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Grant McDermott

Data. Economics. Environment.

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Yesterday's post reminded me of a story that encapsulates much of my own feelings about credit rating agencies (and, indeed, the naivete that characterised the build-up to the Great Recession).

The year was 2008 and I was working for an economics consultancy specialising in the sovereign risk of emerging markets. We primarily marked African countries, but also had a number of "peripheral" OECD countries on our books. One of these was Iceland and I was assigned to produce a country report that would go out to our major clients.

By this time, the US subprime market had already collapsed and it was abundantly clear that Europe (among others) would not escape the contagion. With credit conditions imploding, it was equally clear that the most vulnerable sectors and countries were those with extended leverage positions.

Iceland was a case in point. The country had a healthy fiscal position, running a budget surplus and public debt only around 30% of GDP. However, private debt was a entirely different story. Led by the aggressive expansion of its commercial banks into European markets, total Icelandic external debt was many times greater than GDP. Compounding the problem was a rapid depreciation in the Icelandic króna, which made the ability to service external liabilities even more daunting. (Iceland was the world's smallest economy to operate an independently floating exchange rate at that time.) Wikipedia gives a good overview of the situation:
At the end of the second quarter 2008, Iceland's external debt was 9.553 trillion Icelandic krónur (€50 billion), more than 80% of which was held by the banking sector.[4] This value compares with Iceland's 2007 gross domestic product of 1.293 trillion krónur (€8.5 billion).[5] The assets of the three banks taken under the control of the [Icelandic Financial Services Authority] totalled 14.437 trillion krónur at the end of the second quarter 2008,[6] equal to more than 11 times of the Icelandic GDP, and hence there was no possibility for the Icelandic Central Bank to step in as a lender of last resort when they were hit by financial troubles and started to account asset losses.
It should be emphasised that everyone was aware of all of this at the time. I read briefings by all the major ratings agencies (plus reports from the OECD and IMF) describing the country's precarious external position in quite some detail. However, these briefings more or less all ended with the same absurd conclusion: Yes, the situation is very bad, but the outlook for the economy as a whole remains okay as long as Government steps in forcefully to support the commercial banks in the event of a deepening crisis.(!)

I could scarcely believe what I was reading. What could the Icelandic government possibly hope to achieve against potential liabilities that were an order of magnitude greater than the country's entire GDP? Truly, it would be like pissing against a hurricane.

Of course, we all know what happened next.

In the aftermath of the Great Recession, I've often heard people invoke the phrase \(-\) "When the music is playing, you have to keep dancing" \(-\) perhaps as a means of understanding why so many obvious danger signs were ignored in favour of business-as-usual. It always makes me think of those Icelandic reports when I hear that.

PS- Technically, Iceland never did default on its sovereign debt despite the banking crisis and massive recession. It was the (nationalised) banks that defaulted so spectacularly. The country has even managed a quite remarkable recovery in the scheme of things. The short reasons for this are that they received emergency bailout money from outside and, crucially, also decided to let creditors eat their losses.