January 1, 2009

The Isle That Rattled the World

The growth of Iceland's banks abroad was astonishing. When they fell, they left a mess to clean up that spills across the globe.

A boy charged to the front of an angry crowd here recently and tossed a carton of skyr, a popular local yogurt-like snack, at the Parliament building. It splattered on the rough-hewn stone.

He and thousands of Icelanders were protesting one of the strangest economic failures of the global financial crisis. This past fall, every bank that matters in this tiny nation -- that is, all three of them -- failed. Iceland's currency, the krona, became worthless beyond its shores. The country's financial system stopped working.

"We are pissed off at the government," said one young man, pausing between fusillades of eggs. A roll of toilet paper arced across the Nordic sky.

Iceland is an extreme casualty of an era in which it became extraordinarily easy to borrow money. But it was more than that: An examination of the nation's banking system, which collapsed over about 10 days this autumn, reveals the degree to which Iceland was one of the international financial bubble's most enthusiastic players. Home to fewer people than Wichita, Kan., Iceland became so leveraged and so deeply intertwined with the global financial infrastructure that its collapse has rattled the world from Tokyo to California to the Middle East.

In Japan and Hong Kong, bond buyers got stuck holding all-but-worthless debt. In Beverly Hills, a real-estate developer was forced to default after teaming up with an Icelandic bank to build condos near Wilshire Boulevard. A German regional lender, Bayerische Landesbank, suffered big losses on its Icelandic investments contributing to its need for a €30 billion ($42 billion) bailout package.

And in recent weeks, Naomi House, a hospice in southern England, had to cancel a service in which aides made house calls to give the parents of dying children a helping hand. Some £5.7 million ($8.7 million) -- two-thirds of its available cash -- is frozen and may never be fully returned. It was deposited in an Icelandic bank.

Khalid Aziz, chairman of the hospice trust, says he didn't think twice back in 2005 when Icelanders bought the local bank. "With the globalization of markets," he says, "everybody owns everything these days, don't they?"

Reindeer, Gooseberries

Until very recently, the 21st century had smiled on Iceland. Last year, it boasted the highest standard of living of any country, according to the United Nations -- outranking the U.S., for all its McMansions and drive-through coffee shops, and Sweden with its government-paid parental leave and other generous social benefits.


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