Public finances aren’t in a great state – that’s no secret. However, what is remaining a secret is exactly how and when the main political parties intend to reduce the budget deficit. The UK’s credit-rating is under pressure and with the election approaching, we can expect government finances to come under increasing scrutiny. Whichever party forms the government will face the unenviable task of having to pull Britain out of a recession, while trying to reduce: 1) a forecast budget deficit for 2009/10 of £167 billion (about 13% of GDP), 2) a government debt of 68.6% of GDP, with 3) £73.8 billion alone going on interest payments and 4) a trade deficit of £8 billion. Who would be a politician?!
Phoney deficit wars BBC News, Stephanomics (26/3/10)
- What is the structural deficit?
- A fall in government spending may improve public finances, but why may it adversely affect the UK’s recovery?
- Outline the main proposals by the Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat Parties to tackle public finances. Are any of their proposals viable?
- Why is the UK’s credit-rating under pressure? If the UK is down-graded, what could this mean?
After each Budget, the Institute for Fiscal Studies analyses its effects. Given the highly charged political environment, with an election looming and the prospects of considerable public expenditure cuts to come, dispassionate analyses of the Budget are hard to find. The IFS’s analysis is a major exception.
The IFS summarises the Budget as being largely neutral. As Robert Chote, Director of the IFS, says in the opening remarks to the Post Budget Briefing:
In a Pre-Election Budget, perhaps the most that we can expect of any Chancellor is that he should observe the key tenet of the Hippocratic Oath and “above all, do no harm”. Judged against that modest yardstick, the broadly neutral stance of this Budget passes the test.
But, the Budget avoided giving details of the cuts which are planned for the future. None of the political parties are saying just how they will achieve the necessary reductions to the deficit, although the Liberal Democrats have given some details.
Judged against the more testing yardstick of providing a detailed picture to voters and financial market participants of the fiscal repair job in prospect beyond the election, the Budget will have fallen short of many people’s hopes. There are an awful lot of judgements still to be made, or revealed, notably with regards public spending over the next parliament. This greater-than-necessary vagueness allows the opposition to be vaguer than necessary too.
The articles below look at the Budget and at the IFS’s assessment of it. There are also links to the sections of the IFS report. It is worth reading them if you are to be able to make the ‘cool’ judgements that economists can provide – even if they do not always agree!
Budget leaves questions unanswered – IFS Reuters (25/3/10)
Budget 2010: IFS warns transport and housing spending has to be cut Guardian, Phillip Inman (25/3/10)
Labour ‘has cost the rich £25,000 every year’ Independent, Sean O’Grady (26/3/10)
The pain to come The Economist (25/3/10)
Chancellor’s ‘difficult balancing act’ BBC Today Programme (24/3/10)
Pain deferred until the polls close Financial Times, Chris Giles (25/3/10)
IFS Report: Budget 2010
Links to the various supporting articles and the opening remarks can be found here.
Details of the Budget
See references in Darling and a case of fiscal drag? for details of the Budget measures.
- What do you understand by the ‘structrual’ deficit and the ‘cyclical’ deficit?
- Why do cyclical deficits rise during a recession?
- Why has the structural deficit risen during this recession? Is this an example of hysteresis? (Explain.)
- What is the Fiscal Responsibility Act and why does the government now expect to over-achieve the requirements of the Act?
- What elements of government spending are likely to be cut most? Is this a wise distribution of cuts?
- Use the links to the PowerPoint presentations from the IFS Budget Report site to (a) analyse the state of the public finances; (b) summarise the main tax changes in the Budget.
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?
In these news blogs, we’ve considered a Tobin tax on a number of occasions: see A Tobin tax – to be or not to be? and Tobin’s nice little earner. On 10 December 2009, the Treasury published a discussion document, Risk, reward and responsibility: the financial sector and society. This, amongst other things, considers the case for a financial transactions tax – a form of Tobin tax. As Box 4.A on page 35 states:
“James Tobin’s original proposal for a transaction tax was to tax foreign exchange transactions. The purpose of the tax was to tackle excessive exchange rate fluctuation and speculation on currency flows, as Tobin felt that short-term movements in capital flows could severely limit the ability of governments and central banks to follow appropriate domestic policies for their economies.
However, the recent crisis has shown that there is considerable risk inherent in other financial markets. In some of these markets trading volumes have also grown enormously compared to the value of underlying assets. As set out above, instability may result from these markets due to the complex nature of counterparty networks and a lack of transparency, and the transmission of financial shocks through the system.
Recent attention has therefore focused on a broader tax on financial transactions – potentially, this would include trading in a wide range of instruments, currently traded both on and off-exchange.”
The goverment in the UK has recently taken one step in increasing taxes on the financial sector. In its 2009 pre-Budget report, delivered on 9 December (see Cutting the deficit and tackling the recession. Incompatible goals?), a new tax on bank bonuses was imposed. The rate is 50% on bonuses over £25,000. Since then a similar tax has been imposed in France and Germany’s Chancellor, Angela Merkel, said that she found it a ‘charming idea’, although probably not practical under German law. She did support, however, the use of a Tobin tax on financial transactions, similar to the one being considered in the UK. Such a tax, to be effective, would ideally have to be imposed worldwide, but at least by a large number of countries.
So is the case for a Tobin tax gathering momentum? The following video podcast considers the tax’s aims, effectiveness and practicality – as do the articles.
Radical Tobin Tax proposal could go mainstream BBC Newsnight, Paul Mason (10/12/09)
Now’s the time for a Tobin tax Guardian, George Irvin (11/12/09)
EU leaders urge IMF to consider Tobin tax Financial Times, Tony Barber and George Parker (11/12/09)
We can always get to Utopia – even from here Irish Times, Paul Gillespie (12/12/09)
HM Treasury makes case for Tobin tax City A.M., Julia Kollewe (11/12/09)
The Tobin Tax – a brief history Telegraph (8/11/09)
European Union presses IMF to consider Tobin tax Telegraph (11/12/09)
- How do current proposals for a Tobin tax differ from Tobin’s original proposals (see Sloman and Wride, Economics 7th edition, pages 756–8 or Sloman and Hinde, Economics for Business 4th edition, pages 743–5)?
- Explain how a Tobin tax could be used to reduce destabilising speculation without preventing markets moving to longer-term equilibria.
- How might the use of a Tobin tax on financial transactions help to curb some of the ‘excessive rewards’ made from financial dealing?
- Examine the advantages and disadvantages of using a Tobin tax on financial transactions. How might the disadvantages be reduced?
- What considerations would need to be taken into account in setting the rate for a Tobin tax on financial transactions?
The problem with banks and the financial sector is that we need them. Who knows what might have happened if the government hadn’t stepped in to bail out the banks. And that’s one of the key arguments for continuing to pay bankers’ bonuses. If they left their jobs and the banks ceased to exist, we’d be looking at a very bleak future.
The truth is: ‘we need them’ and, what’s worse, they know it. As Frank Skinner said in a Times article: ‘during the crisis bankers will be thinking, “Don’t panic. The public have got short memories. Show them the slightest hint of recovery and most of them will forget their moral indignation and we can start where we left off – making the biggest splashes we can and not worrying about the ripples” ‘.
Despite the argument for continuing to pay out bonuses, a large proportion of the public are understandably angry that bankers are still receiving enormous bonuses. Not only are banks and the financial sector largely responsible for the current recession, but it is taxpayers who have bailed them out and who now pay their bonuses. However, things could be about to change.
The FSA is set to get powers, allowing it to ‘tear up’ bankers’ bonus contracts, especially for those taking reckless risks that threaten the stability of the financial sector. The new regulations will be found in the Financial Services Bill, which, if approved by Parliament, will apply to all British banks, as well as the British subsidiaries of overseas banks operating in the UK. Multi-million pound payments will be able to be blocked and fines will be imposed on banks who offer unjustified ‘mega-bucks pay-outs’.
Despite this impending regulation, not everyone thinks it will be successful. Sir George Mathewson, the former Chairman of RBS, has said that interfering with bankers’ contracts is a ‘dangerous route to go down’. Read the following articles that consider this contentious issue.
Bankers bonuses’ ‘will soar to £6bn’ after government bailouts and rising profits Times Online, Katherine Griffiths (21/10/09)
Bonus crackdown plans dangerous BBC News (16/11/09)
Financial regulation ‘has broken down’ BBC Today Programme (16/11/09)
Roger Bootle: Bank reform hasn’t gone far enough (video) BBC News (25/12/09)
FSA to get powers to tear up’ bankers’ bonus contracts Citywire, Nicholas Paler (16/11/09)
It’ll be tough for bankers on a £200k bonus Times Online, Frank Skinner (13/11/09)
Prince Andrew defends bankers’ bonuses even as economy stays mired in recession Mail Online, Kate Loveys (24/10/09)
Curb on bankers’ bonuses to be unveiled in Queens’ speech Mail Online (13/11/09)
Bankers warn laws on pay and bonuses will scare off talent Telegraph Angela Monaghan (13/11/09)
Labour to overturn bonus deals at risk-taking banks Guardian Patrick Wintour (13/11/09)
Banking on the State Guardian (17/11/09)
Queen outlines new banking laws BBC News (18/11/09)
Queen’s Speech: what the Financial Bill really means for bankers’ bonuses Telegraph, Tracy Corrigan (18/11/09)
Brown Puts Deficit Curbs, Bonus Limits on U.K. Agenda Bloomberg, Gonzalo Vina and Thomas Penny (18/11/09)
Queen’s speech 2009: financial services bill Guardian, Jill Treanor (18/11/09)
- What is meant by ‘regulation’ and what forms does it take?
- Why are banks and the financial services largely blamed for the current recession? Will financial regulation of bonuses prevent a repeat of the current crisis?
- What are the arguments for and against further regulation? Why does the former Chairman of RBS argue that cracking down on bonuses could be ‘dangerous’? Do you agree?
- Why are bankers paid so much? How is the equilibrium wage rate determined in this sector?
- Should bankers receive bonuses? Think about the incentive effect; the effect on productivity. What are the possible consequences for those working in banking of bonuses being reduced and possibly removed if they are deemed to threaten financial stability?