Did Rapid Expansion Cause Icelandic Banks To Fail

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Are banks just too big to fail? In October 2008, as the impact of the global financial crisis, three largest commercial banks in Iceland, namely Glitnir, Landsbanki and Kaupthing successively placed into receivership by the government (Lyall, 2008), and forced to seek the International Monetary Fund bailout. However, the three banks represented 85% of total assets in the country’s banking system, along with the overseas assets, that was too big to rescue. As the consequences, the whole nation economic were sucked with banks into the whirlpool and the government has declared national bankruptcy later on.

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However, it does not end; the citizens blamed government in the way of handling the crisis, followed by unprecedented wave of public protest. As the result, in January 2009 the government was forced to resign (Stringer, 2009).

Up until the banking crisis, the three banks combined debt is six times the nation’s GDP of £35billion which the amount is equal to £116,000 owed to every single citizen in Iceland (Dailymail, 2008). It would be the one of the worse collapse in financial history. With the population of 300,000, the banks deeply involved in global financial activities before downturn, it brings the nation into bankruptcy. After the bankruptcy was announced, it has affected 420,000 British and Dutch customers, and bank assets which are frozen held by hospitals, police station, council and universities (Brogger, 2008). The bank collapse seems unreal. Everybody panicked when the Kroner dropped 58% by the end of November 2008 and inflation hit 19% by January 2009 (Onaran, 2011). The failure has bought down the government and ruined the jobs opportunity.


Iceland is said to be the smallest economy in the world that have its own currency and an adjustable exchange rate (Articlesbase, 2007). Icelanders were one of the citizens that enjoy a very high standard of living in the world. Its capita income, education, health care and life expectancy was rated as third highest in the world. (Lesova, Telegraph, 2008). GDP per capita was ranked 5th in the world in 2006 (go-to-iceland.com, 2006). The nation main activities are fishery and metals exports besides banking sector.

In 1990’s, Iceland decided to follow other small countries such as Switzerland and Luxembourg to develop their economic future in banking sector. Due to the government policies and deregulation in banking sector, in 2001, the banking mushroomed as a result of low interest rates and cheap money pumped by US Federal Reserve. Iceland expands their banks financial position almost eleven times their GDP amounted to $209billion (Onaran, 2011). Oddsson (cited in Onaran, 2011) noted the country’s top three largest banks had created thousands of well-paid workers and handling most of the highest trade individuals and companies.


The fall of Icelandic three major banks in October 2008 was very rare, first time indeed, in financial history. Jensen (cited in Mail Online, 2008) pointed the effect of banking collapsed in Iceland has been way different than other country where it further cause the whole nation suffered in the crisis. This study investigated the perceived causes that led to the bankruptcy of Icelandic banks by setting the objectives as follow.

To investigate whether the failure of Icelandic banks due to rapid expansion.

To investigate whether the failure of Icelandic banks due to highly leveraged.

To investigate whether the failure of Icelandic banks due to fraud.


1. Did rapid expansion cause Icelandic banks to fail?

2. Did leverage cause Icelandic banks to fail?

3. Did fraud cause Icelandic banks to fail?


The study target on the three largest banks in Iceland, Kaupthing, Landsbanki, and Glitnir, which represent 85% of total assets in the country’s banking sector. Also focus on the factors that cause them failed. They are rapid expansion, leverage, and fraud. Besides, the recent global financial crisis was part of the study as well, which believed has bring significant impact on Iceland banking system.


Bank failure has a huge adverse effect on the economy and so the stability of banks is very significant. The collapse of the Icelandic banking system is the single biggest mistakes suffered by any country and the most comprehensive in the banking crisis history apart from the Lehman Brothers, in the recent financial crisis (Waibel, 2010). The total debts of the Icelandic banks are way too huge for the government to repay. The collapse of the three major banks in Iceland is the main driver which led to the nation bankrupts. This study is beneficial to identify the factors that can be avoided in assisting financial sector, academic sector and public for a better economy. Learning what went wrong is vital to strengthen the stability of economy. It can be realized that, Iceland case has greatly reported by newspapers and articles all around the world. Hence made many countries concern the possibility of their nation going bankrupt, they started to put more afford into banking sector in order to avoid such incident replay in their country.


Chapter 1 is the introductory chapter where the objectives and importance of this study were raised to form a rationale behind the study. This chapter includes the background of three Icelandic banks, research questions, scope and significance of study.

Chapter 2 analyzes on factors and analyzes on various theories on some of the factors that caused banks collapse. Factors will consist of rapid expansion, leverage and fraud.

Chapter 3 is the research methodology which stated the methods that were used to carry out this study. This chapter included data collection, research design and theoretical framework.

Chapter 4 is where empirical findings and case studies were gathered.

Chapter 5 is where conclusions of this study were made. Besides, limitations of study and recommendations were also included in this chapter.



Rapid expansion interprets as unusual growing rate, usually found in frequent transaction and excessive trading volumes in short period. In reality, business expansion is seen favourable in layman, as it likely to bring more profits into the business. However, looking back to history, it has shown that many companies filed bankruptcy as a result of uncontrolled growing rate. Financial journalists advice don’t go aggressive, otherwise the business would expose to liquidity risk which leads to insolvency. In fact, don’t we know the principle of too much water drowned the miller? The answer probably will be yes, we do know it well, most of the people are aware of the latency risk, but the reality is people always gone mad with the attractive outcome. Adams (2001) stressed it’s good to grow the business, but never ever set growth as the main objective of the business, as it can lead to failure.

Generally, business expansion can be classified into two fields, namely internal growing and external growing. It is important to distinguish them especially in banking system. The internal growth of banks mainly refer to the organic growth itself, also the bank intention to issues more loans and thereby increases its loan portfolio. On the other hand, external growth comes from the form of buying assets, or acquisitions, joint venture, often within the same industry which has similar characteristic.

Bank is passionate in increasing its lending portfolio. Lending is said to be the effective way for bank to expand its business. By lending out money, bank can earn higher interests through loan issued, thereby generate more income. Agricultural Bank of China (ABC) has reported high profit growth, backed by rapid lending expansion that has driven them into stock market listing. Its net profit has boom 13% to $49.7billion in 2009. Besides, its total assets amounted to 8.6trillion Yuan, evolved into the nation top bank. (cited in Wang, 2009).

In addition, a research did in Lebanese banking sector shows its lending activity posting 23.1% growth to $34.9billion in 2010. It was said that the nation’s banking sector displayed a favourable performance with strong bank lending that can boost the declining inflows. (The Daily Star, 2011). A research conducted by Jayaratne and Strahan (1996) has proved that the bank lending in the United States contributes to the economic growth. Nevertheless, they pointed out that banks must be responsible to the loans issued. Blindly increased the volume of bank lending will bring negative impacts such as bankruptcy and should be discouraged.

Regarding to this, some researchers has pointed out the fuse of recent recession was linked back to the banking deregulation since 1980’s. The banking sector in the United States has gone through substantial deregulation. Most of the restrictions have been loosen, such as qualification for getting bank loans, limits of the bank transaction have been almost ignored and etc (Strahan, 2003). In fact, there are many researches has been carried out as regard to the banking sector deregulation issue. The researchers often argue whether deregulation in the banking sector, especially those fast growing bank has affected the quality of the lending. As a result for banking deregulation, it created more competition in the sector. Keeley (cited in Carletti, 2005) found out the low margins of banks is the reason that encourage them to put themselves into higher risk in order to improve the profitability. However, higher risk will exposed them to higher chance of failure. Excessive internal growth will lead to lack of management and supervision; hence deteriorate the quality of the loans. A bad loan will make default to be easier (Report of the Special Investigation Commission, 2010).

Generally, a loan that is not making income anymore to the lender is classified as non-performing loan in banking term. It is a default loan and can be defined as bad debts in the business (Charles, 2010). Non-performing loan is recorded as a loss in bank’s income statement, and normally will cause the bank to distress when there is a large amount incurred, especially encounter crisis.

For instance, before the US housing bubble burst in 2006, prices went up drastically which prompted a lot people, especially household and growing firms to borrow money from bank into real estate investment purpose. Due to the high demand, bank see it as an opportunity of earning more profits, it induced them to borrowed more money from outsiders and depositors, in turn issue loans to the people. Bank earns higher interest in this process. In practice, depositors are the bank’s creditors (Daily Champion, 2001). However, the large amounts of lending is likely to cause non-performing loan outburst during crisis, which cause the bank unable to collect back its debt and refinance to its creditor. The situation gets worse when the banks suffer bank run (sudden withdrawal by depositors). In this case, the banks have to declared insolvency.

An empirical study by Hou (n.d) has showed high level of non-performing loan that caused by over lending is the root that cause of bank collapse. He added non-performing loans caused by over lending can cause the economic bogged down. Furthermore, an investigation on loan growth and the riskiness conducted by Norden and Weber (2010) on 16,000 banks over 16 countries in year 1997 to 2007 has shown loan growth is an important factor of the banks risks. In China, the government punished some banks for their over lending transactions (Dealbook, 2010).

On the other hand, the contributions of external growth shall be highlighted. In fact, the structure of external growth is much obvious and simple than internal growth, which is in the form of merger and acquisition. Yet, it is widely adopted and deemed as more efficient in achieving the business objectives than the former (Highbeam, 1997). One of the advantages is that it can help the business to realize maximum growth potential at the right pace, given that the internal growth pattern is limited or meet other constraints. However, it was said that the external growth has to be monitor closely to ensure the objectives of the banks is followed (Maughan, 2011).

Hunger and Wheelen (cited in Grashaw, 2010) noted that most of the research concluded that the company growing through external growth does not perform financially well. Instead, company which depend on internal growth tend to present better financial position. This is due to mistimed or misjudged created during the takeover process. Generally, the risk associated with acquisitions is that too high a price is paid for the acquired asset. The situation gets worse when the crisis hits. For instance, the bank is paying big amount to acquire others assets during housing bubble period, this eventually cause them suffer a big losses when the price level has drops. This can be explained in the way that the income generated from its new assets is not equivalent to what had paid. In other word too high the price paid (Ngfl, 2007). In addition, the business has to find more sources to finance its new assets operations during this critical moment, which is seen as the main driver of running off the working capital. This is significant especially in the banking sector as it can cause chain effect which will eventually lead to liquidity distress. Recent studies have established that if merger and acquisitions in banks if allowed in a controlled manner would significantly reduce the bankruptcy risk of the merged entity (Scribd, n.d.).


Leverage’s root word “lever� is the French word which means to raise or to enhance. In finance term, it is an action or technique of raising capital to the existing business by borrowing. An entity that is engaged in borrowing money to finance the business is said to be leveraged. Typically, there are two ways of financing sources for a business to form its capital structure, through debt financing or equity financing.

Most often, leveraging involves the issuances of financial instruments such as bonds, notes, debentures and preference shares. In exchange for lending money, the buyer (bonds holder) becomes the creditors to that particular entity (Raymond, 2011). They are entitled to receive interest until their loan redeemed. According to McLaney (2006), short term debt financing usually used to meet operating or regulatory requirements, the repayment due within five years time. While long term debt usually used by company to finance its long term project, due after five years.

On the other hand, equity financing refer to the exchange of money to the business ownership particular in ordinary shares. This type of financing does not involve debt, the buyer (shareholders) will received dividend as the return when the business is making profits. However, this financing method is not likely to be used by most of the business entity, consider the issuance of new shares to new investors may dilute the ownership interest and reduction of controlling on the business ownership (Toolkit, 2011; Finance Website, 2009). What’s more, it is a demanding procedure for an entity to issue shares, time and the expenses incurred are relatively high. Therefore most of the companies nowadays prefer debt financing source rather than equity financing. Baker and Powell (2005) said managers prefer issuing debt securities rather than new shares when seeking for external financing sources. This is because debt financing leads to the increase of company value, while equity financing on the contrary, will cause the company value drops.

Traditionally, debt is a liability and deemed as something that is unfavourable to an entity which should be avoided. However, debt is seen favourable when being used properly. This was supported by CPA Thomas Emmerling, he said debt is always better than any other form of financing when comes to the cost of capital (cited in Franczyk, 2005). Rao (1989) in his book pointed out various advantages of debt financing to the business particular in:

Interest payment on borrowing is regards as tax deductible

Undilution of shareholding control

Relatively low cost to issue debt than equity

Function as business catalyst, boost business income

Besides that, it benefits the entity by leverage little amount of debt which could eventually bring them more income (Rich Credit Debt Loan, 2011). Hence, the objective of the leverage is met, and that we call it positive leverage. Waggoner (2008) argues that the impact of leverage has to be understood. Leverage can provide an incentive to generate income. Therefore leverage, more specifically debts that applied is not necessarily bringing harm to the business.

Besides of generating more income, debt leverage can also used to increase the entity net worth or cash flow. John Waskin, CEO of American Credit Counsellors said "Good debt produces cash flow, and bad debt doesn’t". He stressed on the using of debt leverage facility could create a lot of benefits to the business (Billion Dollar Income, 2010; Getlen, 2008).

Hutchinson (2008) said leverage financing method become widespread in the banking sector. He explains the more assets they control, the more return they can earn. In banking sector, debt leverage is a common technique when they engage in daily activities. For example, In order to multiply the income and capacity of lending, they will issue bonds to raise its capital by borrow more money from other financial institutions and lend it to other parties by charging at higher interest rate (EMAC Committee Members, 2010). Debt leverage is a favourable tool presuming there is no default exists in the whole process, and bank has collected back all loan issued, along with the interest imposed.

Leverage contains high risk when the obligation is default. When bank is unable to collect back the money and they have to suffer the loss thereby no payment will be made to its creditors, especially when the bonds are due. For instance, this situation has reflected in recent housing bubble in US where the bank used depositors fund to lend it out to parties in real estate investment. When the housing price drops (biggest drop was 32.7% in year 2008) (Mantell, 2008) and the debtor does not payback the debt, the bank will lost all of its deposits and declare insolvency (Kalid, 2008).

Apart from that, Murray (2011), argue that appropriate volume of leverage is allowable and can be use to increase the rate of return. However, if the business has excessive amount of borrowing (overleveraged), it may has difficulties to finance the debts when it is due. A bank will be vulnerable when the level of borrowing hits certain level. Besides that, Peavler (2011) emphasized that the firm is running the risk of filling into bankruptcy each time they use debt financing. The higher level of debt financing, the higher chance the firm will bankrupt. Glantz (2003) proposed the use of debt to equity ratio (leverage ratio) to identify the risk of a company. The formula is given as follow.

Leverage ratio = Debts


The definition of leverage ratio is that, the higher the leverage ratio means the company is using more debt financing source, vice versa. For example, if an institution has $10million in debt and $2million in equity, it is said to have a leverage ratio of 5.0. Thus, leverage ratio tends to indicate the level of the debt financing in a company.

Fisher suggests the 2-to-1 of assets to liabilities ratio rule should be imposed by company when come to financing decision, more than that could bring the company to fail (cited in Franczyk, 2005). However, this was objected by Franczyk, claiming that there is no fixed rule on the leverage amount; it has to depend on the nature of the company (Franczyk, 2005; Yahoo Finance, 2011). His statement was supported by other researcher, complex entity such as financial institutions and bank doesn’t have standard ratio in leverage. Maudlin (2009) illustrated with some of the Europe banks especially in Greece, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Ireland and Britain were reportedly hit leverage ratio at 50:1 and yet they still surviving. He further pointed out these banks were heavily involved into Eastern European projects which currently faced financial difficulties and plummeted local currencies. EU Commission has growing concern on the ability of these banks to payback the debt.

Generally speaking, debt leverage is favourable to business, but it is advised do not overleveraged. It is essential for business to use a balance between the combination of debt and equity financing (Biztrademarket, 2009). Regarding to this, McLaney (2006), proposed the traditional view of capital structure, where it indicates the effect of borrowing on Weighted Average Cost of Capital (WACC). WACC is an expression of a cost which is used to see whether the intended investment is worthwhile to undertake or not. The lower the WACC, the lesser risk the company bear (Chryanthou, 2008).

Figure A: Traditional view of the effect of borrowing on WACC

The traditional view of capital structure states that at the initial stage of company borrowing (gearing (UK) or leverage (US)), the advantages of cheap cost of debt and tax advantage will cause WACC to fall (Favourable). However, as the gearing increases, shareholder will demand for higher return for higher risk they bear (i.e., cost of equity rises). At the same time cost of debt also rises because the chances of company defaulting on debt are higher. Therefore, WACC will increase (Unfavourable) and a U curve is created.

Based on Figure A, the result is that, a minimum WACC is identified and that is the point of optimal gearing/leveraging level. The design of this structure tends to give the indication on how much leveraging level should be taken, also, in the attempt to reduce the business risk to the lowest possible point.


A series of financial fraud in the past has shaken the confidence in financial market. Fraud had been remains high and is one the leading cause of bank failures. How could fraud unnoticed at the first place? Appearances can be deceiving until it’s too late to reverse the situation. Some financial fraud contains signs yet investors and shareholders fail to observe the warning shown. Good judgement derive from experience, experience derive from poor judgement. An understanding on financial fraud is to look back at the history of fraud incident and successfully overcome the mistakes done. Financial fraud is a crime. The National Criminal Intelligence Service (NCIS) says more than 70 percent of doubtful transactions reported are contributed by banks (Murray-West, 2004). Those convicted with fraud will always walk away richer even though fraud has failed in the bank. Wilson (1999) noted financial scandal could happen again due to its temptation of attractive rewards to people. There is an increase of financial fraud in US, UK and Asia. If fraud comes to rule the system, it will ruin the business. Ade and Wole (cited in Socyberty, 2008) stated that fraud is a virus spread from banking that might harm other sector. However, it received little attention they said. Investigation on fraud activities is important as the lesson of the consequences from dishonest actions can make aware to businessman, politician and regulators.

Recognizing on types of fraud in the bank is important to sustain them in the long run. The few common type of fraud is insider lending, asset misappropriation, false accounting, bribery and corruption.

Growing complexity of the bank has made way for fraud to be committed by any groups in the bank. For example, company’s management, company’s employees, third parties and customers may have involved on it. Insider fraudster is a serious threat to the bank in the words of a representative from Serious Fraud Office (Murray-West, 2004). Furthermore, Cull (2011) argues that lending to bank insiders is the main cause that leads to non-performing loan occurred. She pointed out bank prefer to make loans to their close associated or own shareholder which easier for them to monitor. But on the other hand, this allow insider borrower to transfer out money illegally when the credit crisis take place. At this point, the insiders have taken the opportunity to made loans and default it later on in order to sustain their own business organization.

Many cases of financial fraud have involved individuals that outstanding perform in job. They are capable to transfer out large sums of amount from the bank. Ironically, the outstanding performing staffs that bring the most profit to the bank required the most observation. Palmer (cited in Murray-West, 2004) stated individual that has engaged in fraudulent transaction are those who greatly preferred due to higher ability to earn money for bank. Black (cited in Galbrait, 2010) stated financial fraud is likely to happen when you can be in charge of the bank. Given the authority to manage the bank, it is always easy to involve their self in fraud. Heineman (cited in Brigham and Linssen, 2008) stated CEOs are the individual that are responsible that contributed the fraud in Enron and WorldCom. Someone that is performing great will less likely to be question by public, other executives in the bank or shareholders. The management is clueless on how are those CEOs control the entity. They failed on handling accounting, finance, risk, legal, human resources, operational and boards. Other than CEO, individual such as Nick Leeson has brought down Barings Bank with fraudulent activities when top management did not question his activities in the bank (Pressman, 1988). Nick Leeson hides errors and losses in the hopes that luck may reverse while speculate the fake account to earn money with foreign currency.

Asset misappropriation is the common and easiest to occur. An asset misappropriation includes payroll fraud, check forgery, theft of money and services. Statistics show that asset misappropriation made up to 91% but the least expensive fraud (Coenen, 2008). The founder of Independent Insurance and two of its executives has bought down Britain’s largest insurance companies. They were involved in off-balance sheet accounting which is keeping information on contracts away from the main system.

False accounting has been very common that cause institution failures over the years. False accounting is often done by overstating or understating profit or liabilities to show a stable balance sheet. This is done to attract customers and investors. Palmer (2004) noted banks uncover questionable transactions in order to maintain their reputation on outsiders view. There is no incentive for bank to reveal the real information to customers and investors. The manipulation of financial statement can enhance the bank’s earning by making it more appealing and create more financial opportunities. Sarbanes (cited in Brigham & Linssen, 2008) said public companies with good reputation are convicted into fraudulent practice to exaggerate profit and rise up stock prices with their auditors. However, the cost of false accounting is large and widespread. Matthew Piper lost £60million in Morgan Stanley, one the largest investment bank when he overstated the profit. (Power, Edwards and Bloxham, 2008).

Bribery and corruption include investment scheme fraud, bribes to influence decision-making, and manipulation of contracts. It is reported that bribery and corruption is cost more than asset manipulation. Two SFO were bribed £800,000 to ensure loans of £13m are successfully deal the owner of Facia (Murray-West, 2004).

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