Iceland – When an entire Country goes Bankrupt

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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.”

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China and India lose their appeal for investors on inflation fears

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Fund managers are still super-bullish on Russia, betting that the energy boom has life yet. A net 62pc are overweight oil and gas shares. The most hated trio are travel and leisure (-66), banks (-62) and property (-60).

Karen Olney, Merrill’s European equity strategist, said oil is nearing its cycle peak. “Is the trade too crowded? Probably. As long as fundamentals remain strong, we retain our overweight stance,” she said.

“The burning question is when to sell oil companies and move back to banks.

“We resist the temptation. The time is nearer when inflation rolls over, towards the end of this year and certainly into 2009.”

A record number (net 29pc) are now underweight on European equities; many have switched into cash as they wait for the European Central Bank to inflict punishment – ever more likely after eurozone inflation reached an all-time high of 3.7pc in May.

The ECB’s chief economist, Jurgen Stark, said yesterday that the price spike was a “cause for alarm”.

Mr Bowers said Europe is now facing a triple whammy as the downturn in global export markets combines with a strong euro and a monetary squeeze.

“Eurozone retail sales have been worse than in the US on a year-on-year basis and eurozone GDP growth has also been worse,” he said. “If you look at Spain and Italy, and even France, they are very weak.

“The Fed has eased dramatically, but the ECB hasn’t eased at all. It intends to tighten regardless of the consequences on growth. This is what is eating away at confidence in Europe,” he said.

Merrill Lynch said fund managers were belatedly adapting to a global inflation shock that poses a serious danger to asset prices, and risks setting off “civil protest” in Argentina, Indonesia, South Africa and the Gulf states.

As the new story unfolds, America is coming back into favour, emerging as a sort of safe haven in a fast-changing world where trusted institutions command a premium. Investors are quietly rotating back into Wall Street – despite a chorus of pessimists. A net 23pc are overweight US equities, the highest since August 2001.

The long awaited “decoupling” has begun.

The United States looks like the winner after all.

RBS issues global stock and credit crash alert

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By Ambrose Evans-Pritchard, International Business Editor

The Royal Bank of Scotland has advised clients to brace for a full-fledged crash in global stock and credit markets over the next three months as inflation paralyses the major central banks.

“A very nasty period is soon to be upon us – be prepared,” said Bob Janjuah, the bank’s credit strategist.

A report by the bank’s research team warns that the S&P 500 index of Wall Street equities is likely to fall by more than 300 points to around 1050 by September as “all the chickens come home to roost” from the excesses of the global boom, with contagion spreading across Europe and emerging markets.

Such a slide on world bourses would amount to one of the worst bear markets over the last century.

RBS said the iTraxx index of high-grade corporate bonds could soar to 130/150 while the “Crossover” index of lower grade corporate bonds could reach 650/700 in a renewed bout of panic on the debt markets.

“I do not think I can be much blunter. If you have to be in credit, focus on quality, short durations, non-cyclical defensive names.

“Cash is the key safe haven. This is about not losing your money, and not losing your job,” said Mr Janjuah, who became a City star after his grim warnings last year about the credit crisis proved all too accurate.

RBS expects Wall Street to rally a little further into early July before short-lived momentum from America’s fiscal boost begins to fizzle out, and the delayed effects of the oil spike inflict their damage.

“Globalisation was always going to risk putting G7 bankers into a dangerous corner at some point. We have got to that point,” he said.

US Federal Reserve and the European Central Bank both face a Hobson’s choice as workers start to lose their jobs in earnest and lenders cut off credit.

The authorities cannot respond with easy money because oil and food costs continue to push headline inflation to levels that are unsettling the markets. “The ugly spoiler is that we may need to see much lower global growth in order to get lower inflation,” he said.

“The Fed is in panic mode. The massive credibility chasms down which the Fed and maybe even the ECB will plummet when they fail to hike rates in the face of higher inflation will combine to give us a big sell-off in risky assets,” he said.

Kit Jukes, RBS’s head of debt markets, said Europe would not be immune. “Economic weakness is spreading and the latest data on consumer demand and confidence are dire. The ECB is hell-bent on raising rates.

“The political fall-out could be substantial as finance ministers from the weaker economies rail at the ECB. Wider spreads between the German Bunds and peripheral markets seem assured,” he said.

Ultimately, the bank expects the oil price spike to subside as the more powerful force of debt deflation takes hold next year.

America’s Dirty Little Secret – We are Bankrupt!

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David Walker, the Comptroller General of the United States proclaims that our current standard of living is unsustainable unless drastic action is taken. He warns that funding shortfalls for the Medicare program is five times worse than Social Security, and it will take $8 TRILLION to pay for what is promised today to beneficiaries, of which we have ZERO!

This unrealistic “promise” is fiscally irresponsible and is mortgaging the futures of our children and grandchildren.

Watch as the federal government’s dirty little secret is revealed!

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The the United States Top Accountant, the person who monitors and US Budget and Spending. And he is the one raising the alarm bells!

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Even CNN, seems to be reporting part of the truth for a change – American has got nada – no mo money – bankrupt – in debt! Why does it take so much effort to wake up Americans from their slumber? Zombies would have an easier time understanding the facts.

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Learn who REALLY controls the U.S.Dollar and how these people are destroying America by design. The Federal Reserve Bank is neither Federal nor a Reserve nor a real Bank. Owned by a corrupt group of International Bankers, it is a privately owned monopoly, largely responsible for creating America’s National Debt. It is also a parasitic and unnecessary entity that literally creates American currency out of nothing and then collects interest on the backs of taxpayers for doing so.

Ever wondered why we keep trying to guess “Fed Speak”? Why are politicians elected to represent the people guessing and begging a private banker if he will or will not raise interest rates?

Read the full story, on Wikipedia;

Some believe the Federal Reserve System is shrouded in what its critics call excessive secrecy. Meetings of some components of the Fed are held behind closed doors, and the transcripts are released with a lag of five years.[69] Even expert policy analysts are unsure about the logic behind Fed decisions.[70] Critics argue that such opacity leads to greater market volatility, because the markets must guess, often with only limited information, about how the Fed is likely to change policy in the future. The jargon-laden fence-sitting opaque style of Fed communication, especially under the previous Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan, has often been called “Fed speak.”[70]