Relevant and even prescient commentary on news, politics and the economy.

It’s official – Icelandic bankers have been jailed

If you’ve been following my posts over the last few years, you know that Iceland took the dramatic step of prosecuting top officers at the country’s big 3 banks, all of which were allowed to go bankrupt in the wake of the 2008 financial collapse. Unlike Ireland, it did not turn bank debt into government debt, which increased Ireland’s debt by close to 100% of gross national product (GNP) overnight. Though hit hard by the 50% drop of the krona, Iceland has managed a remarkable, though still incomplete, recovery marked by its renewed ability to borrow in foreign currency with less than a 1% risk premium and by achieving unemployment rates that Eurozone countries can only envy.

What you wouldn’t know, if you just been looking at the headlines (Google “Iceland jails bankers” and you’ll see what I mean), is that Iceland had not actually been jailing bankers. Here’s a typical one from the BBC, “Iceland jails former Kaupthing bank bosses” (12 December 2013). In fact, nobody went to jail at that time: They were convicted, but all four Kaupthing officials appealed their sentences. If you search similarly titled stories, you will see that headline “jailings” were either convictions, or an affirmation of these lower court decisions by the Icelandic Supreme Court, neither of which actually led to immediate jailings. Indeed, one of the “Kaupthing Four,” as they are now called, was living in Luxembourg (he had headed Kaupthing’s Luxembourg branch), and I wondered to myself if could even be compelled to return to Iceland to serve his sentence.

Now I am happy to report that the Kaupthing Four are finally in jail in a minimum-security prison with only one road connecting it to the outside world, including the former CEO of Kaupthing’s Luxembourg unit who was outside Iceland when his conviction was upheld. There have been an additional 22 convictions now at various stages in the appeals processes, and special prosecutor for the banking crimes, Olafur Hauksson, indicted five more bank officials for fraud and manipulating stock prices just last month.

As Kaupthing was Iceland’s largest bank before the crash, jailing its top officials sends a reassuring sign that the rest of those convicted will eventually follow suit. Iceland thereby establishes a precedent we should continue to urge in the United States, United Kingdom, and elsewhere that bankers are not too big to jail.

A note to readers: Bloomberg reporter Edward Robinson had not replied to a request for some clarifications at the time this story was published. If any of you know when the Kaupthing Four reported to prison, whether there are other bankers already in jail, or other useful news, please send along the information and I’ll be happy to credit you. Thanks!

Cross-posted from Middle Class Political Economist.

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Irish austerity exodus lingers on

August brings us the annual Irish immigration data, so it’s time to look at what has happened in their statistical reporting “year” that ended in April 2014. While better than last year, it’s still not pretty.

According to the Central Statistics Office, net emigration continued in 2013-14, with net emigration of 21,400. a decline of just over 1/3 compared to net emigration of 33,100 in 2012-13. Of the new total, once again, the Irish themselves accounted for over 100% of the net departures, with 29,200 more Irish nationals leaving the country than returning.

This continued out-migration continues to diminish any published improvements in Irish employment numbers and unemployment rate. In the year to the second quarter of 2014 (the closest quarter to April 2014 immigration figures), employment  increased to 1,901,600, a rise of 31,600 over a year previous. Unemployment fell by even more, 46,200, in the year to Q2 2014. So, while there is definite improvement even accounting for emigration, Ireland is nowhere near back to its peak 2007 employment figure of about 2.15 million. So employment is still 11.6% below its peak.

In Iceland (create a custom table here), by contrast, despite (but also in part because of of) the almost 50% decline in the value of the kronor, the sharp dip in unemployment has been almost completely erased, with July 2014′s value of 179,000 employed being a mere 1.7% below May 2008′s maximum of 182,100. Indeed, Iceland’s unemployment rate has fallen to a mere 4.4% in July 2014, compared with 6.2% in the United States — and 11.5% in Ireland.

So the lesson, if I have haven’t pounded it into your head enough already, is that Ireland’s austerity measures are not paying off, as it has failed to regain its pre-crisis employment level  and has seen its unemployment rate fall only by reverting to its historical solution of exporting people, as in the 1980s.

Cross-posted from Middle Class Political Economist.

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Is Ireland the Poster Child of Growth?

by Rebecca Wilder

Is Ireland the Poster Child of Growth?

I wanted to familiarize myself with the economic statistics in Ireland, so I thought that I’d share my findings with you all. Many politicians refer to Ireland as the poster child of austerity – according to the contentious thesis of expansionary austerity (a review from the IMF .pdf here), is it therefore the poster child of growth? In this post, I review the cyclical data and find that the Irish economy is quite divergent with optimism only evident in the industrial and export sectors. In aggregate, there’s really been no momentum at all.
On the one hand, the industrial sector seems to be holding in okay, with the manufacturing PMIs remaining above 50 since March 2012. Furthermore, international saving, or the current account, moved from a 6% of GDP deficit in Q3 2008 to a small surplus in the fourth quarter of 2011 (4-qtr moving average). However, the current account has been deteriorating slightly at the margin, beginning in the second half of 2011.

Note: Except where noted in the legend, all charts below relate to the Irish economy.

In contrast, the consumer sector is suffering quite explicitly. After yesterday’s revisions to previous months, we now see the harmonized unemployment hovering near its peak rate, 14.6% in May vs. 14.8% peak (in the chart below, the red line maps the pre-revised unemployment rates). Consumer confidence is very low, which implies that retail sales could tumble a bit in coming months. Furthermore, price inflation lost some steam, although it remains above the deflationary period that ended in 2010 by the headline measure. Core inflation dropped off in the last couple of months to just 0.4% Y/Y in May. Finally, for all of the optimism on Ireland, Q4 2011 GNP and GDP are just 1% and 0.7%, respectively, higher than their 2010 lows.

It’s probably too early to fully discount the orthodox expansionary austerity thesis – but at the minimum, it does appear as if any economic momentum has been gained primarily through global trade, and that sector is struggling. In all, I’d say that Ireland looks more economically depressed than ambitious and not the poster child of growth.

Rebecca Wilder

crossposted with The Wilder View…Economonitors

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