The world’s economy has not truly recovered from the recession, it has just been artificially reanimated by vast injections of Government bailout money. Capitalism has been rescued by good old fashioned Socialist Big Government, and the bill is being sent to we the taxpayers. What if we decided not to pay? The people of Iceland just said “No”.
The background is complicated (Wikipedia has a good summary). When Iceland’s economy collapsed in 2008-2009 their three main commercial banks failed. 400,000 “Icebank” customers in the UK and the Netherlands were bailed out by their governments under a deposit insurance scheme, and Iceland ended up 3.8bn euros in debt to those countries. With a population a little over 300,000 that’s about 12,000 euros (over NZD 23,000) per person.
Understandably this is a huge political issue in Iceland. The attitude of the average citizen is – why should we pay for the stupid, and often criminal mistakes of financial speculators. (“Public outrage has been brought to a peak by the fact that there are now 43 cases of alleged criminal activity under investigation in connection with the country’s scandal-hit financial institutions”). So in a referendum on March 6th, 93% percent of voters opted not to repay. This is an international bombshell:
British fury after Iceland blocks £2.3bn repayment
Iceland’s president stunned his nation yesterday by refusing to sign off on a plan to repay £2.3bn owed to the British taxpayer, reigniting a major diplomatic row with London and leaving Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling mortally embarrassed at the latest twist in the saga of Reykjavik’s banking meltdown.
Where the people of Iceland have led, will others follow?
On Saturday Icelanders became the world’s first rebels against the idea of clearing up after the mess made by a reckless private bank. This popular insurrection has been watched anxiously by the governments in Greece, Ireland, eastern Europe and even Britain concerned that this defiance could become contagious.
This highlights the fundamental weakness of the world economy. Once nations start defaulting on “sovereign debt”, the whole house of cards could come tumbling down. Most commentators pick Greece as the next crisis point:
The Greek prime minister George Papandreou is embarking on a whirlwind tour of western capitals to drum up support for his crisis-stricken country. Beginning today in Berlin, where he will meet the German chancellor Angela Merkel, before travelling on to Paris and Washington DC for talks with presidents Sarkozy and Obama, Papandreou’s diplomatic offensive will determine whether Greece can secure help from its fellow eurozone members or whether the IMF will eventually be called in. What’s at stake is no longer just Greece’s creditworthiness, but also Europe’s credibility.
Whether the inevitable is temporarily delayed by another round of bailouts or not, eventually the bill will arrive, and people will be faced with the same decisions faced by Iceland. If Greece defaults, the consequences are huge:
Greek tragedy may be dress rehearsal for bigger crisis
In December I noted that if Greece was left to default on its bonds (without a bailout) this would lead to skyrocketing interest rates on Irish, Italian, Spanish and Portuguese debt followed by a nightmare domino-effect sovereign debt collapse/national bankruptcies across the entire eurozone. Carl Heinz Daube, the head of German’s debt agency Finanzagentur told the Euromoney bond congress in London that “if one member of the eurozone were to step out for any reason, this would be a collapse of the entire system.”
What Daube failed to mention, however, is an even more serious issue: Greece, by any means, only represents the tip of the iceberg of what is a much wider sovereign debt crisis that could soon catch fire across most of mainland Europe, Britain and the United States. So, with or without a bailout of bankrupt Greece, the same fate could soon befall other too-large-to-bail nations.
It began in Athens. It is spreading to Lisbon and Madrid. But it would be a grave mistake to assume that the sovereign debt crisis that is unfolding will remain confined to the weaker eurozone economies. For this is more than just a Mediterranean problem with a farmyard acronym. It is a fiscal crisis of the western world. Its ramifications are far more profound than most investors currently appreciate.
Will the people of Greece see Iceland as a precedent and a role model? If Greece defaults, brace yourselves for a “sovereign debt crisis that could soon catch fire across most of mainland Europe, Britain and the United States”. The next crash will make the recent recession look like child’s play.