Why is the Icelandic taxpayer on the hook, asks Jonathan? The short answer is: blame Europe!
Everyone knows about the European Union, the big confederation (with some federal characteristics) of countries sitting there on the Old Continent. Fewer people know about the European Economic Area. The EEA is basically an agreement under which Iceland, Norway, and ... er ... Liechtenstein get access to the European market in return for adopting some E.U. laws and regulations. (Switzerland has basically replicated the same arrangements without formally signing on to the EEA.) The EEA required its members to adopt European law on deposit insurance in return for granting EEA banks the right to branch into the E.U. As a result, Iceland adopted a deposit-insurance scheme in 1999.
Click the link on the Icelandic scheme. (Or keep reading.) Scroll down to Chapter 5, Article 10. It reads: “This amount shall be linked to the EUR exchange rate of 5 January 1999.” The reason is quite simple: the E.U. law required countries to create schemes that insured deposit accounts with a value of at least €20,000. Ergo, the Icelandic scheme guaranteed €20,887. Now, the scheme was financed by a 1% levy on bank deposits and was rather vague about what would happen if it could not meet its obligations. Was the government then responsible? Were savers then on their own? What?
The 300,000 British depositors who fell in love with the 6% rates that Landsbanki offered through its “Icesave” accounts did not seem troubled by these distinctions. They deposited £5 billion. In an Icelandic bank. A bank they had never heard of before 2006 based on a tiny island of 300,000 people. Any resemblance to Barbados is entirely coincidental. Barbadian banks do not do this sort of thing. This may be because Barbadian bankers have banked for some time, while the Icelandics were pretty green.
Maybe the Britons thought that Iceland was in the Caribbean? More likely they were taken in by a message that Britain’s financial regulators allowed to stand on its website: “You can also rest assured that with Icesave you are offered the same level of financial protection as every bank in the U.K.”
Well, when Iceland finally went kablooie, worried Britons began a run on Landsbanki, which led to a rather remarkable conversation between Iceland’s finance minister, Árni Mathiesen, and Chancellor Alistair Darling of the United Kingdom:
Darling: “Do I understand that you guarantee the deposits of Icelandic depositors?”
Mathiesen: “Yes, we guarantee the deposits in the banks and branches here in Iceland.”
Darling: “But not the branches outside Iceland?”
Mathiesen: “No, not outside of what was already in the letter that we sent.”
Darling: “But is that not in breach of the EEA treaty?”
Mathiesen: “No, we don’t think so ... Since we can’t cure the domestic situation, we can’t really do anything about things that are abroad.”
Darling: “See, I need to know this in terms of what I tell people. It’s quite possible that there is not enough money in [Iceland’s depositor guarantee] fund. Is that right?”
Mathiesen: “Yes, that is quite possible.”
Darling: “You have to understand that the reputation of your country is going to be terrible. It really is a very, very difficult situation where people thought they were covered and then they discover the insurance fund hasn’t got any money in it.”
After hanging up the phone, Darling did something even more remarkable: declare Iceland a terrorist state. It was the easiest way to freeze Landsbanki assets inside the U.K. (Sadly, most of Landsbanki’s assets were not in the U.K.) He then guaranteed that British depositors would be repaid in full. Good politics, of course, and probably needed to prevent crippling bank runs in Britain, where a lot of foreign banks operate.
At that point, Darling went back to Iceland — which desperately needed financial support from other Nordic countries to prevent runs there and obtain IMF money — and convined them to pass a bill that would pay Britain back for the money it spent supporting the deposits of its citizens who had placed their money in the banks of a terrorist state. Icelandic voters, for some reason, were miffed by that ... and the result was the referendum.
What happens now is anyone’s guess, although I am fairly confident that my most excellent proposal will not be adopted. Answer your question, LT?