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The Iceland Syndrome

By Anne Applebaum
Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Imagine this scenario: In a medium-size European country -- call it Country X -- the bank regulators hold an ordinary meeting. These being extraordinary times, the regulators discuss the health of various banks, including the country's largest -- call it Bank Y -- which is owned by an even larger Italian financial group. Last spring, Bank Y, which is perfectly healthy, transferred a large sum to its now somewhat-less-healthy Italian parent; since this is nothing unusual, the regulators drop the subject and move on.

The following day, the matter is reported in a marginal, far-right newspaper in somewhat different terms: "A billion dollars transferred to Italy! Country X's hard-earned money going abroad!" Within hours, as if on cue, everyone starts selling shares in Bank Y, whose stock price plunges. So does the rest of Country X's smallish stock market. So does Country X's currency. Within a few more hours, Country X is calling for an international bailout, the IMF is on the phone and the government is wobbling.

Except for that final sentence -- there was no international bailout or call to the International Monetary Fund, and the government is fine -- that is a brief description of something that happened last week to one of Poland's largest banks. A real meeting, followed by an unsubstantiated rumor in a dodgy newspaper, and a bunch of nervous investors started selling. Shares in the bank collapsed by the largest margin in its history; for one ugly day, they dragged down the rest of the Polish stock market and currency as well.

As I say, the story ended there. But it could have gone further, and, indeed, in several other countries it has. A month ago, in the first round of this crisis, panicky rumors brought down banks. Now, with trillions of nervous dollars sloshing around the international markets, panicky rumors are bringing down countries.

The case of Iceland, which in recent weeks has nationalized its three major banks, shut its stock exchange and halted trading in its currency, is by now well known. Less well known is the speed with which the Icelandic disease is spreading. Consider Hungary, once the destination of choice for investors who wanted an Eastern European head office with a 19th-century facade and a pastry shop next door: The currency is in free fall and so is the stock market, flummoxing those previously well-fed investors. (One of them told a Hungarian financial Web site: "I haven't got a clue as to when and how this would end, I'm just staring into empty space.") Or Ukraine, whose central bank governor declared his banking system "normal and reliable" on Monday of last week. By Tuesday of last week, Ukraine had desperately requested " systemic support" from the IMF.

So far, most of these crises have been explained away: The banks of Iceland had debts larger than Iceland's gross domestic product, Hungary's finances were long mismanaged, and Ukraine, whose president just called for the third election in as many years, is badly governed. But the speed with which some of these defaults are happening, coupled with the paranoia inherent in the political culture of small countries, has led many to suspect political manipulation as well.

To put it another way: If you wanted to destabilize a country, wouldn't this be an excellent time to do it? If Country X's stock market can crash after the publication of a single article in an obscure newspaper, think what might happen if someone conducted a systematic campaign against Country X. And if you can imagine this, so can others.

All governments have enemies, internal and external, or at least are faced with elements that do not wish them well: the political opposition, the country next door, the former imperial power. For someone, there will always be the temptation to bring down the government, destabilize the country and thus create political chaos.

Even when there hasn't been political meddling, someone else will suspect that it has occurred, anyway. Here, then, is a prediction: Political instability will follow economic instability like night follows day. Iceland is not alone. Serbia, the Baltic states, Kazakhstan, Indonesia, South Korea and Argentina are all in financial trouble; so, too, are Russia and Brazil.

And here's a final, unpleasant thought: Pakistan. This is a country with 25 percent inflation and a currency in free fall; a country with a jihadist insurgency on its border with Afghanistan, permanent hostility on its border with India, nuclear weapons and a tradition of street demonstrations in response to suspect newspaper articles. Dozens of people, with all kinds of agendas, have an interest in using financial markets to destabilize Pakistan, and Afghanistan along with it. Eventually, one of them will.

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