When Should A Country Abandon Its Own Money?

Apr 27, 2012
Originally published on May 7, 2012 10:16 am

Iceland is a tiny nation in a big financial mess. It's still recovering from the aftermath of the 2008 global economic crisis, which caused a domestic banking collapse.

Its currency, the krona, is also in really bad shape. That's led Icelanders to pose an existential currency question: Should they abandon the krona?

One key problem is size. Iceland has about as many people as Staten Island, so there just aren't that many people on the planet who need to use the krona.

"There are more people using Disney dollars," says Arsaell Valfells, an Icelandic economist.

Having a small currency subjects Iceland to high volatility. Before the global economic crisis, money flooded into Iceland's economy.

The krona grew strong, and Iceland felt rich. When the economy crashed, the money rushed out, and the krona plummeted.

It's not clear what Iceland will do. They've discussed adopting the Canadian dollar — a nice, stable currency. Canada has said its open to the idea.

But the economies of Iceland and Canada don't have a lot in common with each other. They don't trade much.

Prime Minister Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir favors a different currency. Her party wants to join the European Union. So she wants to go with the euro.

Or maybe Iceland will stick with the krona — and try to do a better job of keeping it out of trouble.

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Let's talk about a different kind of disaster - financial disaster. After the 2008 financial crisis, all three of the major banks in Iceland collapsed, followed by Iceland's economy and the country's currency, the krona. As the North Atlantic island nation works to recover, it is now seriously looking at getting rid of its currency altogether.

David Kestenbaum, of our Planet Money team, had a talk with Baldur Hedinsson. He works in risk management for an Icelandic bank and in a previous time, was a Planet Money intern.

DAVID KESTENBAUM, BYLINE: Baldur, you worked at Planet Money last year. Now, you're back home in Iceland.

BALDUR HEDINSSON: I am. And our economy, it's still recovering from the whole financial mess. And our currency, the krona, it's in really bad shape. Some people say a part of the problem is size. We're just too small to have our own currency.

KESTENBAUM: Baldur, I was looking at populations. It turns out Staten Island, here in New York, has more people than you do in Iceland.

HEDINSSON: Yeah. My country's so tiny that when we wanted to talk to one of the leading advocates for abandoning the krona, Arsaell Valfells, he came over to my house to talk about it. He's an economist at the University of Iceland.

KESTENBAUM: I joined in by phone.

ARSAELL VALFELLS: There are more people using Disney dollars every day than the Icelandic krona.

KESTENBAUM: Disney dollars?

HEDINSSON: Yeah. You know, the Disney dollar that you get in Disneyland, which is - I think has the inscription: In Chocolate We Trust. There are more people using Disney dollars than the Icelandic krona.

KESTENBAUM: And having a small currency, it does make you vulnerable. Before the economic crisis, during the boom, money flooded into Iceland's little economy.

HEDINSSON: And the krona got stronger, and we all felt very rich.

KESTENBAUM: But then the economy crashed and the money rushed out, causing the value of the krona to plummet. So, OK, if you want to replace the krona, you've got another problem - what do you replace it with?

HEDINSSON: Arsaell, the economist, he has an idea. He thinks we should adopt the currency of Canada.

KESTENBAUM: The Canadian dollar, sometimes called the loonie because Canada has a loon on its one-dollar coin.

HEDINSSON: We'd go from money with our own, historic heroes on it - to a bird. Arsaell doesn't really mind.

VALFELLS: The loom is one of the most beautiful birds here in Iceland as well. So we call them loom; the Canadians call them the loonie. And why not have the loom or the loonie?

KESTENBAUM: The Canadian dollar is very stable. But Baldur, I should point out: No country has ever adopted the Canadian dollar.

HEDINSSON: That's true. But these are strange times in Iceland.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)

HEDINSSON: This is the noon news hour on Iceland's public radio. And this guy coming up, he's Canada's ambassador to Iceland.

KESTENBAUM: His name is Alan Bones.


AMBASSADOR ALAN BONES: We're certainly open to discussing the issue, if Iceland makes that request.

KESTENBAUM: If you're going to adopt another currency, you want to have something economically in common with that country. I was looking at your trade numbers. You don't actually trade a lot with Canada.

HEDINSSON: That's why our prime minister, Johanna Sigurdardottir, she favors a different currency. Her party wants to join the European Union and adopt the euro.

KESTENBAUM: The euro has its own problems, and that's the hard thing here. We asked a bunch of economists, and they all gave different advice.

HEDINSSON: Sometimes here, you see people looking outside of economics for answers - like the mayor of Reykjavik, Jon Gnarr.

KESTENBAUM: This is the guy who was a surrealist comedian before getting elected?

HEDINSSON: Yeah. And here he is in an interview with euronews.


MAYOR JON GNARR: The dollar is much cooler than the euro. I mean, the euro isn't that cool. I mean, it's - the graphics of it are, like, quite dull. But the dollar is cool. I mean, it has this, you know, that precedence - and the coolness about it.

KESTENBAUM: Finally, Baldur, you know, my feelings were getting kind of hurt.

HEDINSSON: Don't worry, David, the U.S. dollar is definitely on the table. And there is one other idea, which is that we stick with what we have - the krona - and we just try to do a better job of keeping it out of trouble. You know, I kind of like that idea.

KESTENBAUM: Good luck, man.

HEDINSSON: Thank you, David.

KESTENBAUM: I'm David Kestenbaum.

HEDINSSON: And I'm Baldur Hedinsson, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.