Vanity Fair: Wall Street on the Tundra – A must read!

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Just after October 6, 2008, when Iceland effectively went bust, I spoke to a man at the International Monetary Fund who had been flown in to Reykjavík to determine if money might responsibly be lent to such a spectacularly bankrupt nation. He’d never been to Iceland, knew nothing about the place, and said he needed a map to find it. He has spent his life dealing with famously distressed countries, usually in Africa, perpetually in one kind of financial trouble or another. Iceland was entirely new to his experience: a nation of extremely well-to-do (No. 1 in the United Nations’ 2008 Human Development Index), well-educated, historically rational human beings who had organized themselves to commit one of the single greatest acts of madness in financial history. “You have to understand,” he told me, “Iceland is no longer a country. It is a hedge fund.”

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Nor were the Icelanders particularly choosy about what they bought. I spoke with a hedge fund in New York that, in late 2006, spotted what it took to be an easy mark: a weak Scandinavian bank getting weaker. It established a short position, and then, out of nowhere, came Kaupthing to take a 10 percent stake in this soon-to-be defunct enterprise—driving up the share price to absurd levels. I spoke to another hedge fund in London so perplexed by the many bad LBOs Icelandic banks were financing that it hired private investigators to figure out what was going on in the Icelandic financial system. The investigators produced a chart detailing a byzantine web of interlinked entities that boiled down to this: A handful of guys in Iceland, who had no experience of finance, were taking out tens of billions of dollars in short-term loans from abroad. They were then re-lending this money to themselves and their friends to buy assets—the banks, soccer teams, etc. Since the entire world’s assets were rising—thanks in part to people like these Icelandic lunatics paying crazy prices for them—they appeared to be making money. Yet another hedge-fund manager explained Icelandic banking to me this way: You have a dog, and I have a cat. We agree that they are each worth a billion dollars. You sell me the dog for a billion, and I sell you the cat for a billion. Now we are no longer pet owners, but Icelandic banks, with a billion dollars in new assets. “They created fake capital by trading assets amongst themselves at inflated values,” says a London hedge-fund manager. “This was how the banks and investment companies grew and grew. But they were lightweights in the international markets.”

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He examined Kaupthing’s annual reports and discovered some amazing facts: This giant international bank had only one board member who was not Icelandic, for instance. Its directors all had four-year contracts, and the bank had lent them £19 million to buy shares in Kaupthing, along with options to sell those shares back to the bank at a guaranteed profit. Virtually the entire bank’s stated profits were caused by its marking up assets it had bought at inflated prices. “The actual amount of profits that were coming from what I’d call banking was less than 10 percent,” said Shearer.

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Maybe because there are so few Icelanders in the world, we know next to nothing about them. We assume they are more or less Scandinavian—a gentle people who just want everyone to have the same amount of everything. They are not. They have a feral streak in them, like a horse that’s just pretending to be broken.

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There’s a charming lack of financial experience in Icelandic financial-policymaking circles. The minister for business affairs is a philosopher. The finance minister is a veterinarian. The Central Bank governor is a poet. Haarde, though, is a trained economist—just not a very good one. The economics department at the University of Iceland has him pegged as a B-minus student. As a group, the Independence Party’s leaders have a reputation for not knowing much about finance and for refusing to avail themselves of experts who do. An Icelandic professor at the London School of Economics named Jon Danielsson, who specializes in financial panics, has had his offer to help spurned; so have several well-known financial economists at the University of Iceland. Even the advice of really smart central bankers from seriously big countries went ignored. It’s not hard to see why the Independence Party and its prime minister fail to appeal to Icelandic women: they are the guy driving his family around in search of some familiar landmark and refusing, over his wife’s complaints, to stop and ask directions.

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The other, more serious problem was the Icelandic male: he took more safety risks than aluminum workers in other nations did. “In manufacturing,” says the spokesman, “you want people who follow the rules and fall in line. You don’t want them to be heroes. You don’t want them to try to fix something it’s not their job to fix, because they might blow up the place.” The Icelandic male had a propensity to try to fix something it wasn’t his job to fix.

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“I had a crew of Russians once,” he says, “and it wasn’t that they were lazy, but the Russians are always at the same pace.” When a storm struck, the Russians would stop fishing, because it was too dangerous. “The Icelanders would fish in all conditions,” says Stefan, “fish until it is impossible to fish. They like to take the risks. If you go overboard, the probabilities are not in your favor. I’m 33, and I already have two friends who have died at sea.”

From Vanity Fair

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1 Response to “Vanity Fair: Wall Street on the Tundra – A must read!”


  1. 1 Roy March 3, 2009 at 11:37 am

    Word spread in Icelandic economic circles that this distinguished professor at Chicago had taken a special interest in Iceland. In May 2008, Aliber was invited by the University of Iceland’s economics department to give a speech. To an audience of students, bankers, and journalists, he explained that Iceland, far from having an innate talent for high finance, had all the markings of a giant bubble, but he spoke the technical language of academic economists. (“Monetary Turbulence and the Icelandic Economy,” he called his speech.) In the following Q&A session someone asked him to predict the future, and he lapsed into plain English. As an audience member recalls, Aliber said, “I give you nine months. Your banks are dead. Your bankers are either stupid or greedy. And I’ll bet they are on planes trying to sell their assets right now.”

    The Icelandic bankers in the audience sought to prevent newspapers from reporting the speech. Several academics suggested that Aliber deliver his alarming analysis to Iceland’s Central Bank. Somehow that never happened. “The Central Bank said they were too busy to see him,” says one of the professors who tried to arrange the meeting, “because they were preparing the Report on Financial Stability.” For his part Aliber left Iceland thinking that he’d caused such a stir he might not be allowed back into the country. “I got the feeling,” he told me, “that the only reason they brought me in was that they needed an outsider to say these things—that an insider wouldn’t say these things, because he’d be afraid of getting into trouble.” And yet he remains extremely fond of his hosts. “They are a very curious people,” he says, laughing. “I guess that’s the point, isn’t it?”


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