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Sunday, October 19, 2008

The Great Iceland Meltdown

Tom Friedman wrote on NY Times:

Who knew? Who knew that Iceland was just a hedge fund with glaciers? Who knew?

If you're looking for a single example of how the globalization of finance helped get us into this mess and how it will help get us out, you need look no further than British newspapers last week and their front-page articles about the number of British citizens, municipalities and universities — including Cambridge — that are in a tizzy today because they had savings parked in Icelandic banks, through online banking services like Icesave.co.uk.

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When I went to the Icesave Web site to see what it was all about, the headline read: "Simple, transparent and consistently high-rate online savings accounts from Icesave." But then, underneath in blue letters, I found the following note appended: "We are not currently processing any deposits or any withdrawal requests through our Icesave Internet accounts. We apologize for any inconvenience this may cause our customers."

Any "inconvenience?" When you can't withdraw savings from an online bank in Iceland, that is more than an inconvenience! That's a reason for total panic.

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In a flat world, money can easily seek out the highest returns, and when word got around about Iceland, deposits poured in from Britain — some $1.8 billion. Unfortunately, though, when global credit markets closed up, and the krona fell, "the Icelandic banks were unable to finance their debts, many of which were denominated in foreign currencies," The Times reported. When depositors rushed to get their money out, the Icelandic banking system had too little reserves to cover withdrawals, so all three banks melted down and were nationalized.

It turns out that more than 120 British municipal governments, as well as universities, hospitals and charities had deposits stranded in blocked Icelandic bank accounts. Cambridge alone had about $20 million, while 15 British police forces — from towns like Kent, Surrey, Sussex and Lancashire — had roughly $170 million frozen in Iceland, The Telegraph reported. Even the bobbies were banking in Iceland!

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Globalization giveth — it was this democratization of finance that helped to power the global growth that lifted so many in India, China and Brazil out of poverty in recent decades. Globalization now taketh away — it was this democratization of finance that enabled the U.S. to infect the rest of the world with its toxic mortgages. And now, we have to hope, that globalization will saveth.