Do We Have the Fortitude to Replicate Iceland?

Once poster child of crisis, Iceland recovers

While much of Europe wallows in recession, the economy of this volcanic island in the mid Atlantic is growing at a clip that has surprised many people, thanks to a currency fall – in which the crown lost almost half its value to the euro – an export and tourism boom as well as growing consumer confidence.

“This is probably one of our best years,” said Arnthor Einarsson, a fisherman readying his boat for his next catch as seagulls circle huge piles of fishing nets on a rocky peninsula about one hour south of the capital Reykjavik.

Only a few years ago, a banking boom in which the sector’s assets grew to 10 times the country’s GDP lured many of Iceland’s 320,000 population from traditional industries into the world of finance. Fisherman got into banking and sailors speculated on booming real estate.

Those heady days have gone. Gas-guzzling Land Rovers have been replaced with fuel-efficient Volkswagens, a sign perhaps of a more sober consumer mood in which economic growth is based on a steady expansion of exports rather than flash-in-the-pan speculation.

The wounds that sparked massive street protests against the financial elite are slowly healing. Even the then prime minister has been tried by a special court, closing one chapter.

Granted, there is still a long way to go, but many see Iceland as offering a lesson particularly to European countries such as Greece and Spain, stuck with shrinking economies and lacking the option of devaluing to boost their international competitiveness.

Iceland’s GDP growth estimated at some 2.6 percent this year will outshine even powerhouses like Sweden.

“These are among the highest numbers in Europe,” said Finance Minister Steingrimur Sigfusson. “Sometimes it is easier to turn a small boat around than a big ship.”

Currency depreciation though is only part of the picture.

Capital controls, progressive taxes and a careful phasing-in of austerity measures were also key to getting the country back on track, bringing a more than 10 percent fiscal deficit back to a near balance.

Iceland also did what other parts of Europe haven’t dared to do – let its banks go under. It took some of the cost itself but forced foreign creditors to take the biggest hit.

Lauded by some economists for taking unorthodox measures to fix its broken economy, others see it as a one-off example that would be hard to replicate.

“The lessons don’t transfer directly because of the relative size of the old banks in relation to the economy. What we were left with was quite manageable,” said Jon Bentsson, senior economist at Islandsbanki.

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