The Journal has a fantastic story on page one about the devastating impact of the crisis on Iceland. After privatizing its banks a few years ago, they went wild, driving super-charged growth by getting off-shore deposits and leveraging up with huge amounts of debt. Now?
Today, Iceland’s swollen banks are ruined. In the space of a few days, practically the entire banking system has been seized by the government. The largest bank of all, Kaupthing Bank, was seized Thursday, and trading was suspended on the stock exchange until Monday. The krona has ceased functioning as a currency outside Iceland.
Inflation and debt payments are soaring, and trade has been crippled in a country heavily dependent on imports. The U.K. and Netherlands are suing over frozen deposits held by their citizens, while the government is trying to arrange more foreign loans to help stave off national bankruptcy.
The paper says the collapse has the country’s bankers looking back to its historic industry for a livelihood: fishing. One Icelander who stayed in fishing the whole time drop some wisdom:
A real economy needs products to sell, Mr. Leifson says. Banking is “paper money. You can’t do anything with paper money.”
The WSJ surveys economists to find the obvious: the economic “crisis will deepen”!
“We’re in the middle of a very dark tunnel,” said Brian Fabbri of BNP Paribas, referring to the worsening credit crunch. “Each day we see another crack in the system.”
Those cracks are quickly adding up. On average, the 52 economists surveyed now expect U.S. gross domestic product to contract in the third and fourth quarters of this year, as well as the first quarter of 2009.
Check out the accompanying graphic to see how the dismal scientists’ forecasts have fallen off the cliff from month to month.
And if you weren’t concerned about the Wise Men in Washington and their ability to guide us through this mess, Floyd Norris in the NYT says the Fed as recently as three weeks ago was optimistic about the economy.
We should be so lucky as to get sluggish growth for the remainder of 2008. The gross domestic product seems likely to show significant declines, and those declines may continue into 2009.
These guys need to get out of their offices more.
Norris also says the government should “flood” capital directly into the banks to get them lending again—something Treasury Secretary Paulson mentioned he may do this week.
The terms could be arranged so that the government gets a reasonable profit if the bank can pay the money back within five years, and can convert its stake into common stock only if that deadline is not met.
And Norris is also right on here:
“The central bankers all learned the lesson of the 1930s,” said Robert Barbera, the chief economist of ITG, a Wall Street firm. That lesson was that if the choice is between allowing the system to collapse and writing a lot of checks, you write the checks and forget about ideology.
Unfortunately, none of them learned the lesson of the 1920s, which is that when asset prices soar, it is not a good idea to sit around doing nothing, as the Fed did for most of the housing boom. Cheerleading, which it sometimes did, is even worse.
The Times says the troubles in the financial sector are now spreading to the insurance industry (AIG, it says, was considered a unique case because of its unusual exposure to credit-default swaps).
But now a wave of losses is moving throughout the insurance industry, caused by the seize-up of the credit markets and declining investment values.
“Insurance companies tend to focus on high-quality investments,” said Douglas L. Meyer, an insurance analyst at Fitch Ratings. When the declines were mainly in the lower-quality investments, he said, the industry was relatively sheltered from harm.
Now, though, Mr. Meyer said, “the depths of the current credit crunch is starting to affect the high-grade securities, so that’s starting to affect the insurance companies more.”