Iceland vs Ireland: Which is worse?

Much has been said recently about the contrasting fortunes of Ireland and Iceland. In 2008, both nations were seriously affected by the global financial crisis with both economies declining substantially. Recent commentators, most notably Paul Krugman, have argued that Iceland's response to the crisis has had a better outcome than Ireland's. Iceland, with its own currency, allowed the Krona to depreciate substantially - a process which caused an inflationary bout. Ireland, on the other hand, is part of the Eurozone and while capital flight has been felt in the Irish bond market, the Irish economy has not undergone a currency depreciation - a process which has caused a bout of deflation.

So in order to discover which nation has had a worse economic experience, I have mined some data at official sites. For Irish GDP data, I downloaded the latest Quarterly National Accounts; for Icelandic GDP, I looked up data at Statistics Iceland. In order to ensure harmony between the two datasets (and thus ensure apples are being compared to apples) I cross checked the data with the latest Eurostat GDP release. Then, via a spreadsheet, I have created an Index comparing the economies of the two nations. Here is that index:

As you can see the current situation is hardly good for either nation. According to this index, Ireland's economy has shrunk by 13.4% since 2007 Q4, while Iceland's has shrunk by 11.7%. The advantage that Iceland has over Ireland in terms of GDP is quite small. Moreover, Ireland's economy has been in trouble longer than Iceland's - it wasn't until 2008 Q4 that Iceland's troubles really began while Ireland's had begun 12 months previously.

Nevertheless, one important indicator shows a huge difference between the two: unemployment. The latest figures from The Economist show that Ireland's unemployment is currently 13.6%, while Iceland's unemployment is 7.5%. Another important indicator is the budget balance. The Economist tells us that Ireland's budget balance is -37% of GDP, while Iceland's is only -7.7%. While both nations have serious problems, these figures seem to show that Ireland's is far worse.

Of course one of the reasons why Iceland and Ireland are so different in their experience of the economic crisis is the one that Krugman likes to champion: devaluation. Iceland has allowed the Krona to devalue while the Irish are "stuck" with the Euro. Yet this argument assumes that exchange rate variations don't really matter - at least over the medium to long term. It is obvious, though, that Iceland's GDP has reduced in value in comparison to the Eurozone simply because of the Krona's devaluation. When we factor in the devaluation of the Krona when comparing the two nations, the difference is much starker:

The data for the Krona's performance against the Euro can be found here. I averaged out the monthly mid-range figures for each quarter. For example the Euro-Krona exchange rate for 2007 Q4 was 88.7466926667 while for 2008 Q1 it was 101.325026. I then assigned an index of 100 for the 2007 Q4 and used the math in the spreadsheet to multiply each quarter's decline in currency to the GDP figures.

According to this graph, Iceland's GDP, as measured in Euro, has declined by a whopping 52.1% since 2007 Q4, which is due to a combination of economic decline and currency devaluation. While Iceland's unemployment rate may be lower than Ireland's, holders of the Krona (ie the citizens, businesses and government of Iceland) have had their wealth taken away... not by taxes, not by spending cuts, not by austerity measures, but by the foreign exchange market.

Ireland has a number of choices, none of them good. One choice is to default on debt. Another choice is to take money away from households and businesses in the form of spending cuts and/or tax increases. Iceland, by contrast, has had these choices forced upon them by the currency devaluation. If Ireland had the choice of default, Iceland has already done this as international creditors have lost out on their investment. If Ireland has the choice to take money away from households and businesses, Iceland has already had this done as the purchasing power of the Krona has been essentially halved.

The Iceland/Ireland battle is an interesting one because it lines up different views of economics: Iceland is favoured by Krugman and those who believe in using inflation as a means to reduce real debt; Ireland is favoured by Europhiles and those who believe that currency devaluations and inflation damage economies; Iceland is favoured by those who are not too concerned about sovereign debt default; Ireland is favoured by those who believe that debt should be paid back, especially sovereign debt; Iceland is favoured by those who believe that the Eurozone and its "one size fits all" monetary policy is doomed to failure; Ireland is favoured by those who see inherent advantages in having a common currency and monetary policy which ensures that the currency retains its value; Iceland is favoured by those who believe that monetary policy should be used by central banks to help grow the economy when needed; Ireland is favoured by those who believe that price stability should be a central bank's sole concern, and that fiscal policy should be used by governments to grow the economy when needed.

My bet, of course, is with Ireland - the Eurozone recovery, led by Germany, will create a demand for Irish goods and services, grow the Irish economy and reduce Irish unemployment. Nevertheless it will be fascinating to see how these two nations perform as years go by.

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