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Report Questions Lending of Iceland Bank

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August 10, 2009

By Jonas Moody (TIME MAGAZINE)[1]

A branch of the Icelandic bank Kaupthing, now under public administration, in Rejkjavik. (Olivier Morin / AFP / Getty)

Still licking its wounds after the collapse of its economy, Iceland finds itself confronting the ghosts of a grim financial past after a confidential report implicating the nation's largest bank of irresponsible lending was leaked on the Internet.

The 210-page internal report intended for the board of Kaupthing Bank appeared on the whistleblower site Wikileaks.org on July 30. It details huge loans that Kaupthing granted to parties linked to the bank, including its largest shareholders and clients. Dated Sept. 25, 2008, the document pulls back the curtain on unscrupulous lending practices the bank engaged in just before Iceland's economy went into meltdown. (See pictures of the global financial crisis.)

Just two years ago, the tiny nation of Iceland (pop. 320,000) seemed a veritable utopia, topping the U.N.'s Human Development Index with nearly non-existent unemployment, huge purchasing power and the fourth-highest GDP per capita in Europe. Much of that wealth came from the country's banks, which were plump with borrowed foreign capital brought in through retail savings schemes the banks had opened in European countries such as the U.K., Germany and the Netherlands. At their peak, the assets of Iceland's major banks were 10 times as large as the nation's GDP. (Read: "Global Financial Crisis Claims Iceland.")

Then last fall's credit crunch hit, and Iceland's banks drowned in a flood of insolvency and debt, bringing the nation's economy down with them. The national currency, the krona, lost 60% of its value against the dollar, businesses failed one after the next, and bank customers in the U.K., Germany and the Netherlands suddenly found their accounts empty. Rioting broke out in the streets, the government collapsed and, finally, in an attempt to stop the bleeding, the nation's three big banks were nationalized in October 2008. But the crippled nation is still angry as it asks: where did all the money go?

Now the leaked report offers some answers, giving a startling snapshot of how the largest of the country's banks, Kaupthing, was doling out billions only weeks before the economy collapsed.

According to the report, Kaupthing's exposure to its 10 largest clients totaled over $12 billion, nearly three times the size of Iceland's national budget. The largest amounts went to Exista, an investment company and Kaupthing's largest shareholder with a 23% stake. Some of the other big recipients were companies connected to Lyður Guðmundsson, who sat on the board of Kaupthing and Exista; Robert Tchenguiz, the London property tycoon and Kaupthing's largest client; and U.K. retail giant Kevin Standford.

While the report does not implicate the bank in illegal activity, the propriety of some of the lending is shady at best, with high-risk loans going in many cases to large shareholders in the bank and related parties. Some of the loans didn't even have collateral. Furthermore, many of the loans were granted to purchase shares directly in the bank or shareholder companies like Exista. (Watch a TIME video on Iceland's financial collapse.)

In an interview with Stöd 2 News on Aug. 2, Vilhjálmur Bjarnason, director of Iceland's Investors' Association, said that the loans Kaupthing granted to buy its own shares and shares in Exista smack of market manipulation in an attempt to prop up the companies' plummeting share prices. His concerns were echoed last week by Gunnar Andersen, director general of Iceland's top financial regulator, the Financial Supervisory Authority, who told the Financial Times that his agency would hand over several more examples of "serious" manipulation to the special prosecutor investigating last year's crash: "We have looked at several cases where we firmly believe it [was] market manipulation and there are more coming up."

Read: Iceland to Britain: 'We're No Terrorists'.

These questionable lending practices and the huge amounts involved have rekindled anger among Icelanders towards the island's business elite. Former Kaupthing CEO Hreidar Már Sigurdsson's house was doused with red paint on Wednesday night, the latest in a series of similar attacks on high-flying businessmen and entrepreneurs. The new revelations are even more galling considering the nation has recently agreed to shoulder two hulking loans, $4 billion from the U.K. and $2.4 billion from the Netherlands, to cover the crippling debt owed to European savers who lost their money when Iceland's banks crumbled.

Former chairman of the board of Kaupthing, Sigurdur Einarsson, has denied any wrongdoing, claiming in an Aug. 5 editorial in the daily Morgunbladid that "anyone who has the chance to review the material in the report can see that Kaupthing was in a fine position at the end of last September." Meanwhile, former CEO Sigurdsson told state broadcaster RÚV that the loans granted to parties associated with the bank's owners were within legal guidelines. (Read: "Iceland: Britain's Credit Crunch Scapegoat.")

Even so, Kaupthing's initial reaction to the leaked report gave the impression the bank had something to hide. At first, Kaupthing attempted to prevent coverage of the information in the local media with a gag order on grounds of client confidentiality. The injunction has since been retracted, as it only applied to RÚV, and other news outlets have been freely reporting on the document since it appeared online.

Prime Minister Jóhanna Sigurdardóttir condemned the gag order at an Aug. 4 press conference, stating that the principles of bank secrecy and client confidentiality may not be used to hide market manipulation in a society that demands transparency. (Read: "Iceland Picks the World's First Openly Gay PM.")

With the former government having folded under the public's anger over its seemingly lax attitude towards big business corruption, Sigurdardóttir took the reigns from a platform based on exposing the roots of the economic downfall and overhauling the regulatory system. The mainstay in her push to salvage the nation is Iceland's application for membership to the European Union. Many Icelanders believe that joining a larger regulatory framework and currency area will keep its financial sector on the straight and narrow — and help it avoid another devastating fall.

"These loans just serve as a nasty reminder of how corrupt things had gotten here," says Sigurdur Gudmundsson, an out-of-work engineer. "This is such a small society, so businessmen, regulators, the media and politicians all end up in bed together. We need to be part of a larger system. Otherwise we're doomed to repeat these horrible mistakes."

First published in TIME MAGAZINE. Thanks to Jonas Moody and TIME MAGAZINE for covering this document. Copyright remains with the aforementioned.

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