By James Kwak
Like probably most people, I have not been following the saga of Iceland and its banks’ foreign depositors, so I was grateful for Planet Money’s podcast last week on the topic. The background, as I understand it, is something like this:
- Iceland’s banks offered high-rate savings accounts to depositors in other countries, notably the United Kingdom and the Netherlands. These accounts did not have an explicit government guarantee.
- In 2008, the global financial system nearly collapsed, Iceland’s banks failed, and depositors got more or less wiped out.
- Iceland, unlike Ireland, did not guarantee its banks’ liabilities. It did, however, choose to bail out domestic depositors in those banks — but not foreign depositors.
- The U.K. and the Netherlands both chose to bail out their citizens who had deposited money in Iceland’s banks.
- The U.K. and the Netherlands then tried to get the Icelandic government to pay them back. They negotiated a settlement, but that was rejected by a popular referendum in Iceland. Then they negotiated another settlement (which would have cost Iceland about $6,000 per person), but that was also rejected.
Now, there is a legal question about whether or not Iceland has an obligation to bail out foreign depositors in its banks. Remember, there was no explicit government guarantee. The question is whether bailing out domestic but not foreign depositors is illegal discrimination under international law.* Apparently that’s a close question, but it’s not relevant for my purposes.
The economic question, as the podcast framed it, is whether paying off the U.K. and Dutch governments will help Iceland attract foreign investment in the future. They had a bond investor from Vanguard — ordinarily just about my favorite financial institution — saying that a vote against the settlement would make investors less likely to lend money to the Icelandic economy in the future.
Now, this may be true (although I doubt it). But think about what this is really saying.