Singapore.

    In a separate development, Credit Suisse, the investment bank, admitted that it had uncovered a separate £1.4 billion share-dealing scam by rogue traders – many of whom were based in London – who were trying to protect their bonuses.

    The Credit Suisse traders are understood to have sought to cover up their trading losses at the end of last year.

  • Shadows who move markets | What is short-selling?
  • London traders sacked in £1.4bn Swiss bank fraud
  • The revelations follow a week of turmoil in the global markets after the near collapse of the American investment bank Bear Stearns.

    Following a meeting with the major banks, it emerged that the Bank of England was considering helping to alleviate the financial crisis by easing the restrictions on banks seeking to borrow money from it.

    The accusations about the hedge fund form the most detailed account yet of the illicit activity carried out by the London office of a major international hedge fund. Such tactics are also thought to be used by other hedge funds.

    The sworn statement containing the allegations is understood to have been sent to the FSA last year although it is not known what action the regulator took.

    The document alleges that:

    – Employees of the hedge fund ordered an American-based private detective to hack into the corporate email systems of two firms in which the hedge fund had an interest

    – A bogus firm — with a phoney internet address — was established to allow employees to pose as independent researchers and approach company executives to garner information on their firms’ future financial prospects. The firm was also used to gain access to industry conferences.

    – A false website — with a bogus address — was also registered to allow hedge fund traders to pose as journalists. The offices of American politicians were approached by people claiming to be journalists to obtain information about potential new laws banning internet gambling that would hit British firms.

    – Jurors and their families in a sensitive legal case into whether a firm had exclusive patent rights in which the hedge fund had invested were “tapped up”. Money was allegedly paid to jurors’ families for information about jury-room deliberations.
    advertisement

    ? – Hedge fund staff gathered “sensitive” negative information on firms in which they had an interest in the share price falling. This information was distributed to leading investment banks whose experts were encouraged to take a dim view of the prospects of the company’s shares. A German “media consultant” was also used to disseminate information.

    – A safe containing large amounts of cash was installed in the hedge fund’s office. Money was paid to “sources” providing valuable inside information. On one occasion, an anonymous informant was paid $50,000.

    The hedge fund at the centre of the allegations has offices in London’s West End and traders spent their staff Christmas party on a luxury cruise.

    It was set up by former senior executives from a blue-chip investment firm. However, from 2005, the “dirty-tricks unit” was staffed by former corporate investigators and investigative journalists hired from newspapers.

    Pressure is growing on the FSA to clamp down on the worst excesses of the hedge fund industry after a series of scandals culminating in the attempt this week to start a run on HBOS.

    The hedge fund “dirty tricks unit” exposed today was set up in London but operated around the world. It is alleged that this was to avoid tougher regulatory controls in New York.

    On Thursday, Britain’s biggest banks met with the Bank of England to urge them to loan more money to help alleviate the impact of the global credit crunch.

    The Bank, which agreed to some of the demands, released another £5?billion for the money markets. The stock market, which dropped slightly, is now closed until Tuesday.

    HBOS shares recovered on Thursday, closing up more than six per cent.

    the audacity of hope