With banks around the world revealing massive profits and huge bonuses, governments are getting increasingly uneasy that their bailouts have lined the pockets of bank executives. Not surprisingly voters are demanding that bankers should not be rewarded for their reckless behaviour. After all, it was taxpayers’ money that prevented many banks going bankrupt during the credit crunch.
Banks, of course, seek to justify the bonuses. If you don’t pay large bonuses, they maintain, then senior staff will leave and profits will suffer. It’s nothing to do with ‘morality’, they claim. It’s the market. ‘If you don’t pay the market rate, then executives will leave and take higher-paid jobs elsewhere.’
So are governments calling this bluff? In his pre-Budget report in December, the UK’s Chancellor of the Exchequer, Alistair Darling, announced a 50% tax on bank bonuses over £25,000. This was followed by an announcement by Nicholas Sarkozy that the French government would impose a similar 50% tax on bonuses over €27,500.
Then in mid January, President Obama proposed a tax on financial institutions with balance sheets above $50 billion. This would be levied at a rate of 0.15 percent of certain assets. But this was not a tax on bank bonuses, as favoured by the British and French governments, nor a tax on financial transactions – a type of Tobin tax – as favoured by Angela Merkel (see Tobin or not Tobin: the tax proposal that keeps reappearing). Nevertheless, it was another way of recouping for the taxpayer some of the money used to rescue banks and prevent a banking collapse.
So is this payback time for bankers, or will it simply be bank shareholders that suffer? And why can banks pay such large bonuses in the face of so much public hostility? The following articles explore the issues.
To leave or not to leave: the supertax question Financial Times, Patrick Jenkins and Kate Burgess (9/1/10)
French tax to raise €360m Financial Times, Scheherazade Daneshkhu and Ben Hall (13/1/10)
Oversized bank bonuses: classic case of overcharging The Business Times (Singapore), Anthony Rowley (15/1/10)
Obama vows to recoup ‘every dime’ taxpayers lent banks Belfast Telegraph (15/1/10)
Obama outlines $117bn bank levy (including video) BBC News (14/1/10)
Obama lays out his proposal to tax big US banks Sydney Morning Herald, Jackie Calmes (16/1/10)
Obama’s bank tax will only work if there’s a master plan in place Telegraph, Tracy Corrigan (14/1/10)
Turning the tables The Economist (14/1/10)
Obama’s bigger rod for banks BBC News, Peston’s Picks, Robert Peston (14/1/10)
Will Obama’s tax go global? BBC News, Peston’s Picks, Robert Peston (15/1/10)
Darling: I won’t do an Obama and tax the banks Scotsman, Eddie Barnes (16/1/10)
Obama tax is only the beginning of the banking Blitz Telegraph, Edmund Conway (15/1/10)
Bank taxes edge closer to the real target Guardian, Dan Roberts (15/1/10)
- Compare the incentive effects on bankers of the British, French and US measures discussed in the articles.
- Why does the ‘market’ result in high bank bonuses? Where does economic power lie in the market?
- Assume that you hold shares in Bank A. Would you welcome (a) high bonuses for executives of Bank A; (b) a tax on bank bonuses; (c) a ceiling on bank bonuses; (d) a tax on certain bank assets? Explain.
- What insights can game theory provide for the likely success in clawing back bank bonuses without doing damage to the economy?
- Consider whether Obama’s tax will “go global”.