By Andrew Pierce
Last Updated: 8:08AM BST 07 Oct 2008
What a difference a year makes. Only last November, Iceland’s status as one of the most successful economies in the West was underlined when it was judged the best place to live in the world.
Iceland had ousted Norway from the head of the UN’s league table of 177 countries that compared per-capita income, education, health care and life expectancy – which, at 80.55 years for males, was third highest in the world.
This was only one in a string of glowing assessments of a country (population 313,000) which had pulled off a modern-day economic miracle. No wonder they are also said to be the happiest people on the planet. The inhabitants of this newly discovered Utopia, with its much-admired free health and education systems, bought the most books, owned most mobile telephones per head, and included the highest proportion of working women in the world.
Iceland had also presided over the fastest expansion of a banking system anywhere in the world. Little did anyone know that the expansion once so admired would go on to saddle the country with liabilities in excess of $100 billion – liabilities that now dwarf its gross domestic product of $14 billion.
Iceland overreached itself in spectacular fashion, and the party is coming to a messy end.
Yesterday, trading in the shares of six major financial institutions was suspended as the government sought to avert meltdown.
Meanwhile, Icelandic interest rates have been catapulted to 15.5 per cent, peaks not seen in Britain since Black Wednesday, in an attempt to rein in inflation. The krona’s freefall on the international currency markets is surpassed only by the catastrophic failure of Zimbabwean currency.
The dramatic change in Iceland, from the poor relation of Europe to one of its wealthiest and apparently most successful, and now back again, dates from the mid-1990s with the privatisation of the banks and the founding of the country’s Stock Exchange.
For decades one of the poorest countries in Europe, Iceland could finally celebrate as the average family’s wealth grew by 45 per cent in five years. GDP accelerated at between four to six per cent a year and the wealth was invested in property that, in turn, fuelled an unsustainable boom in house prices. In the good times, credit companies sprang up offering 100 per cent loans, many in foreign currency such as Japanese yen or Swiss francs. But with the krona in freefall, some loans have doubled in size and thousands are defaulting.
It was almost inevitable that when the international credit crisis unleashed the worst financial tsunami the world had seen since 1929, there was little that Iceland, which disbanded its armed forces 700 years ago, could do to repel the shock waves. Iceland has guaranteed all its savers deposits, but could not extend this guarantee to the hundreds of thousands of British savers who have invested money in their internet savings banks.
The trade unions, meanwhile, are pressing for Iceland to begin talks about becoming part of
the European Union, which the government has been reluctant to join for years. The pension funds have now also agreed to help the Government by selling assets.
It took a while, though, for the penny to drop. As recently as this spring, when questions were being asked about the economy, the country was in denial.
Dagur Eggertsson, a former mayor of Reykjavik, said: "Someone called it ‘bumblebee economics’ because it is hard to figure out how it flies, but it does, and very nicely, too." The bumblebee, though, like the billionaires who thought they could buy up the British high street, is no longer flying high.