I think the main reason I have been cautious and conservative all my life is a particular madness I observed in the 1970s as I was on the threshold of adulthood. There was a property boom in the UK and people were making a packet buying and selling anything with a front door. One fine day, a wealthy property dealer from our neighbourhood went spectacularly bust – at that time the biggest bankruptcy in UK history. In the months that followed, news surfaced of local rent collectors, shopkeepers and assorted minnows being declared insolvent for millions that they clearly had never possessed. It transpired that a combination of recommendations and guarantees by bigger players, together with banks thirsty to expand their balance sheets, meant that many idiots went from fashionably poor to unfashionably bankrupt without enjoying the fruits of their lack of labour for even a day.
When the Financial Crisis hit in 2008, it was deja vu. Here were Ireland and Spain going belly-up thanks to property speculation, while the Greeks didn’t even make the effort to invest in property – their country just produced bankruptcy out of thin air. But, it was Iceland that really caught my eye. Igloos not being subject to the same rules of property bubbles as other countries, and Iceland not having Greece’s ability to mug the EU, they had to think of something else. And for a country that had little to offer in the form of blood, toil, tears and sweat – what better luftgesheft than Finance? When everybody was doing it, who would notice little Iceland? When Iceland unsurprisingly slipped under the ice, the whole world looked aghast at how it managed to get there in the first place.
Well, it appears Iceland is finally coming in from the cold. Earlier this month the Government announced that it is relaxing the capital controls its predecessor was forced to impose during the 2008 meltdown, meaning that investors with money tied up in frozen Icelandic assets will be able to pull it home, while Icelanders will be allowed to buy forex. The rub is that any foreigner owed money by the country’s bankrupt banks will either need to agree to a substantial haircut or pay a 39% tax.
Now, when you see an offer like that you start to understand why the Icelandic economy crashed. I was, in fact, already at the end of the next sentence of the article I was reading when my eyes did one of those typewriter carriage returns, boomeranging back across the page for a second-take. What difference can it make to a foreign investor whether the bit of his money lopped off by the Icelandic Government is a haircut or a tax? The only thing I could think of is that a haircut will invite a capital loss at home which the disappointed investor might be able to use against other foreign capital gains, while a 39% tax on a capital asset is meaningless tosh.
This nation of fishermen, fresh from fooling the world that they were bankers, seem to think they can do it again – you can fool some of the people all of the time. Now that the chips are down once more, investors should smell something fishy and freeze them out.