|A photo of ubiquitous construction work going on downtown in 2015 that I added to this post as an ironic statement:|
Even after the crash of 2008, we're back right where we were when this article was posted...a dangerous place to be.
"SMALL COUNTRY, BIG AMBITIONS
Feb 17th 2005
From The Economist print edition
Icelandic businesses are making big acquisitions across Europe
THEY are well-heeled, these Icelanders. Brave, too. Last year's flow of Icelandic takeovers in Europe looks ready to become a flood ~ not all of it into companies much fancied by other investors.
Bravest of Iceland's brave is the Baugur Group, run by Jon Asgeir Johannesson. Born as a supermarket but now an investment house in retailing of many sorts, last autumn it bought Magasin du Nord, a Danish department-store group which, after three years of losses, expects to lose $30m more in 2004-05, on turnover of about $350m. Last week, a Baugur-led consortium completed the $1.25 billion takeover of Britain's Big Food Group, which had begun losing money on sales of some $9 billion. On February 9th, another struggling British supermarket chain, Somerfield, revealed it was a target. A bid is only a possibility, but could exceed $1.9 billion. Baugur had already bought British real estate, besides clothing and jewellery stores, and London's famous toy-shop, Hamleys.
Among other Icelandic buys, in December SIF, a seafood group, bought Labeyrie, a French food firm, for $675m (debt included); Bakkavor, a supplier of chilled meals, has bought 20% of Geest, a large British firm in that line, and is now studying a full bid; Icelandair holds 10% of Britain's low-cost airline easyJet. Actavis, a maker of generic drugs chaired by Thor Bjorgolfsson, who made his first pile in Russian brewing, has bought drugmakers in Bulgaria, Serbia and Turkey, and is now buying into India, as a road into the American market. Only 4% of its $500m-or-so turnover today comes from Iceland.
The Icelandic banks helping to finance these acquisitions are themselves buyers. The biggest purchase so far came last year from Kaupthing Bank, Iceland's largest. After earlier lesser but sizeable buys in Finland, Norway, Sweden and Switzerland, it paid $1.25 billion for FI-Holding, a Danish bank strong in corporate lending. In Britain, by early 2004 it held 19.5% of Singer & Friedlander, an investment bank. Burdaras, an Icelandic investment company, later bought a 9.5% stake, and many expect a full Icelandic bid for the London bank, now valued in the market at $950m.
Burdaras itself is 50.2%-owned by three arms of Landsbanki, Iceland's number two, which has overseas ambitions of its own. Formerly state-owned, Landsbanki was privatised in 1998-2003. In 2000 it bought Heritable Bank, a small British housing-finance bank, and in 2003 a private-banking operation in Luxembourg. It has just agreed to buy one of Britain's few surviving independent stockbrokers.
All this from an island of only 300,000 people. Not all the money is Icelandic: SIF, for instance, paid for Labeyrie partly via a syndicated loan in London. Yet it raised $300m, mainly from local sources, in a later share issue; and this soon after a Kaupthing issue had raised $550m. What is the source of Iceland's financial muscle?
A broad answer is almost 14 years of deregulating and privatising government. Specifically, Iceland, like Luxembourg or Ireland, has become a friendly place for financiers and, like Switzerland, is not subject to EU tax-prying: Burdaras's biggest shareholder is Landsbanki's Luxembourg private bank. And corporate profits, taxed at 50% in 1991, and, after cuts, still at 30% in 2001, now pay 18%, the lowest tax-rate in the OECD after Ireland and Hungary.
Few as they are, Icelanders are also feeling richer. After a slide in 2001-02, the economy is back to 4-6% growth. And, with inflation and interest rates mostly low, house prices, bonds and equities have soared in recent years, encouraging a sharp rise in household borrowing. Some of this has gone, indirectly, into investment overseas. Local banks meanwhile have borrowed heavily abroad; an OECD estimate out this week suggests that the country's external debt may have risen by some $6 billion in 2004. A chunk of this has flowed out again into the overseas-investment spree. After all, there are not a lot of attractive opportunities for Iceland's ambitious businessmen at home."
Long article, but worth the read. Thanks, Miguel!