Bilateral Investment Treaties (BITs) present developing countries with a trade-off. BITs plausibly increase access to international capital in the form of foreign direct investment (FDI), but at the cost of substantially curtailing a government’s policy autonomy. Nearly 3,000 BITs have been entered into, suggesting that many countries have found this an acceptable tradeoff. But governments’ enthusiasm for signing and ratifying BITs has varied considerably across countries and across time. Why are BITs more popular in some places and times than others? We argue that capital scarcity is an important driver of BIT signings: The trade-off inherent in BITs becomes more attractive to governments as the need to secure access to international capital increases. More specifically, we argue that the coincidence of high US interest rates and net external financial liabilities heightens governments’ incentives to secure access to foreign capital, and therefore results in BIT signings. Empirical evidence is consistent with our theory.
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