Thursday, March 5, 2009

Iceland

Michael Lewis in Vanity Fair on Iceland's financial collapse:

A nation so tiny and homogeneous that everyone in it knows pretty much everyone else is so fundamentally different from what one thinks of when one hears the word "nation" that it almost requires a new classification. Really, it's less a nation than one big extended family. For instance, most Icelanders are by default members of the Lutheran Church. If they want to stop being Lutherans they must write to the government and quit; on the other hand, if they fill out a form, they can start their own cult and receive a subsidy. Another example: the Reykjavík phone book lists everyone by his first name, as there are only about nine surnames in Iceland, and they are derived by prefixing the father's name to "son" or "dottir." It's hard to see how this clarifies matters, as there seem to be only about nine first names in Iceland, too. But if you wish to reveal how little you know about Iceland, you need merely refer to someone named Siggor Sigfusson as "Mr. Sigfusson," or Kristin Petursdottir as "Ms. Petursdottir." At any rate, everyone in a conversation is just meant to know whomever you're talking about, so you never hear anyone ask, "Which Siggor do you mean?"

Because Iceland is really just one big family, it's simply annoying to go around asking Icelanders if they've met Björk. Of course they've met Björk; who hasn't met Björk? Who, for that matter, didn't know Björk when she was two? "Yes, I know Björk," a professor of finance at the University of Iceland says in reply to my question, in a weary tone. "She can't sing, and I know her mother from childhood, and they were both crazy. That she is so well known outside of Iceland tells me more about the world than it does about Björk."
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In retrospect, there are some obvious questions an Icelander living through the past five years might have asked himself. For example: Why should Iceland suddenly be so seemingly essential to global finance? Or: Why do giant countries that invented modern banking suddenly need Icelandic banks to stand between their depositors and their borrowers—to decide who gets capital and who does not? And: If Icelanders have this incredible natural gift for finance, how did they keep it so well hidden for 1,100 years? At the very least, in a place where everyone knows everyone else, or his sister, you might have thought that the moment Stefan Alfsson walked into Landsbanki 10 people would have said, "Stefan, you're a fisherman!" But they didn't. To a shocking degree, they still don't. "If I went back to banking," he says, with an entirely straight face, "I would be a private-banking guy."
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One of the distinctive traits about Iceland's disaster, and Wall Street's, is how little women had to do with it. Women worked in the banks, but not in the risktaking jobs. As far as I can tell, during Iceland's boom, there was just one woman in a senior position inside an Icelandic bank. Her name is Kristin Petursdottir, and by 2005 she had risen to become deputy C.E.O. for Kaupthing in London. "The financial culture is very male-dominated," she says. "The culture is quite extreme. It is a pool of sharks. Women just despise the culture." Petursdottir still enjoyed finance. She just didn't like the way Icelandic men did it, and so, in 2006, she quit her job. "People said I was crazy," she says, but she wanted to create a financial-services business run entirely by women. To bring, as she puts it, "more feminine values to the world of finance."

Today her firm is, among other things, one of the very few profitable financial businesses left in Iceland. After the stock exchange collapsed, the money flooded in. A few days before we met, for instance, she heard banging on the front door early one morning and opened it to discover a little old man. "I'm so fed up with this whole system," he said. "I just want some women to take care of my money."
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The full article is here.

<http://www.vanityfair.com/politics/features/2009/04/iceland200904>