Saturday, March 07, 2009

Iceland is a hedge fund. That sounds right.

Iceland was entirely new to his experience: a nation of extremely well-to-do (No. 1 in the United Nations’ 2008 Human Development Index), well-educated, historically rational human beings who had organized themselves to commit one of the single greatest acts of madness in financial history. “You have to understand,” he told me, “Iceland is no longer a country. It is a hedge fund.”
Isn't that a wonderful description of Iceland during its go-go-years between 2002 and 2008? That quote was from this lengthy piece in Vanity Fair.

The article seems so surreal--could such things have really happened? How could the global economy have become such a grand ponzi scheme? I mean, take this excerpt, for instance:

On February 3, Tony Shearer, the former C.E.O. of a British merchant bank called Singer and Friedlander, offered a glimpse of the inside, when he appeared before a House of Commons committee to describe his bizarre experience of being acquired by an Icelandic bank.

Singer and Friedlander had been around since 1907 and was famous for, among other things, giving George Soros his start. In November 2003, Shearer learned that Kaupthing, of whose existence he was totally unaware, had just taken a 9.5 percent stake in his bank. Normally, when a bank tries to buy another bank, it seeks to learn something about it. Shearer offered to meet with Kaupthing’s chairman, Sigurdur Einarsson; Einarsson had no interest. (Einarsson declined to be interviewed by Vanity Fair.) When Kaupthing raised its stake to 19.5 percent, Shearer finally flew to Reykjavík to see who on earth these Icelanders were. “They were very different,” he told the House of Commons committee. “They ran their business in a very strange way. Everyone there was incredibly young. They were all from the same community in Reykjavík. And they had no idea what they were doing.”

He examined Kaupthing’s annual reports and discovered some amazing facts: This giant international bank had only one board member who was not Icelandic, for instance. Its directors all had four-year contracts, and the bank had lent them £19 million to buy shares in Kaupthing, along with options to sell those shares back to the bank at a guaranteed profit. Virtually the entire bank’s stated profits were caused by its marking up assets it had bought at inflated prices. “The actual amount of profits that were coming from what I’d call banking was less than 10 percent,” said Shearer.

In a sane world the British regulators would have stopped the new Icelandic financiers from devouring the ancient British merchant bank. Instead, the regulators ignored a letter Shearer wrote to them. A year later, in January 2005, he received a phone call from the British takeover panel. “They wanted to know,” says Shearer, “why our share price had risen so rapidly over the past couple of days. So I laughed and said, ‘I think you’ll find the reason is that Mr. Einarsson, the chairman of Kaupthing, said two days ago, like an idiot, that he was going to make a bid for Singer and Friedlander.’” In August 2005, Singer and Friedlander became Kaupthing Singer and Friedlander, and Shearer quit, he said, out of fear of what might happen to his reputation if he stayed. In October 2008, Kaupthing Singer and Friedlander went bust.

In spite of all this, when Tony Shearer was pressed by the House of Commons to characterize the Icelanders as mere street hustlers, he refused. “They were all highly educated people,” he said in a tone of amazement.

And later this on the foreigners who jumped in:
You didn’t need to be Icelandic to join the cult of the Icelandic banker. German banks put $21 billion into Icelandic banks. The Netherlands gave them $305 million, and Sweden kicked in $400 million. U.K. investors, lured by the eye-popping 14 percent annual returns, forked over $30 billion—$28 billion from companies and individuals and the rest from pension funds, hospitals, universities, and other public institutions. Oxford University alone lost $50 million.
Interestingly enough, the latest issue of the New Yorker also has a piece on Iceland and its financial debacle. I wish the two authors and the two magazines had worked together--because they are so much similar, even in the writing styles! One interesting aspect in the New Yorker article, when it discusses the protests:
From the foot of the statue, Edward Huijbens, a geographer who teaches at the University of Akureyri, in northern Iceland, spoke briefly. In his thirties, he was a neatly Bolshevik figure, wearing a black fur hat, a white shirt, and a dark tie.
More power to geographers :-)

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