The Return of Trust? Institutions and the Public after the Icelandic Financial Crisis

Cover of The Return of Trust? Institutions and the Public after the Icelandic Financial Crisis
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Table of contents

(19 chapters)

Prelims

Pages i-xv
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Part I: The Situation

The Situation

Pages 1-2
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Abstract

Following the collapse of the banking system in October 2008, the Icelandic authorities attempted to restore confidence in the country’s institutions, improve their functioning and gradually improve the country’s credit rating. The authorities took ownership of an International Monetary Fund-sponsored economic programme that managed to turn the macroeconomic development around when, following a trough in the summer of 2010, an economic expansion started that has continued ever since. They applied for membership in the European Union in order to show their commitment to be part of the international economic community and to have a lender of last resort in the European Central Bank in future crises. The causes of the collapse were investigated and many bankers were prosecuted. Finally, financial regulations were made stricter and the structures of the Central Bank and the supervisory authority were changed for the better. The net effect was to lower the credit default swap rate on the government’s debt, gain access to capital markets and make the Iceland story one of resurrection rather than only hubris and collapse.

Abstract

Disasters bring about communities of focussed discourse. We show how a segment of one such community controlled the early stages of discourse during a financial crisis as a variety of professionals (bankers, analysts, editorial writers and academics) made multiple types of arguments (emotional and technical) to allay citizens’ concerns about an impending banking collapse. We examine the rapid rise of this segment by mapping and analysing the responses printed in Icelandic newspapers to a Danish bank’s warning of Icelandic banking instability. Using social network analysis, we illustrate the networks of public actors and their immediate public responses, showing how close-knit both networks became after just one week of commentary in the Icelandic press. We demonstrate the power that professionals of various kinds have over an uninformed citizenry through their rapid responses and closely connected networks and underscore the obstacles awaiting those who want to alter discourse during crisis.

Abstract

Trust is considered instrumental for economic growth, successful operation of public institutions and social cohesion. We explore how public trust in Icelandic institutions has developed during the recent tumultous financial times, including the failure of the Icelandic banking sector. Using data from Gallup-Iceland’s annual survey of individuals’ trust in institutions, we show that trust in general, and particularly towards political and financial institutions, evaporates following the crisis year of 2008. Although trust varies significantly among different demographic groups, the trend shows how the road to recovering trust in Icelandic institutions post-crisis has proven to be challenging and drawn-out. Apart from law-enforcement agencies, which were relatively unscathed by the financial calamities, no institution has managed to escape the drop in trust, nor have they re-established the pre-crisis level of trust in the minds of the public nearly a decade after the crisis. A notable personal post-crisis exception is the recently elected President of Iceland who has managed to improve trust in his office by the highest margin of all 15 public offices and institutions examined.

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Abstract

It seems a commonplace notion that when we talk about trust, we are really talking about the lack of trust. After all, if there were solid trust throughout society, we would not have to talk about it at all. But if we discuss lack of trust, are we to start with institutions or the individuals in the institutions? It would help us if we knew whether we need to fix wayward institutions or educate individuals for more ethical behaviour. Moving from thoughts of the ideal to the practical, we have seen how Icelanders have felt the effect of institutions and individuals gone astray in a two-fold manner: first, through the actions of those parties; second, as they listened to the painful but necessary story of those days in its repeated telling by the Special Investigative Commission. Hope remains, however, because, as natural disasters show us, when stripped of its trappings, human character can still revive our sense of trust.

Part II: Responses

Responses

Pages 85-85
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Abstract

The enormous financial losses during the economic crash in Iceland led to widespread anxieties, coupled with a deep sense of shared national disaster and moral collapse (Bernburg, 2015; Ólafsson, 2014). The strong sense of betrayal indicates how economic processes are not only about economic prosperity, but are embedded also in wider societal discourses and a sense of national identity (Schwegler, 2009). We use perspectives from anthropology and cultural economics to ask how the lack of trust by the Icelandic population after the crash signals both a different way of visualising Iceland’s role within an increasingly global world and a changing sense of Icelanders as national subjects standing unified against foreigners. Iceland’s neo-liberalisation inserted the country into global institutions and processes with the faith that these processes would automatically be beneficial to Iceland. Furthermore, the sense of some kind of a unified Icelandic subject was manifested in the image of the ‘Business Viking’, which was seen as embodying the interest of the Icelandic nation as a whole. Following the economic crash, the betrayal of trust involved disrupting the idea of the ‘oneness’ of Iceland and thus, the sharp distinction between ‘us’ Icelanders and ‘those’ foreigners. In our discussion, we trace different ways of conceptualising this sense of Icelanders as a unified entity, asking what this notion means in terms of trust. Our research shows how the sense of ‘unified Icelanders’ was instrumental in creating the feeling of trust, and how it is possible to manipulate and appropriate that trust.

Abstract

During the banking crisis of October 2008, Iceland became the first developed country in decades to seek the assistance of the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Iceland’s IMF programme provided a measure of stability at a time of intense turbulence. The IMF’s credibility was helpful during this period of collapse not just of the banks but also of the public trust towards almost all Icelandic institutions. Importantly, the IMF implicitly supported Iceland’s policy of letting institutional creditors of the banks rather than Icelandic taxpayers bear the costs of their collapse; this provided credibility for the policy and limited repercussions. In a reversal of previous IMF policy, capital controls were imposed. The controls helped stabilise the exchange rate, and inflation subsided. The controls also helped recovery after the crisis by shielding the economy from international financial shocks. The direct fiscal cost of the Icelandic crisis was very high, but the considerable and painful fiscal tightening that was a part of the programme was needed to avoid a sovereign debt crisis. This helped in regaining trust from international markets. Mistakes were made in the design and implementation of the IMF programme, but overall, we judge that its contribution was positive. The programme provided one of the elements for restoring trust in Iceland when it was most needed, both domestically and internationally, during the depth of the crisis in 2009–2010.

Abstract

Competence, credibility, image and integrity all came under scrutiny during the economic crisis in Iceland. This period was not just about the financial system, it was about trust, something the Icelandic economy and individual businesses in the country lost in the wake of the crash. Reykjavík Energy, an Icelandic power- and utility-company, was one such company. In the year leading up to the economic crisis, mistrust in Reykjavík Energy had taken root and the firm’s image was already under attack. When its external debt doubled in the crash with the depreciation of the Icelandic króna, it was clear that the company’s position was unsustainable. In the years following the crisis, the rebuilding of the public’s trust in Reykjavík Energy has been a demanding task. The project of restoring trust and strengthening the firm was two-fold. On the one hand, short-term measures that were necessary to keep the company alive were taken. On the other hand, work was done to develop the foundations for long-term results and sustainable management. Reykjavík Energy, to a large extent, has now reclaimed its position in the eyes of its stakeholders. However, trust is not a constant but something that is earned over time and the challenge for the future is therefore to maintain it while learning from the past.

Abstract

Public trust in institutions in Iceland plunged after the country’s banking sector collapsed. The political system wobbled under outrage and anger when the general public took to the streets. The Parliamentary Special Investigation Commission conducted a ground-breaking crisis-induced investigation, delivering a report that was a milestone in Iceland’s history of politics and public administration. Yet, despite this endeavour and the fact that subsequent investigations have disclosed ample information intended to restore trust in institutions, public trust remains unsteady. This chapter addresses the following questions: How has public trust in institutions progressed after the crash? Why is it taking so long for trust to return? In Chapter 3 in this volume, we examine data on public trust in Icelandic institutions from Gallup surveys over the 15 years from 2002 to 2017 in order to identify and explain patterns of trust in the aftermath of the crisis. Our interpretation of theory in this chapter suggests that elements of mistrust inherent in the principal–agent approach to accountability in public administration, implemented in previous New Public Management reforms, undermined the creation of a climate of trust necessary to ensure effective accountability mechanisms. We argue that in the absence of a climate of trust, accountability mechanisms of culpability that conflict with mechanisms of answerability, combined with a succession of post-crisis scandals, mainly explain the slow return of the public’s trust.

Part II: Moving Forward

Moving Forward

Pages 171-172
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Abstract

After the financial collapse, the Icelandic Parliament set up a Special Investigation Commission to explain the causes of the events. A working group on ethics evaluated the explanations of the commission from a moral perspective and placed its analyses in the wider social context. This chapter delineates the approach and the main findings of these investigations. The author argues that the main lessons to be learned are about the need to strengthen democratic structures and professional practices in business, politics and administration. The implications of this structural approach for assessing the responsibility for the collapse are discussed in the light of I.M. Young’s social connection model. While the parliamentary reports were well received, three events hindered Icelanders in learning the reports’ main lessons. In addition to a volcanic eruption immediately after the publication of the report, two major political debates led the reconstruction work astray. The first was about the case of the former prime minister and the second was the fierce Icesave dispute about whether Icelanders should share the financial burden with the citizens of the United Kingdom and the Netherlands who lost their savings in the Icesave accounts. This issue dominated Icelandic public discourse for three years and diverted political attention from the message of the parliamentary reports – namely, that the main explanatory factors for the financial collapse were weak governance and flawed practices within Iceland. As a consequence, the political sector has lagged behind other social sectors in efforts to learn lessons from the financial collapse.

Abstract

Current trends in financial services are characterised by two intertwined developments. First, increasing digitalisation provides opportunities to invest or raise money through channels that have not been available with more traditional financial services. Crowd-investing and social-trading platforms act as new intermediaries. Similarly, automated advice (robo-advice) is attracting increased attention. Second, the financial crisis of 2007–2010 is associated with a considerable decline in trust in financial institutions, even more so in Iceland, which had experienced a complete collapse of its banking system. Despite the evaporation of trust in their banking system, Icelandic consumers were largely bound to use Icelandic financial institutions because capital controls were in place since the financial crisis until 2017, which limited investors’ opportunities to, for example, diversify their portfolios internationally. As financial decisions are inherently risky and since financial services have the characteristics of credence goods, those who wish to use financial services need to trust financial intermediaries or the immediate contractual partner. The purpose of this chapter is to examine the role of trust in the context of increased digitalisation, and to discuss steps to establish trust in digitalised financial services. Among other items, we discuss the information requirements accompanying financial products and financial institutions, data protection and liability in the context of emerging digitalisation. Our work holds implications for individuals, financial service providers, policy makers and supervisory authorities.

Abstract

Since the financial crisis of 2008, legislation and rules affecting the financial market in Iceland have been strengthened considerably. Tougher capital requirements, detailed and frequent reporting, more thorough fit-and-proper tests, barriers to connected lending and strict limits on bonus payments are but a few examples. Similarly, the supervision of banks has been upgraded markedly. It is now much more intrusive and forward-looking than before, that is, it is more focused on governance and the business model. Many of these reforms are based on international initiatives, such as the Basel III standard, while others are particular to Iceland. The main objective of these reforms is to strengthen the resilience of the banking sector and limit the negative effects on consumers of harmful enterprise incentives. Trust in the financial system collapsed as a consequence of the crisis but is recovering only slowly. This apparent lack of confidence is reflected only to a limited extent in firms’ and households’ willingness to seek banking services. This raises the questions of how to appropriately measure trust, and what factors influence it. Iceland may turn out to be an interesting natural experiment in this respect. It has a unique record of prosecuting and sentencing bankers for offences that are hardly worthy of administrative fines in some other countries – but whether strict accountability is the recipe for rebuilding trust remains to be seen.

Abstract

According to some key actors in Iceland’s financial sector, in the wake of the financial crisis, Icelandic financial institutions consciously tried to build trust and a positive new image through, among other things, the visible presence of women on their corporate boards and management teams. By strict adherence to gender quota legislation and through improved corporate governance practices and much stricter control and monitoring, the financial sector sent signals of change to various stakeholders. Now 10 years on, the re-establishment of trust is still a work in progress.

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Abstract

This chapter examines the formal governance mechanisms put in place by various authorities within Iceland after the crash. In contrast to one of our earlier papers (Bryant, Sigurjónsson, & Mixa, 2014), we find that, no matter how well the mechanisms work, formal mechanisms are insufficient to restore trust. To that end, we examine the trust literature from political science that suggests that trust is a lubricant of the social system that consequently causes individuals to open themselves up to vulnerability. When trust is broken in a society with a high-existing degree of trust, such as Iceland, the loss of trust is significant and leads even apparently minor incidents to be perceived as betrayals. We examine the various processes put in place by both the government and other institutions and show how they mostly worked in concert. Nonetheless, we find that the processes by themselves have been insufficient to restore society’s trust in the affected institutions.

About the Authors

Pages 263-267
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Index

Pages 269-276
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Cover of The Return of Trust? Institutions and the Public after the Icelandic Financial Crisis
DOI
10.1108/9781787433472
Publication date
2018-08-20
Editors
ISBN
978-1-78743-348-9
eISBN
978-1-78743-347-2