10 of the 17 eurozone countries have agreed to adopt a financial transactions tax (FTT), often known as a ‘Tobin tax’ after James Tobin who first proposed such a tax back in 1972. The European Commission has backed the proposal, which involves levying a tax of 0.1% on trading in bonds and shares and 0.01% on trading in derivatives.
The 10 countries, France, Germany, Austria, Belgium, Greece, Italy, Portugal, Slovakia, Slovenia and Spain, and possibly also Estonia, hope to raise billions of euros from the tax, which will apply whenever at least one of the parties to a trade is based in one of the 10 (or 11) countries.
On several occasions in the past on this site we’ve examined proposals for such a tax: see, for example: Pressure mounts for a Tobin tax (update) (Nov 2011), A ‘Robin Hood’ tax (Feb 2010), Tobin or not Tobin: the tax proposal that keeps reappearing (Dec 2009) and A Tobin tax – to be or not to be? (Aug 2009). Tobin taxes are also considered in Economics (8th ed) (section 26.3) and Economics for Business (5th ed) (section 32.4).
As we noted last year in the blog Is the time right for a Tobin tax?, the tax is designed to be too small to affect trading in shares or other financial products for purposes of long-term investment. It would, however, dampen speculative trades that take advantage of tiny potential gains from very short-term price movements. Such trades account for huge financial flows between financial institutions around the world and tend to make markets more volatile. The short-term dealers are known as high-frequency traders (HFTs) and their activities now account for the majority of trading on exchanges. Most of these trades are by computers programmed to seek out minute gains and respond in milliseconds. And whilst they add to short-term liquidity for much of the time, this liquidity can suddenly dry up if HFTs become pessimistic.
Supporters of the tax claim that it will make a major contribution to tackling the deficit problems of many eurozone countries. Critics claim that it will dampen investment and growth and divert financial business away from the participating countries. The following articles look at the arguments.
EU Commission backs 10 countries’ transaction tax plan Reuters, Jan Strupczewski (23/10/12)
EU ‘Robin Hood’ tax gets the nod fin24 (23/10/12)
European financial transaction tax moves step closer The Guardian, Larry Elliott (23/10/12)
Financial transaction tax for 10 EU states BBC News (23/10/12)
Rejecting a Robin Hood tax would be a spectacular own goal The Guardian, Max Lawson (11/10/12)
More than 50 financiers back Robin Hood Tax The Robin Hood Tax (23/10/12)
Topical Focus – Transaction Taxes Tax-News (23/10/12)
Could a transactions tax be good for capitalism? BBC News, Robert Peston (3/10/11)
A Tax to Kill High Frequency Trading Forbes, Lee Sheppard (16/10/12)
- Explain how the proposed financial transactions tax will work.
- Why would many parties to trades who are not based in one of the 10 participating countries still end up paying the tax?
- What are likely to be the advantages and disadvantages of the proposed tax?
- Is it appropriate to describe the proposed FTT as a ‘Robin Hood Tax’?
- How does a financial transactions tax differ from the UK’s stamp duty reserve tax?
- Explain why the design of the stamp duty tax has prevented the flight of capital and trading from London. Could a Tobin tax be designed in such a way?
- What are HFTs and what impact do they have on the stability and liquidity of markets?
- Would it be desirable for the FTT to ‘kill off’ HFTs?
The International Monetary Fund published a report on banking, ahead of the G20 meeting of ministers on 23 April. The IMF states that banks should now pay for the bailout they received from governments during the credit crunch of 2008/9. As the first Guardian article states:
It is payback time for the banks. Widely blamed for causing the worst recession in the global economy since the 1930s, castigated for using taxpayer bailouts to fund big bonuses, and accused of starving businesses and households of credit, the message from the International Monetary Fund is clear: the day of reckoning is at hand.
The Washington-based fund puts the direct cost of saving the banking sector from collapse at a staggering $862bn (£559bn) – a bill that has put the public finances of many of the world’s biggest economies, including Britain and the United States, in a parlous state. Charged with coming up with a way of ensuring taxpayers will not have to dig deep a second time, the top economists at the IMF have drawn up an even more draconian blueprint than the banks had been expecting.
The IMF proposes two new taxes. The first had been expected. This would be a levy on banks’ liabilities and would provide a fund that governments could use to finance any future bailouts. It would be worth around $1500bn: some 2.5% of world GDP, and a higher percentage than that for countries, such as the UK, with a large banking sector.
The second was more surprising to commentators. This would be a financial activities tax (FAT). This would essentially be a tax on the value added by banks, and hence would be a way of taxing profits and pay. Currently, for technical reasons, many of banks’ activities are exempt from VAT (or the equivalent tax in countries outside the EU). The IMF thus regards them as under-taxed relative to other sectors. If such a tax were levied at a rate of 17.5% (the current rate of VAT in the UK), this could raise over 1% of GDP. In the UK this could be as much as £20bn – which would make a substantial contribution to reducing the government’s structural deficit of around £100bn
Meanwhile, in the USA, President Obama has been seeking to push legislation through Congress that would tighten up the regulation of banks. On 20 May, the Senate passed the bill, which now has to be merged with a version in the House of Representatives to become law. A key part of the measures involve splitting off the trading activities of banks in derivatives and other instruments from banks’ regular retail lending and deposit-taking activities with the public and firms. At the same time, there would be much closer regulation of the derivatives market. These complex financial instruments, whose value is ‘derived’ from the value of other assets, would have to be traded in an open market, not in private deals. A new financial regulatory agency will be created with the Federal Reserve having regulatory oversight of the whole of the financial markets
The measures would also give the government the power to break up financial institutions that were failing and rescue solvent parts without having to resort to a full-scale bailout. There is also a proposal to set up a nine-member Council of Regulators to keep a close watch on banking activities and to identify excessive risks. Banks would also be more closely supervised.
So is this payback time for banks? Or will higher taxes simply be passed on to customers, with pay and bonuses remaining at staggering levels? And will tougher regulation simply see ingenious methods being invented of getting round the regulation? Will the measures reduce moral hazard, or is the genie out of the bottle, with banks knowing that they will always be seen as too important to fail?
Press Briefing by IMF Managing Director Dominique Strauss-Kahn IMF Webcasts (22/4/10)
Transcript of the above Press Briefing
The IMF tax proposals
IMF proposes two taxes for world’s banks Guardian, Jill Treanor and Larry Elliott (21/4/10)
IMF gets tough on banks with ‘FAT’ levy Guardian, Linda Yueh (21/4/10)
Q&A: IMF proposals to shape G20 thinking Financial Times, Brooke Masters (21/4/10)
The challenge of halting the financial doomsday machine Financial Times, Martin Wolf (20/4/10)
IMF’s ‘punishment tax’ draws fire from banking industry Financial Times, Sharlene Goff, Brooke Masters and Scheherazade Daneshkhu (21/4/10)
Squeezing the piggy-banks Economist (21/4/10)
IMF, part two Economist, ‘Buttonwood’ (21/4/10)
IMF proposes tax on financial industry as economic safeguard Washington Post, Howard Schneider (20/4/10)
IMF wants two big new taxes on banks BBC News blogs, Peston’s Picks, Robert Peston (20/4/10)
Obama pleas for Wall Street support on reforms Channel 4 News, Job Rabkin (22/4/10)
Q&A: Obama’s bank regulation aims BBC News (22/4/10)
US banks may not bend to Barack Obama’s demands Guardian, Nils Pratley (22/4/10)
President Obama attacks critics of bank reform bill BBC News (23/4/10)
US Senate passes biggest overhaul of big banks since Depression Telegraph (21/5/10)
Finance-Overhaul Bill Would Reshape Wall Street, Washington Bloomberg Businessweek (21/5/10)
US Senate approves sweeping reforms of Wall Street (including video) BBC News (21/5/10)
Obama gets his big bank reforms BBC News blogs: Pestons’s Picks, Robert Peston (21/5/10)
- What would be the incentive effects on bank behaviour of the two taxes proposed by the IMF?
- What is meant by ‘moral hazard’ in the context of bank bailouts? Would (a) the IMF proposals and (b) President Obama’s proposals increase or decrease moral hazard?
- Why may the proposed FAT tax simply generate revenue rather than deter excessive risk-taking behaviour?
- What market conditions (a) encourage and (b) discourage large pay and bonuses of bankers? Will any of the proposals change these market conditions?
- What do you understand by the meaning of ‘excess profits’ in the context of the banks and what are the sources of such excess profits?
- Criticise the proposed IMF and US measures from the perspective of the banks.