Icelandâ€™s history is of booms and busts. So as the inhabitants of a volcanic rock in the middle of the North Atlantic ocean roar back from their 2008 economic meltdown (this latest boom was fed by tourism and construction), the talk in the streets is of what shape the next crisis will take and when exactly it will hit.
â€œWeâ€™re just going through the up-cycle at the moment,â€ Einar Jonsson, a retired driver, said in an interview while grocery shopping in Reykjavik. â€œFor the next few months -â€“ might even be a year or two -â€“ Icelanders will step all over each other to make as much money as they possibly can in an effort to live through the next collapse.â€
Donâ€™t just take the man in the streetâ€™s word for it. Titans of industry, local economists and even the European Union and the International Monetary Fund are all warning that Icelandâ€™s economy risks overheating.
The latest reading showed the $21 billion economy expanding at annual pace of 10.2 percent. Wage growth is in the double digits, home prices rose 11 percent last year, the trade deficit is swelling and unemployment has plunged below 3 percent. Meanwhile, the central bank is under pressure to cut interest rates to prevent the currency from appreciating.
Iceland may be able to avoid a so-called hard landing like the one it suffered at the end of 2008, but â€œhistory teaches us that weâ€™re not particularly good in managing situations like these,â€ Gylfi Magnusson, an economics professor at the University of Iceland and a former economy minister, said in an interview. â€œI hope weâ€™ve learned something and that weâ€™ll manage this better now than often before. But that remains to be seen.â€
To be sure, Iceland has taken several steps to handle the next economic downturn, including stricter oversight of its banks, which were the prime culprits behind its 2008 collapse. The government has restricted foreign currency loans and is now running a budget surplus. Thereâ€™s a current account surplus and the central bank has built up a massive foreign currency reserve. Parliament has also taken steps such as requiring the Finance Ministry to introduce annual five-year plans for public finances.
Arni Oddur Thordarson, chief executive officer of Marel, which sells food processing equipment and is Icelandâ€™s biggest listed company, says the economy is now much more diversified and therefore better able to withstand another shock.
He also notes that Iceland has gone from being one of western Europeâ€™s poorest economies in the 1980s, based on per capita income, to now being among the richest, though the ride can at times be â€œbumpy.â€