Comparing Iceland and Ireland

Dan O’Brien completes his excellent two-part comparison of the Irish and Icelandic economic crises in the Business section of today’s Irish Times.   Today’s instalment is available here; last week’s here.

Update: Paul Krugman responds here.

Some conclusions (it is important to read the articles for full context):

The first conclusion is that the size of the bubbles in the two economies – rather than anything that happened when or after they burst – was the main determinant in explaining the magnitude of the two calamities.

. . .

The second stand-out fact from a comprehensive comparison between the two economies – in this case since the bursting of the bubbles – has been the role of exports in contributing to recovery. . . . [T]here has not been a significant difference in export performance between Ireland and Iceland.

This is not at all what one would have expected. While being part of the euro protected Ireland from even greater instability during the worst of the crisis, the downside of being locked in to a single currency is that devaluation is unavailable as an option to rapidly regain competitiveness and make adjustment to the shock easier to deal with.

Iceland suffered all the downside of having its own currency, but far less of the upside. Iceland’s export performance has been nowhere near as strong as one would have expected following a 50 per cent devaluation, while Ireland’s has been better than could even have been hoped for.

And the absence of an export boost from exchange rate depreciation has not been confined to Iceland alone. Another neighbour has been similarly disappointed, as the chart illustrates. Despite the weakening of sterling, British exports remain below pre-crisis levels.

No currency regime is perfect and all have positives and negatives. Although things may very well change, at this juncture the benefits for Ireland of being part of a much larger single currency have been considerably greater than the benefits to Iceland of having its own currency.

But the most important policy lesson from all this, it would seem, is that policy actors must be far more willing to make calls on whether bubbles exist and to take measures to deflate them if they conclude that they exist. Of course, this is not easy as there is no way of knowing for sure whether growth is sustainable or mere froth. But given all that has happened, the case for pre-emptive pricking of suspected bubbles appears incontestable.