Demonstrators in front of Iceland's parliament building, in Reykjavík's Austurvollur Square, on January 31. Photographs by Jonas Fredwall Karlsson.
Wall Street on the Tundra
Iceland's de facto bankruptcy—its currency (the krona) is kaput, its debt is 850 percent of G.D.P., its people are hoarding food and cash and blowing up their new Range Rovers for the insurance—resulted from a stunning collective madness. What led a tiny fishing nation, population 300,000, to decide, around 2003, to re-invent itself as a global financial power? In Reykjavík, where men are men, and the women seem to have completely given up on them, the author follows the peculiarly Icelandic logic behind the meltdown.
by Michael Lewis April 2009
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."
How did the economy get into this mess? Visit our archive "Charting the Road to Ruin." Plus: A Q&A with Michael Lewis. Illustration by Brad Holland.
An entire nation without immediate experience or even distant memory of high finance had gazed upon the example of Wall Street and said, "We can do that." For a brief moment it appeared that they could. In 2003, Iceland's three biggest banks had assets of only a few billion dollars, about 100 percent of its gross domestic product. Over the next three and a half years they grew to over $140 billion and were so much greater than Iceland's G.D.P. that it made no sense to calculate the percentage of it they accounted for. It was, as one economist put it to me, "the most rapid expansion of a banking system in the history of mankind."
At the same time, in part because the banks were also lending Icelanders money to buy stocks and real estate, the value of Icelandic stocks and real estate went through the roof. From 2003 to 2007, while the U.S. stock market was doubling, the Icelandic stock market multiplied by nine times. Reykjavík real-estate prices tripled. By 2006 the average Icelandic family was three times as wealthy as it had been in 2003, and virtually all of this new wealth was one way or another tied to the new investment-banking industry. "Everyone was learning Black-Scholes" (the option-pricing model), says Ragnar Arnason, a professor of fishing economics at the University of Iceland, who watched students flee the economics of fishing for the economics of money. "The schools of engineering and math were offering courses on financial engineering. We had hundreds and hundreds of people studying finance." This in a country the size of Kentucky, but with fewer citizens
than greater Peoria, Illinois. Peoria, Illinois, doesn't have global financial institutions, or a university devoting itself to training many hundreds of financiers, or its own currency. And yet the world was taking Iceland seriously. (March 2006 Bloomberg News headline: iceland's billionaire tycoon "thor" braves u.s. with hedge fund.)
Global financial ambition turned out to have a downside. When their three brand-new global-size banks collapsed, last October, Iceland's 300,000 citizens found that they bore some kind of responsibility for $100 billion of banking losses—which works out to roughly $330,000 for every Icelandic man, woman, and child. On top of that they had tens of billions of dollars in personal losses from their own bizarre private foreign-currency speculations, and even more from the 85 percent collapse in the Icelandic stock market. The exact dollar amount of Iceland's financial hole was essentially unknowable, as it depended on the value of the generally stable Icelandic krona, which had also crashed and was removed from the market by the Icelandic government. But it was a lot.
Iceland instantly became the only nation on earth that Americans could point to and say, "Well, at least we didn't do that." In the end, Icelanders amassed debts amounting to 850 percent of their G.D.P. (The debt-drowned United States has reached just 350 percent.) As absurdly big and important as Wall Street became in the U.S. economy, it never grew so large that the rest of the population could not, in a pinch, bail it out. Any one of the three Icelandic banks suffered losses too large for the nation to bear; taken together they were so ridiculously out of proportion that, within weeks of the collapse, a third of the population told pollsters that they were considering emigration.
In just three or four years an entirely new way of economic life had been grafted onto the side of this stable, collectivist society, and the graft had overwhelmed the host. "It was just a group of young kids," said the man from the I.M.F. "In this egalitarian society, they came in, dressed in black, and started doing business."
The highest lotto odds are for the US Power Ball Lotto and are roughly 80,000,000 to 1.
Just as an example, suppose that the odds of life elsewhere in the universe are a million times higher, or 80,000,000,000,000 to 1.
In that part of the universe that has been measured out to 14 billion light years, there are 30 billion trillion stars (suns), or 30,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 stars.
Assuming odds a million times worse than the Power Ball Lotto, there are 375 billion (375,000,000,000) stars supporting life. Think we're alone?
PDI mailing list