Welcome to the United States of Iceland

iceland.gi.top.jpgPeople protested outside the Icelandic Parliament on Saturday as Icelanders headed to the polls to vote on a referendum to repay British and Dutch citizens for bailing out Icesave.By Paul Smalera, contributor


NEW YORK (Fortune) -- It's time to start paying attention to the financial sinkhole that Iceland is trying to climb out of -- the view from inside of it is eerily similar to our own.

An Icelandic savings bank, Icesave, had attracted billions in deposits from hundreds of thousands of British and Dutch citizens, due to the phenomenally high interest rates it offered. Icesave collapsed in 2008, for much the same reason Lehman Brothers, WaMu, and hundreds of local savings banks did: its bankers used their cash to make complicated, bad, leveraged investments, mostly on real estate.

The British and Dutch have made their citizens whole, bailing out Icesave after it became clear the Icelandic government didn't have the resources to do the same.

Now, they expect to be repaid. But in a referendum there this past weekend,only 1.8% of voters favored a plan to pay back the $5.3 billion Iceland owes. Iceland has agreed in principle to repay the bailout to the UK and Netherlands, but the fight is over the terms and interest rate of the payment plan.

To call the rejected terms loan-sharking would be a disservice to usury. They called for every Icelandic family to essentially throw a quarter of its income towards servicing the loan for the next eight years. But this isn't the end: one way or another, the bill will come due, and Iceland's 320,000 citizens will be paying for the hubris of a few hundred of their own, who dubbed themselves "investment bankers."

The amount owed -- $5.3 billion -- sounds like a rounding error to Americans, but, per capita, it would be the equivalent of the United States taking on a $5 trillion debt. Sounds impossible, until you consider that our real bailout tab, as calculated by the New York Times, is already $2 trillion. Moreover, the government has obligated itself to pay out $12.5 trillion if things get worse. In Vanity Fair last April, Michael Lewis wrote, "Iceland instantly became the only nation on earth that Americans could point to and say, 'Well, at least we didn't do that.'"

Yet in a pretty real way, we did do "that." We have a more sophisticated central banking system, and there are more countries, like China, in whose interest it is to protect the value of the American dollar, thanks to their ownership of our national debt. In that crucial way, we've dodged Iceland's true peril: watching the value of its currency, the króna, crash against the debt it owes in foreign currencies like the sterling and euro. It's looking more and more like our craftiest bankers factored the inimitable strength and guarantee of the U.S. dollar into their reckless gambles.

But the rest of us are really just lucky that the dollar can survive these hurricane-level economic forces without blowing apart. One way or another, the bill is coming due, and America's 300 million citizens will be paying for the hubris of a few thousand of their own, who dubbed themselves "investment bankers."

While Lewis summons a gentle humor to chronicle a tiny nation's transformation from European fishing capital to destroyer of capital markets, it's worth remembering America's Rube Goldberg financial machinery sprung from a society that was once far more concerned with agriculture (and later, manufacturing) than with inventing complicated and opaque ways to manufacture wealth.

It's too easy and wrong to look at Iceland as being somehow dumber than we were. Their problems aren't just an outgrowth of our financial handiwork; their problems are our financial handiwork. And Icelanders have thoroughly rejected being placed in hock to exonerate the tiny segment of the population that threw their country into chaos.

In our democracy, we didn't have that choice. From Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson's ramming of TARP through Congress, to Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner's decision to abandon subtlety and mainline dollars into bank balance sheets, even our presidential election had little impact on our government's deployment of huge amounts of capital to save our obese banking system.

Icelandic journalist Iris Erlingsdottir wrote in the Huffington Post, "While we have been endlessly debating IceSave, our unemployment rate has continued to climb, the number of insolvencies has continued to increase, and the number of public services has continued to decrease. Other scandals of comparable magnitude and abuse of taxpayer money -- but involving only Icelanders -- are being ignored by the Icelandic media." Change a few nouns -- health care, Citigroup (C, Fortune 500) -- and Erlingsdottir is writing about Washington as Reykjavik.

Just because the crisis has been "managed" doesn't mean it's over. As economist Simon Johnson writes, "The true fiscal cost arising from our recent financial excesses is the increase in net government debt held by the private sector. This will likely amount to around 40 percentage points of GDP." Servicing that debt will likely affect our promise as a nation, not for years, but decades.

Whatever settlement Icelanders finally swallow, their financial system, at its peak just a minor moon in the constellation, is already as barren as the island's volcanic bedrock. But precious little has changed about Wall Street's massive gravitational pull in the U.S. and the world.

Our banks are still too big to fail, their boards are still poorly composed, we have no Consumer Financial Protection Agency, no systemic regulator, no resolution authority, and no reform of mortgage securitization or ratings agencies, two of the institutions that most enabled the crisis to occur. We've been distracted from the task of preventing another crisis from happening by the task of minimizing the current one, and as a result, we've done neither, while allowing our other domestic problems to snowball.

In Iceland, it's expected the ruling political party could be forced to step down if it can't come up with a loan plan the public approves of. The closest thing the U.S. gets to a bailout referendum is the 2010 midterm election. It's still unclear what happens to Iceland next, as it grapples with recovering from its terrible financial fever. But it might be time to stop treating Icelanders' predicament as a sad footnote to the global crisis, and start searching for lessons on what, save massive structural reforms, is still in store for us.

--An earlier version of the story incorrectly said the International Monetary Fund would loan Iceland $5.3 billion to be used to pay back British and Dutch depositors in failed bank Icesave. The IMF loan to Iceland simply stipulates that the country pay back its international debts.  To top of page

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