Iceland’s current woes teach a useful lesson about the interconnectedness of global markets: trouble can come from anywhere. Homeowners default on mortgages in San Diego, and suddenly people in Reykjavík are paying more for gasoline and wondering if their bank deposits are safe. That doesn’t mean that Iceland is an innocent victim. The country went overboard with spending and borrowing—between 2000 and 2007, domestic credit in the Icelandic banking system more than quadrupled as a share of G.D.P. And relying on foreign money to fuel that kind of frenzy is foolish, since it puts you at the mercy of fickle foreign investors. But Icelanders can be forgiven for wondering if they’ve really been any more reckless than many other countries—most obviously the U.S., which relies heavily on foreign capital to fund home buying and profligate consumption, and whose banking system is rife with reckless lending.
And that’s the second lesson of Iceland’s plight: even in a flat world, there are different rules for different players. In order to prop up the króna, and keep foreign capital from fleeing, Iceland’s central bank has had to raise interest rates to an astounding fifteen per cent, a move that will slow the economy to a crawl. By contrast, the dollar, while weak, has evaded the króna’s precipitous fall; the Federal Reserve, far from raising interest rates, has slashed them; and Congress is borrowing a hundred and fifty-two billion dollars to hand out tax rebates. Iceland’s government has been forced to inflict pain; the U.S. is doing everything possible to avoid it. If Iceland were to attempt to emulate America’s approach, its currency would be demolished, and foreign investors would almost certainly head for the exits. The U.S., by contrast, remains the beneficiary of the world’s generosity—no matter how bad our financial situation looks, countries like China and Japan keep pouring hundreds of billions of dollars into U.S. securities. They’re doing this not out of kindness, of course, but because the U.S. is a colossal market and they need us to keep buying stuff. The world can’t afford to have the U.S. fail, and so we are able to get away with behavior that would wreck smaller countries. Great for us, but when we look at Iceland’s predicament we should say that there but for the grace of China go we.
-Iceland’s Deep Freeze