Floating Hedge Fund on Ice Thawing Out
These days, pundits continue to talk about how the same financial crisis plaguing Greece and its fellow PIIGS partners (Portugal, Ireland, Italy & Spain) is about to plow through the eurozone and then ultimately the remaining global economy with no mercy. If all the focus is being placed on a diminutive, calamari-eating, Ouzo-drinking society like Greece, whose economy matches the size of Maryland, then why not evaluate an even more miniscule, PIIGS prequel country…Iceland.
That’s right, the same Iceland that just four years ago people were calling a “hedge fund on ice.” You know, that frozen island that had more foreign depositors investing in their banks than people living in the country. Before Icelandic banks became more than 75% of the overall stock market, and Gordon Gekko became the country’s patron saint, Iceland was more known for fishing. The fishing industry accounted for about half of Iceland’s exports, and the next largest money maker may have been Bjork, the country’s famed and quirky female singer.
In looking back at the financial crisis of 2008-2009, as it turned out, Iceland served as a canary in the global debt binging coal mine. In order to attract the masses of depositors to Icelandic banks, these financial institutions offered outrageous, unsustainable interest rates to yield-starved customers. How did the Icelandic bankers offer such high rates? Well of course, it was those can’t-lose American subprime mortgages that were offering what seemed like irresistibly high yields. Of course, what seemed like a dream at the time, eventually turned into a nightmare once the scheme unraveled. Ultimately, it became crystal clear that the subprime borrowers could not pay the outrageous rates, especially after rates unknowingly reset to untenable levels for many borrowers.
At the peak of the crisis, the Icelandic banks were holding amounts of debt exceeding six times the Icelandic GDP (Gross Domestic Product) and these lenders suffered more than $100 billion in losses. One of the Icelandic banks was even funding a large condominium project in my neighboring Southern California city of Beverly Hills. When the excrement hit the fan after Lehman Brothers went bankrupt, it didn’t take long for Iceland’s stock market to collapse by more than -95%; Iceland’s Krona to crumple; and eventually the trigger of Iceland’s multi-billion bailout by numerous constituents, including the IMF (International Monetary Fund).
Bitter Medicine First, Improvement Next
Today, four years after the subprime implosion and Lehman debacle, the hedge fund on ice known as Iceland is beginning to thaw, and their economic picture is looking much brighter (see charts below). GDP growth is the highest it has been in four years (4.5% recently); the stock market has catapulted upwards (almost doubling from the lows); and the Iceland unemployment rate has declined from over 9% a few years ago to about 7% today.
Re-jiggering a phony economy with a faulty facade cannot be repaired overnight. However, now that the banking system has been allowed to clear out its excesses, Iceland can move forward. One tailwind behind the economy has been Iceland’s weaker currency, which has led to a +17% increase in foreign tourist nights at Icelandic hotels through April this year. What’s more, tourist traffic at Iceland’s airport hit a record in May. Iceland has taken its bitter medicine, adjusted, and is currently reaping some of the rewards.
Although the detrimental effects of austerity experienced by the economies and banks of Greece, Spain, and Italy crowd out most of today’s headlines, Iceland is not the only country to make painful changes to its fiscal ways and then taste the sweetness of progress. Let’s not forget the Guinness drinking Irish. Ireland, like Greece, Portugal, and Spain received a bailout, but Ireland’s banking system was arguably worse off than Spain’s, yet Ireland has seen its borrowing costs on its 10-year bond decrease dramatically from 9.2% at the beginning of 2011 to about 7.4% this month (still high, but moving in the right direction). The same can be said for the United States. Our banks were up against the ropes, but after some recapitalization, tighter oversight, and stricter lending standards, our banks have gotten back on track and have helped assist our economy grow for 11 consecutive quarters (albeit at uninspiring growth rates).
The austerity versus growth debate will no doubt continue to circulate through media circles. In my view, these arguments are too simplistic and one dimensional. Every country has its unique culture and distinct challenges, but even countries with massive financial excesses can steer themselves back to a path of growth. A floating hedge fund on ice to the north of us has proven that fact to us, as we witness brighter days beginning to thaw Iceland’s chilly economy to expansion again.
Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®
Plan. Invest. Prosper.
DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients own certain exchange traded funds, but at the time of publishing SCM had no direct position in Lehman Brothers, Guinness, or any other security referenced in this article. No information accessed through the Investing Caffeine (IC) website constitutes investment, financial, legal, tax or other advice nor is to be relied on in making an investment or other decision. Please read disclosure language on IC “Contact” page.