We can learn from Iceland's crash – and their recovery

Iceland's PM isn't the only one guilty of ignoring the evidence that a crisis was coming.

Let’s confess, it felt good to see a Prime Minister criminally charged for the financial mismanagement of his country, as happened to Iceland’s Geir Haarde. But it also seems fair that he was convicted only of negligence.

After all, he and his government had full policy cover from mainstream economists like Richard Portes (ex-President of the Royal Economic Society) in the bubbly lead-up to the banking collapse in October 2008. Professors Portes and Baldursson co-authored a November 2007 report for the Icelandic Chamber of Commerce, in which they concluded that:

. . . the Icelandic economy and financial sector are highly resilient. . . With regard to both the macroeconomic situation and the characteristics and performance of the banks, we consider that the current market premium on Icelandic banks is excessive relative to their risk exposure and in comparison with their Nordic peers. . . Overall, the internationalisation of the Icelandic financial sector is a remarkable success story that the markets should better acknowledge.

The authors made similar points in a letter to the Financial Times in July 2008 – just 3 months before the crash!

No wonder then that Mr Haarde argues that

None of us realised at the time that there was something fishy (sic) within the banking system as now appears to have been the case.

Moreover, he added, "nobody predicted that there would be a financial collapse in Iceland."

Well, that last point is not quite true. Many did, like Professor Robert Wade. In my book The Coming First World Debt Crisis (2006) I drew attention to a report by Danske Bank which flashed strong warning lights:

Iceland seems not only to be overheating, but also looks very dependent on the willingness-to-lend of global financial markets. This raises the question of whether the economy is facing not just a recession but also a severe financial crisis.

Yet if Iceland got it all wrong in the lead-up to the October 2008 banking collapse, the country (which still has its own currency) has since done much that is interesting and positive, ignoring or going against the counsel of orthodox economists:

  • Iceland nationalised the domestic parts of its banks, and allowed the non-domestic parts to go bankrupt

  • Iceland looked after its own citizens first, and refused to be bullied by the UK and the Netherlands demanding preferential treatment for non-existent ‘loans’ at usurious rates of interest

  • Iceland’s President responded to popular dissatisfaction with proposed deals with the UK and the Netherlands, by allowing a democratic vote – which confirmed overwhelming opposition

  • Iceland imposed capital controls to stop hot money flows into or out of the country.

  • It gave special protection to home-owners threatened by banks foreclosing.

Despite (because of) all the above, GDP grew by 2.7 per cent in 2011, and unemployment - though high at 6.9 per cent - is far below the current EU average of 10.2 per cent. The IMF’s latest country report (March 2012) states

Iceland’s post-crisis recovery has taken hold. After two years of recession, growth turned positive in 2011, led by domestic demand. The labor market improved, although the unemployment rate remains high… A moderate economic expansion is projected going forward.

So compared with the Eurozone, Iceland is not doing so badly. And compared to Ireland, which has followed very different policies, it’s steaming ahead. Ireland’s GDP rose by 0.7 per cent in 2011, and unemployment is now double Iceland’s at 14.7 per cent. Given that many of Europe’s governments are now run by unaccountable technocrats, the same ones that developed the kind of policies that brought Iceland down, one must congratulate the people of this small country for insisting on the democratic accountability of its political class.

Iceland's former Prime Minister Geir Haarde speaks to the press during his trial. Photograph: Getty Images
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder