By Peter Boone and Simon Johnson
The Washington Post
Sunday, October 12, 2008; Page B01
The global financial outlook grows more dire by the day: The United States has been forced to shore up Wall Street, and European governments are bailing out numerous commercial banks. Even more alarmingly, the government of Iceland is presiding over a massive default by all the country’s major banks. This troubling development points not only to an even more painful recession than anticipated, but also to the urgent need for international coordination to avoid something worse: all-out financial warfare.
The ramifications of Iceland’s misery are probably more serious than people realize. The country’s bank assets are more than 10 times greater than its gross domestic product, so the government clearly cannot afford a bailout. This is going to be a large default, affecting many parties. In the United Kingdom alone, 300,000 account holders face sudden loss of access to their funds, and the process for claiming deposit insurance is not entirely clear.
But there’s a broader concern. With European governments turning down his appeals for assistance, Iceland’s prime minister, Geir Haarde, warned last week that it was now “every country for itself.” This smacks of the financial autarchy that characterized defaulters in the financial crisis in Asia in the late 1990s. Similarly, when Argentina defaulted on its debt in 2001-’02, politicians there faced enormous pressure to change the rule of law to benefit domestic property holders over foreigners, and they changed the bankruptcy law to give local debtors the upper hand. In Indonesia and Russia after the crises of 1998, local enterprises and banks took the opportunity of the confusion to grab property, then found ways to ensure that courts sided with them.
This is a natural outcome of chaotic times. Iceland’s promise to guarantee domestic depositors while reneging on guarantees to foreigners may be just a first step. British Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s decision last week to sue Iceland over this issue may escalate the crisis. The use of counterterrorist legislation to take over Icelandic bank assets and operations in the United Kingdom also has a potentially dramatic symbolic effect.