With university fees for home students in England of £9250 per year and with many students receiving maintenance loans of around £9000 per year, many students are graduating with debts in excess of £50 000. Loans are repaid at a marginal rate of 9% on incomes over £25 716.
Many students also study for a masters degree. The average fee for a taught, classroom-based masters (MA) is £7392 and for a laboratory-based masters (MSc) is £8167 but can be considerably higher at some prestigious universities where demand is high. Government loans of up to £10 906 are available to contribute towards fees and maintenance. These are paid back at a marginal rate of 6% for people earning over £21 000, giving a combined marginal rate of 15% for first and masters degrees.
For high earners on the 40% income tax rate, the combined marginal rate of payment out of income is 40% tax, plus 2% national insurance, plus 15% for those with undergraduate and masters loans. This gives a combined marginal rate of 57%.
Average student debt in England is higher even than in the USA, where the average is $37 000. US university courses are more expensive than in the UK, costing an average of $34 000 per year in tuition alone. But undergraduates can borrow less. They can borrow between $5500 and $12 500 per year in federal loans towards both fees and maintenance, and some private loans are also available. Most students do some paid work during their studies to make up the difference or rely on parents contributing. Parental contributions mean that students from poor families end up owing more. According to a Guardian article:
Race is a huge factor. Black students owe an average of $7400 more than white students when they graduate, the Brookings Institution found. After graduation, the debt gap continues to widen. Four years after graduation, black graduates owe an average of nearly $53 000 – nearly double that of white graduates.
Student debt looks to become one of the key issues in the 2020 US presidential election.
Pressure to cancel student fees and debt in the USA
Most of the Democratic candidates are promising to address student fees and debt. Student debt, they claim, places an unfair burden on the younger generation and makes it hard for people to buy a house, or car or other major consumer durables. This also has a dampening effect on aggregate demand.
The most radical proposal comes from Bernie Sanders. He has vowed, if elected, to abolish student fees and to cancel all undergraduate and graduate debt of all Americans. Other candidates are promising to cut fees and/or debt.
Although most politicians and commentators agree that the USA has a serious problem of student debt, there is little agreement on what, if anything, to do about it. There are already a number of ways in which student debt can be written off or reduced. For example, if you work in the public sector for more than 10 years, remaining debt will be cancelled. However, none of the existing schemes is as radical as that being proposed by many Democrats.
Criticisms of the Democrats’ plans are mainly of two types.
The first is the sheer cost. Overall debt is around $1.6tn. What is more, making student tuition free would place a huge ongoing burden on government finances. Bernie Sanders proposes introducing a financial transactions tax on stock trading. This would be similar to a Tobin tax (sometimes dubbed a ‘Robin Hood tax’) and would include a 0.5% tax on stock transactions, a 0.1% tax on bond trades and a 0.005% tax on transactions in derivatives. He argues that the public bailed out the financial sector in 2008 and that it is now the turn of the financial sector to come to the aid of students and graduates.
The other type of criticism concerns the incentive effects of the proposal. The core of the criticism is that loan forgiveness involves moral hazard.
The moral hazard of loan forgiveness
The argument is that cancelling debt, or the promise to do so, encourages people to take on more debt. Generally, moral hazard occurs when people are protected from the consequences of their actions and are thus encouraged to make riskier decisions. For example, if you are ensured against theft, you may be less careful with your belongings. As the Orange County Register article linked below states:
If the taxpayers pay the debts of everyone with outstanding student loans, how will that affect the decisions made by current students thinking about their choices for financing higher education? What’s the message? Borrow as much as you can and wait for the debt to be canceled during the next presidential primary campaign?
Not only would more students be encouraged to go to college, but they would be encouraged to apply for more costly courses if they were free.
Universities would be encouraged to exaggerate their costs to warrant higher fees charged to the government. The government (federal, state or local) would have to be very careful in auditing courses to ensure costs were genuine. Universities could end up being squeezed for finance as government may try to cut payments by claiming that courses were overpriced.
Even if fees were not abolished, cancelling debts would encourage students to take on larger debt, if that was to be cleared at some point in the future. What is more, students (or their parents) who could afford to pay, would choose to borrow the money instead.
But many countries do have free or highly subsidised higher education. Universities are given grants which are designed to reflect fair costs.
- Assess the arguments for abolishing or substantially reducing student fees.
- Assess the arguments against abolishing or substantially reducing student fees.
- Assess the arguments for writing off or substantially reducing student debt.
- Assess the arguments against writing off or substantially reducing student debt.
- If it were decided to cancel student debt, would it be fair to pay students back for any debt they had already paid off?
- Does tackling the problem of student debt necessarily lead to a redistribution of wealth/income?
- Give some other examples of moral hazard.
- If student fees were abolished, would there be any problem of adverse selection? If so, how could this be overcome?
- Find out what the main UK parties are advocating about student fees and debt in the nations of the UK for home and non-home students. Provide a critique of each of their policies.
Last October (2011) we considered the case for a Tobin tax: also known as a financial transactions tax (FTT) or a ‘Robin Hood tax’. Since then there have been increased calls for the world to adopt such a tax.
It was promoted by President Sarkozy and supported by many other leaders at the G20 conference in Cannes on 3 and 4 November 2011. It has also been publicly supported by Bill Gates, the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Vatican, as you can see from the video clips and articles below. It is also one of the demands of protesters at St Pauls in London and at other places around the world.
However, the introduction of such a tax is vehemently opposed by many banks and by the US, UK, Canadian and Australian governments, amongst others. In the articles below, we consider the latest arguments that are being used on both sides. With such strong feelings it looks as if the arguments are not going to go away.
On 29 January 2012, French President, Nicolas Sarkozy, announced plans to introduce a 0.1% levy on financial transactions. Naturally, by taking the lead, he hopes that other EU countries will follow suit. The final set of articles consider his move.
What is a Tobin Tax? BBC News, Andrew Walker (2/11/11)
Rowan Williams: St Paul’s protest has ‘triggered awareness’ BBC News (2/11/11)
Bill Gates explains his support for a Tobin tax BBC News (2/11/11)
Robin Hood tax: What is the Tobin tax? BBC Newsnight, Andrew Verity (17/11/11)
Q&A: What is the Tobin Tax on financial trading BBC News (2/11/11)
Head-to-head: the Robin Hood tax BBC News, Gemma Godfrey and Prof Avinash Persaud (9/12/11)
Time for us to challenge the idols of high finance Financial Times, Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury (1/11/11)
Gates says ‘Robin Hood’ tax has part to play Financial Times, Chris Giles (3/11/11)
Sarkozy Pledges Fight for Transaction Tax Bloomberg, Rebecca Christie and Helene Fouque (4/11/11)
Financial Transaction or Speculation Taxes: Not Quite What They Seem Forbes, Tim Worstall (4/11/11)
Is a Robin Hood Tax the Answer? Forbes, Kelly Phillips Erb (3/11/11)
Bill Nighy takes Robin Hood tax to the G20 Guardian, Patrick Wintour and Larry Elliott (3/11/11)
G20 tax moves disappoint charities Press Association (4/11/11)
Jamaica should support the Robin Hood Tax Jamaica Observer (6/11/11)
World Leaders Need to Agree to the Robin Hood Tax at G20 Huffington Post, Bill Nighy (3/11/11)
Obama, the G20, and the 99 Percent Huffington Post, Jeffrey Sachs (1/11/11)
Now is the moment to bring banks to heel This is Money, Jeffrey Sachs (3/11/11)
Note on financial reform from the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace The Vatican Today
Tobin Tax would cost £25.5bn and cause job losses says think-tank London loves Business, Rebecca Hobson (4/11/11)
The Spurious Case Against A Financial Transactions Tax – Analysis Eurasia Review, Dean Baker (2/11/11)
Sarkozy Says France to Impose Transaction Tax From August Bloomberg Businessweek, Helene Fouquet and Mark Deen (30/1/12)
Struggling Sarkozy unveils financial transactions tax Sydney Morning Herald, AFP (30/1/12)
Sarkozy announces French financial transaction tax BBC News (30/1/12)
French president announces unilateral financial transaction tax Deutsche Welle Spencer Kimball, Andrew Bowen and Nicole Goebel (30/1/12)
- What are the main arguments in favour of a financial transactions tax?
- What are the main arguments against a financial transactions tax?
- To what extent is the debate a normative one and to what extent could evidence be used to support one side or the other?
- What would determine the extent to which the tax would be passed on to consumers?
- Would a financial transactions tax impede growth? Explain.
- Would financial intermediation be made more efficient by the imposition of such a tax?
On several occasions in the past on this site we’ve examined proposals for a Tobin tax: see, for example: 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). A Tobin tax is a tax on trading in financial products, sometimes known as a ‘financial transactions tax’ (FTT). It could also be levied on trading in foreign currencies. It is considered in Economics (7th ed) (section 26.3) and Economics for Business (5th ed) (section 32.4).
The tax would be levied at a very low rate: somewhere between 0.01% and 0.5% and would 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.
The President of the European Commission, José Manuel Barroso, has announced that the Commission has adopted the idea of a financial transactions tax with the backing of Germany, France and other eurozone countries. This Tobin tax could be in operation by 2014. According to the Commission, it could raise some €57bn a year. Unlike earlier proposals for a Tobin tax (sometimes called the ‘Robin Hood tax’), the money raised would probably be used to reduce EU deficits, rather than being given in aid to developing countries.
The UK government has been highly critical of the proposal, arguing that, unless adopted world-wide, it would divert trade away from the City of London.
The following articles consider how such a tax would work and its potential advantages and disadvantages.
Theory inches ever closer to practice Guardian, Larry Elliott (28/9/11)
Osborne expected to oppose EU’s proposal for Tobin tax on banks Guardian, Jill Treanor (28/9/11)
Tobin tax could ‘destroy’ business models Accountancy Age, Jaimie Kaffash (30/9/11)
Tobin tax is likely, says banking chief Accountancy Age, Jaimie Kaffash (5/10/11)
Could a transactions tax be good for capitalism? BBC News, Robert Peston (3/10/11)
EU to propose tax on financial transactions BusinessDay (South Africa), Mariam Isa (5/10/11)
European politicians plot to block UK veto on ‘Tobin tax’ The Telegraph, Louise Armitstead (3/10/11)
Opinion Divided on EU Transaction Tax Tax-News, Ulrika Lomas (5/10/11)
Tobin taxes and audit reform: the blizzard from Brussels The Economist (1/10/11)
- What are HFTs and what impact do they have on the stability and liquidity of markets?
- Explain how a Tobin tax would work.
- What would be the potential advantages and disadvantages of the Tobin tax as proposed by the European Commission (the ‘financial transactions tax’)?
- Are financial markets efficient? Can a market be ‘excessively efficient’?
- How are ‘execute or cancel’ orders used by HFTs?
- Why do HFTs have an asymmetric information advantage?
- 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?
In several of the posts in recent months we’ve considered the possible use of a Tobin tax as a means of reducing speculation in financial markets and possibly raising substantial amounts in tax revenue. See, for example: Tobin or not Tobin: the tax proposal that keeps reappearing and A Tobin tax – to be or not to be?. Although James Tobin’s original proposals referred to a tax on foreign exchange transactions, recent proposals have been to impose such a tax on a whole range of financial transactions.
Added impetus has been given to the move to adopt Tobin taxes by the publication of a video from an organisation known as the Robin Hood Tax Campaign. To quote the site “The Robin Hood Tax is a tiny tax on bankers that would raise billions to tackle poverty and climate change, at home and abroad. By taking an average of 0.05% from speculative banking transactions, hundreds of billions of pounds would be raised every year. That’s easily enough to stop cuts in crucial public services in the UK, and to help fight global poverty and climate change.”
So would this version of a Tobin tax work? The following videos and articles examine the proposal.
Actor Nighy backs Robin Hood banking tax campaign BBC Breakfast News (10/2/10)
Robin Hood banking tax ‘would raise billions’ (includes article) BBC Breakfast News (10/2/10)
Robin Hood tax on banks ‘would raise billions’ BBC News, Richard Westcott (10/2/10)
Celebrities launch ‘Robin Hood’ tax campaign BBC News, Hugh Pym (10/2/10)
Richard Curtis and Bill Nighy team up in new film urging Tobin tax on bankers (includes article) Guardian, Nick Mathiason (9/2/10)
Robin Hood tax offers a way to deal with our pressing problems Guardian letters (10/2/10)
Call for ‘Robin Hood tax’ on banking transactions Independent, James Thompson (10/2/10)
Joseph Stiglitz calls for Tobin tax on all financial trading transactions Telegraph, Edmund Conway (5/10/09)
I’m happy to play my part in the great Robin Hood Tax Telegraph, Bill Nighy (9/2/10)
The world’s greatest bank job! Ethiopian Review, Ian Sullivan (10/2/10)
Robin Hood tax could shrink currency markets by 14% ShareCast (10/2/10)
Don’t leave Greece to face the speculators alone Guardian, Larry Elliott (9/2/10)
Global support for a tax on banks is growing, says Gordon Brown Guardian, Helen Pidd (11/2/10)
Global bank tax near, says Brown Financial TImes, George Parker and Lionel Barber (10/2/10)
Get behind Robin Hood Guardian, Austen Ivereigh (19/2/10)
- Explain how a ‘Robin Hood tax’ would work.
- How would such a tax differ from Tobin’s original proposals?
- What would determine its effectiveness in stabilising financial markets?
- Would it be effective in raising tax revenue?
- Compare this tax with other methods of stabilising financial markets.
- What considerations would need to be taken into account in setting the rate for a Tobin tax on financial transactions?