By the time the United States and Europe began to wrestle with the fallout of the global financial crisis in 2008, this tiny island nation was experiencing full-fledged meltdown. Its bloated banks failed. Its currency collapsed. The prime minister invoked God’s help, and protesters filled the streets.
Iceland did what the United States chose not to do — allow its biggest banks to fail and force foreign creditors to take a hike. It did what troubled European nations saddled with massive debts and tethered by the euro cannot do — allow its currency to remain weak, causing inflation but making its exports more desirable and its prices more attractive to tourists.
Three years later, the unemployment rate has fallen. Tourism has increased. The economy is growing. The government successfully raised money from investors in the summer for the first time since the crisis.
It’s tempting to conclude that this country of 318,000 people simply handled the crisis more adeptly than others, like a pick-your-own-ending book in which Icelanders chose correctly. There is a sliver of truth in that, but the full story is more complicated. That’s partly because the circumstances in Iceland are far different than in the United States and Europe, but also because such a simple explanation ignores the anger, the angst and the struggles that remain here, hidden barely beneath the surface.
Iceland has weathered the worst of the financial crisis, but its society has yet to solve the identity crisis that followed in its wake.
An air of invincibility
In the decade leading up to the crash, Iceland transformed itself from an economy fueled by fishermen to a center for wealthy financiers. It privatized its banks, and they grew larger and larger, gobbling up assets around the globe and luring thousands of overseas depositors with promises of high interest rates.
Businessmen came and went from Reykjavik in private jets. They bought showy yachts and multimillion-dollar vacation homes. Bankers became a popular and swaggering breed; after all, they were handing out a slew of high-paying jobs and providing a fortune in tax revenue.
“You had to be crazy not to want to become a banker,” said Heimir Hannesson, a student council member at the University of Iceland. “You went to college, studied business. You became a millionaire overnight. That was the dream. And for a few years, it was the reality.”