Monday 18 December 2017

No more billionaires as Iceland purges itself of old values that brought ruin

Omar Valdimarsson

Iceland, a country with a $13bn economy, had six dollar billionaires before the financial crisis struck in 2008. Now it has none.

Five of the men – including former West Ham soccer team owner Bjorgolfur Gudmundsson and Baugur Group founder Jon Asgeir Johannesson – have lost all, or most of, their fortunes after building empires on loans from banks that used the island's investment bubble to stretch their assets to 10 times the size of gross domestic product.

At least three of Iceland's ex-billionaires are, or have been, the subject of financial misconduct probes. Johannesson, who once flew around in a pin-striped private jet and owned luxury apartments in New York and London, received a suspended one-year jail sentence in February for violations including accounting fraud.

He and Gudmundsson, who filed for bankruptcy in 2009, personified the boom-to-bust cycle that dragged Iceland away from fishing and tourism and turned it into a centre for high finance.

"Greed can't again lead the way," said Prime Minister Johanna Sigurdardottir whose Social Democrat-led government took over from the coalition that led Iceland into the crisis just over four years ago. "We've taken that route before with terrible consequences for this nation and its people."

After gaining fame for its debt bubble and the havoc that ensued when it burst, Iceland now is purging itself of the values that brought it to the brink of ruin.

The only country to take a former prime minister to court for failing to prevent the crisis has since forced banks to forgive foreign-currency mortgage debt. And in a move to prevent speculation, the Interior Ministry this year proposed limiting land ownership by offshore investors after repeatedly rejecting approaches by Chinese billionaire Huang Nubo.

Iceland's collapse – which sent average disposable incomes plunging 20pc between 2008 and 2010 after the banks defaulted on $85bn – even prompted the pro-deregulation Independence Party to pledge its commitment to welfare over investor rights.

Sigurdardottir, whose coalition faces elections in April, says the result is greater economic stability. Her party's goal is to continue "shielding those groups in society that need it most," she said in an interview.

The island, which exited an International Monetary Fund-led bailout in August 2011, now is growing faster than most of Europe including Ireland. Gross domestic product will expand 2.3pc this year, while the 17-nation euro area will contract 0.2pc, the Washington-based fund estimates.

As for the former billionaires, their pre-crisis rise and post-crisis fall is an apt analogy for Iceland's coming of age, according to Stefan Olafsson, a professor of sociology at the University of Iceland.

He's studied the effect that Iceland's economic boom had on the nation's attitudes toward wealth. One year before everything collapsed, Icelanders bought more Range Rovers than the citizens of Denmark and Sweden combined. Now, Olafsson says his countrymen are wary of extravagance.

Before the crisis, billionaires "were the personification of what people believed in: materialism," he said. "Since the collapse, their image has been tarnished, and what they were considered to be a symbol of – successful business and financial genius – is no longer valued."

That means the risks the former billionaires took to achieve their status probably won't be repeated, Olafsson said.

Seventy-two-year-old Gudmundsson, who was sentenced to 12 months in jail in 1991 for accounting fraud at failed shipping company Hafskip, bounced back from that setback to make millions producing soda pop in Russia.

He and his son, Bjorgolfur Thor Bjorgolfsson, moved to St Petersburg in 1993, securing a production deal with PepsiCo a few years later. The soda company he started was bought by Pepsi, giving Gudmundsson the funds to start producing beer in Russia. That business was bought by Heineken in 2002 for $400m.

Gudmundsson then returned to Iceland and partnered with Magnus Thorsteinsson to buy a 45.8pc stake in Landsbanki, the island's largest lender at the time.

In 2003, Gudmundsson was ranked Iceland's fifth most-trusted business person by newspaper 'Frettabladid'. The most trusted was Johannes Jonsson, the father of Baugur co-founder Johannesson, who ranked second.

These were the golden years, culminating in 2005, when Gudmundsson received Iceland's Knight's Cross Order of the Falcon from President Olafur R Grimsson for his contribution to society.

The next year, Gudmundsson spent £85m on an 83pc stake in West Ham, and in March 2008, newspaper 'Morgunbladid' estimated his personal fortune at $1.1bn. Seven months later, his investment in Landsbanki soured as the lender collapsed.

The credit event triggered a claims dispute from depositors based in the UK and Netherlands with savings in the bank's high-yielding Internet accounts.

The only Icelandic billionaire to keep the title through the crisis has left the island. Bjorgolfur Gudmundsson's son and partner in Russia, Bjorgolfsson, who lives in the UK, was worth $5.1bn back in 2007. Two years later, his wealth had slipped to $1bn.

Wernersson predicts Iceland will never again become a breeding ground for billionaires – and that's not bad thing, he said.

"Although this era won't return, there will still be growth in the Icelandic economy," he said. "This time around, it's more likely that it will be reasonable and moderate, which should be a positive thing for everybody." (Bloomberg)

Irish Independent

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