Iceland refused to socialize the losses of private sector banks, and now everyone’s all in a tizzy about it. I say, good for them:
Prime Minister Johanna Sigurdardottir warns that the vote may trigger “political and economic chaos.” But trying to pay also threatens this. The past year has seen the disastrous experience of Greece, Ireland and now Portugal in taking reckless private sector bank debts onto the public balance sheet. It is hard to expect any sovereign nation to impose a decade or more of deep depression on its economy inasmuch as international law permits every nation to act in its own vital interests.
Attempts by creditors to persuade nations to bail out their banks at public expense thus is ultimately an exercise in public relations. Icelanders have seen how successful Argentina has been since it imposed a crew haircut on its creditors. They also have seen the economic and political disruption in Ireland and Greece resulting from trying to pay beyond their means.
Creditors did not give accurate advice when they told Ireland that it could pay for its bank failures without plunging the economy into depression. Ireland’s experience stands as a warning to other countries about trusting overly optimistic forecasts by central bankers. In Iceland’s case, in November 2008 the IMF staff projected yearend-2009 gross external public and private debt at 160% of GDP – but observed that an exchange rate depreciation of 30% would push the ratio to 240% of GDP, which would be “clearly unsustainable.” But the most recent IMF staff report (January 14, 2011) shows end-2009 gross external debt at 308% of GDP, and estimates end-2010 gross external debt at 333% – even before taking the Icesave and other debts into account!
The main problem with Iceland’s obligation to Britain and the Netherlands is that foreign debt is not paid out of GDP. Apart from what is recovered from Landsbanki (now with the help of Britain’s Serious Fraud Office), the money must be paid in exports. But there has been no negotiation with Britain and Holland over just what Icelandic goods and services these countries would be willing to take in payment. Already in the 1920s, John Maynard Keynes pointed out that the Allied creditor nation had to take some responsibility just how Germany could pay its reparations, if not by exporting more to these countries. In practice, German cities borrowed in New York, turned the dollars over to the Reichsbank, which paid Britain and France, which paid the money back to the U.S. Government for their Inter-Ally Arms debts. In other words, Germany tried to “borrow its way out of debt.” It never works over time.
The normal practice would be for Iceland to appoint a Group of Experts to lay out the strongest possible case. No sovereign nation can be expected to acquiesce in imposing a generation of financial austerity, economic shrinkage and forced emigration of labor to pay for the failed neoliberal experiment that has dragged down so many other European economies.