October 15, 2008 / 3:50 PM / 10 years ago

WRAPUP 4-Iceland slashes rates, Russia studies loan request

(Adds loan talks with Russia end)

By Patrick Lannin and Omar Valdimarsson

REYKJAVIK, Oct 15 (Reuters) - Iceland acted to shore up its ravaged economy by slashing borrowing costs on Wednesday and its officials pursued efforts with Russia to get a multi-billion euro loan to help it over the worst financial crisis in its history.

The second round of talks in Moscow ended with Russia agreeing to consider the request for a loan which the North Atlantic island initially put at 4 billion euros ($5.45 billion). No date was set for a new round of discussions.

“The meeting took place in a friendly atmosphere ... We are working thoroughly on the issue to take a final decision”, Russian Deputy Finance Minister Dmitry Pankin said in a statement after talks ended.

Russian officials say no details have been agreed, although they are looking on the loan request favourably.

Earlier, in Reykjavik, the central bank cut its main interest rate to 12 percent from 15.5 percent, hours before Prime Minister Geir Haarde was due to address parliament on how the government is coping with a crisis that has brought down the banking system and made the local currency untradeable.

Belgium meanwhile offered a lifeline to Iceland’s biggest bank, Kaupthing Bank, and was sending Prime Minister Yves Leterme to visit Iceland on Friday to meet Haarde.

Belgian Finance Minister Didier Reynders told reporters that his government was ready to help rescue Kaupthing, where thousands of Belgians have savings which they are now fearful for.

“We are trying to see how we can help through an intervention of the IMF (International Monetary Fund),” Reynders said on arrival at a European Union summit in Brussels.

Iceland is due to present a plan to the Washington-based IMF in the coming days and is widely expected to seek funds.

The crisis has brought the Washington-based lender sharply into focus again as vulnerable countries turn to it for help. An IMF team was on its way to Ukraine, whose central bank said the country may draw on standby support from the fund.

Iceland’s crisis, however, is somewhat unique. The north Atlantic economy of some 300,000 people is highly developed and years of rapid growth have brought it unprecedented prosperity.

Icelandic banks in recent years embarked on a campaign of unbridled expansion, building up operations overseas but taking on huge debts. When global credit markets froze, the banks found themselves unable to meet obligations.

Now, with the economy reeling, people are confused.

“You do not know what is happening, you do not feel informed. Will the IMF come and take control?” said Arni Gudmundsson, a 29-year-old man who described himself as self-employed.

He said the rate cut was a good idea. “And I think they will have to take them down further simply in order for people to survive.”

BORROWING COSTS

Iceland has had high interest rates for several years as the central bank has tried, unsuccessfully, to rein in inflation. A collapse of the Icelandic crown had added to inflation pressures because Iceland imports so much of its goods.

Importers said on Wednesday that the country had food stocks for about three to five weeks, but needed quickly to restore a proper foreign exchange market so that importers could get back to normal business and avoid shortages.

Politicians have been calling for lower rates in recent days and ordinary Icelanders could not understand what was holding the central bank back.

“Finally they did it, the idiots,” said mason Smari Kauksson, 47. With bank overdraft rates running at 25 percent, life has become tough for many people.

“The next phase of the banking crisis will be difficult with severe economic contraction,” Sedlabanki said in a statement released in Icelandic on its Web site. It added the crisis would mean the loss of many jobs and said it had held informal talks with employers and unions to discuss the situation.

The rate cut “will help companies that will now have to be financed by Icelandic banks. This will be a big help for them,” said Asgeir Jonsson, analyst at Kaupthing. He said inflation would be countered by the sharp fall in the housing market, which accounts for 20 percent of the consumer price index.

Kaupthing, the largest bank in Iceland, was taken over last week by the state along with Landsbanki and Glitnir.

“The main thing is that they have to stabilise the currency and get the payments system going again,” Jonsson said.

A NEW SYSTEM

On Tuesday, Iceland drew on swap facilities it had set up with Nordic nations, tapping Denmark and Norway for 200 million euros ($273 million) each to help get its currency market working again.

Sedlabanki said it had set up a temporary trading system to allow for international currency transactions, while it wanted to continue to limit foreign currency outflows from the country.

Central Bank Governor David Oddsson has come under criticism, some from political leaders, that he had not done enough to stave off the crisis and that his communications had at times exacerbated problems.

Haarde on Tuesday gave his firm backing to Oddsson.

“I have full confidence in him,” Haarde told Reuters when asked whether Oddsson should go. “This is not the time to assess blame for what happened, this is the time to find solutions.” (Additional reporting by Adam Cox, Niklas Pollard and Anna Ringstrom in Stockholm, Lesley Wroughton in Washington, Ingrid Melander in Brussels, Toni Vorobyova and Dmitry Zhdannikov in Moscow; editing by Richard Balmforth)

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