Basically the US & UK banks were much bigger than Iceland's... which makes the issue of diffuse responsibility more significant.
It's a matter of diffuse responsibility said James Cox, a professor at the Duke University Fuqua School of Business.
"These people are pretty darn good at what they say on the phone and what they say in emails, so that it doesn't come back to haunt them," he said. "My reading between the lines in all of these cases is that the government doesn't believe that it can put together enough knowledge by particular people about the violations that are being committed."
"It's very difficult to establish, and the bigger the organization the more people who touch a transaction," he added. "So you might have a collective knowledge, but it's not enough individual knowledge for the government to launch a prosecution."
So it's a lot easier to fine a corporation, particularly in the US, where a deferred-prosecution deal can be struck (in exchange for a fine) than to go through with full-blown case. Furthermore, the consolidation of the banking sector in the US has exacerbated this trend, leading to prosecutorial skittishness compounding the difficulty:
In 2013, Eric Holder, then the Attorney General, acknowledged that decades of deregulation and mergers had left the U.S. economy heavily consolidated. It was therefore “difficult to prosecute” the major banks, because indictments could “have a negative impact on the national economy, perhaps even the world economy.”
Prosecutors came to rely instead on a type of deal, known as a deferred-prosecution agreement, in which the company would acknowledge wrongdoing, pay a fine, and pledge to improve its corporate culture. From 2002 to 2016, the Department of Justice entered into more than four hundred of these arrangements. Having spent a trillion dollars to bail out the banks in 2008 and 2009, the federal government may have been loath to jeopardize the fortunes of those banks by prosecuting them just a few years later.
So basically "too big to fail" had as consequence "too big to jail", or al least that's a fairly widespread view.
There's one other case, Ireland where some top bankers wes jailed, but...
Ahead of the sentencing, Mr Drumm acknowledged the "huge error in judgement" in arranging the transfer of €7.2bn (£5.4bn) to inflate the imploding bank's balance sheet in 2008.
Judge Karen O'Connor said: "This court is not sentencing Mr Drumm for causing the financial crisis. Nor is this court sentencing Mr Drumm for the recession which occurred.
"This offending did not cause Anglo Irish Bank to collapse.
"This court will sentence Mr Drumm only for the two specific offences for which he has been convicted."
So possibly with the exception of Iceland, no bank leaders were held individually accountable for the events leading to the crisis. The US SIGTARP convictions were for misusing bailout money, not for causing the initial crisis:
The US government set up the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) in October 2008 to buy toxic assets from financial institutions – initially injecting $700 billion into the market.
But within a few years, some analysts had started to raise concerns that the TARP money wasn’t being used for its intended purposes. The office of the Special Inspector General for the Troubled Asset Relief Program (SIGTARP) began looking at alleged misuse of funds.
I did find a case of US bank CEO convicted for TARP fraud, but it looks like a pretty small bank:
Darryl Layne Woods, the former CEO of a Missouri bank, admitted in court yesterday to using financial crisis bailout funds to purchase a luxury waterfront condo in Florida, Dealbook's Peter Lattman reports.
In November 2008, Woods, 48, who was the head of Mainstreet Bank and the bank's holding company Calvert Financial Corporation, applied for TARP money on behalf of his bank, a press release states.
In January 2009, his bank received $1,037,000. A month later, he used $381,487 of it to buy a place in Fort Myers, Florida.
He pleaded guilty to misleading federal investigators about how he used the TARP money.
In Iceland's case, all the three big banks that were involved in the crisis (Kaupthing, Landsbanki, Glitnir) had their leadership or at least high-level management convicted. So that is a qualitative difference.
But there's another difference, from an in-depth analysis, most of the convictions on the 3 big Icelandic banks (which accounted for 95% of its banking sector at the time), were for reasons pretty similar to the Anglo Irish Bank case:
One of the motivations for a bank to fund its own shares was market
manipulation. Once the liquidity crisis started in the summer of 2007, the
banks’ share prices came under severe pressure. The banks all reacted in
the same manner: They purchased about 50 percent of all trades with their
shares that came through the stock exchanges. [...]
In total, the banks purchased their own shares on the stock
exchanges for over €3.5 billion in the last 20 months before their failure,
while they only sold less than €0.5 billion of their shares on the exchanges.
The banks could not own these shares due to rules that limited ownership
of own shares, so they sold them over the counter, outside the stock
exchanges, to holding companies, which were often owned by insiders or
large customers. These sales were frequently coupled with a loan amounting
to the full purchase price of the shares. The only collateral for the loan
were the shares themselves (SIC, chap. 12). [...]
As the crisis intensified, it was clear that these loans
were not handled like loans for unrelated shares. For instance, the banks
repeatedly waived margin calls (SIC, chap. 12, p. 17). The SIC report goes
step by step over a number of these deals, which were obviously made in
an attempt to manipulate the banks’ market price. Additionally, this process
increased systemic risk, as the equity of the banks became fictional, and
thus it lost its loss-absorbing capacity. The managers of two of the three
banks have been found guilty by the Icelandic Supreme Court of market
manipulation, and the third case is now being prosecuted.
This practice of a bank lending for its own shares was not limited to
Icelandic banks. In Ireland, for instance, there was a high-profile case about
lending to the so-called Golden Circle, or Maple 10. Anglo Irish Bank lent
€450 million to 10 investors for them to reinvest in the bank’s shares to
bolster its share price (Crimmins, Gergely, and Saul 2009). This amplified
the Irish government’s loss from the banking crisis. Similarly, Britain’s
Serious Fraud Office (2017) charged four senior executives of Barclays for
extending loans to investors to buy its own shares so as to prop up its stock
price. The investor, who was not accused of wrongdoing in this case, was
also involved in a similar market manipulation trade with Kaupþing.
So Iceland's top/main bankers went to jail for stuff (mostly market manipulation) that also sent to jail (or at least brought charges against) bankers elsewhere.