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Terror as Iceland faces economic collapse

Posted by seumasach on October 7, 2008

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The Icelandic Government seized control of the country’s biggest banks last night in an attempt to fend off wholesale economic collapse.

Turmoil at the banks, whose shares were suspended by the Government yesterday afternoon, had sparked panic in the tiny state, which has a population of 300,000, about the size of Coventry.

Queues formed at petrol stations as Icelanders rushed to fill up before reported fuel shortages, while savers who tried to withdraw money from banks or sell bank shares on the internet found websites were not working.

Meanwhile, fears mounted in Britain that the deterioration of Iceland’s two biggest banks – Kaupthing and Landsbanki – could have disastrous consequences for savers, City staff and the high street.

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Sources said that Landsbanki and the country’s third-biggest bank, Glitner, will soon be fully nationalised, while Kaupthing had been forced to take state loans.

In a late-night sitting, parliament approved a Bill giving the Government wideranging powers over the banks, including the ability to seize their assets, force them to merge or compel them to sell off their overseas subsidiaries, many of which are in London.

Icelandic banks have lent hundreds of billions of pounds overseas and their position in the world’s financial system far outweighs the size of the country’s tiny economy, the GDP of which was only $20 billion last year.

The country’s banks have been under pressure for most of the year, struggling with rampant inflation, the collapsing value of the currency and fallout from an overheated economy.

In Reykjavik, the capital, confusion reigned among a public unsure whether their savings and investments were safe, even after the Government moved to guarantee deposits. The country’s state surgeon even warned politicians and the media to ensure that they did not alarm old people.

Savers in Britain also face fallout from the collapse of the Icelandic banking system. Fears mounted yesterday among the 300,000 British savers holding bank accounts with Landsbanki that their deposits were at risk. In the event of a collapse, savers with Kaupthing are entitled to compensation of up to £50,000 from the British authorities – as much as depositors in any British bank – but British savers with Landsbanki are not.

British savers tempted into high-interest Icesave accounts would have to rely on a much smaller Icelandic government fund to guarantee their first £16,317 of savings should Icesave collapse, with Britain only picking up the remaining £33,483 under the government depositor guarantees.

Times readers reported yesterday morning that they could not withdraw their money from Icesave accounts over the internet. But a spokesman for the bank said that Icesave was now operating normally and depositors could withdraw money. He added that the Icelandic Government had ample foreign reserves to cover the £4bn of British deposits in the event of any collapse.

Icelandic banks have lent money to British retailing and pub groups, raising fears that their collapse could lead to a firesale of British assets. Baugur, the Icelandic investment group that owns stakes in House of Fraser, Debenhams, Woolworths, Moss Bros, French Connection and the supermarket chain Iceland, said that its British businesses were not affected. But well-placed City sources said that Baugur had held private discussions about selling some assets and persuading banks to lend fresh money against others. “There are covert conversations taking place,” one source said.

A spokesman for Baugur denied that there had been an increase in such conversations in the past week.

Hundreds of jobs in the City of London are also linked to the fate of Iceland’s banks. Market sources said yesterday that Singer & Friedlander, the asset manager owned by Kaupthing, was being informally offered for sale. Other sources said that Teather & Greenwood, the stockbroker recently sold by Landsbanki to Straumur, another Icelandic bank, could be put up for sale again. Straumur said that it had no plans to sell the broker, but this was before the Icelandic Government had announced its nationalisation plans.

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