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?
In 2008, as the economy was on the verge of recession, the UK Prime Minister said that we would ‘spend our way out of it’ despite rising levels of public-sector debt. In recent weeks, however, the focus has been much more on tackling the debt, which has now increased to over £800 billion (58% of GDP) – it was £500 billion at the end of 2006 (37% of GDP).
Although the current level of general government debt in the UK as a proportion of GDP is still one of the lowest of the G8 countries, it is rising the fastest. In other words, the general government deficit as a proportion of GDP is the highest (see Table A8 in IMF World Economic Outlook, Statistical Appendix A). The IMF’s forecasts suggest that, by 2014, government debt could be as much as 92% of GDP – the highest since World War II – and lower only than Japan (144%) and Italy (126%) of the G8 countries (although the USA, Germany and France are forecast by then each to have government debt over 80% of GDP).
Gordon Brown has said that public spending will have to be cut back once the recession is over, mainly by cutting out waste in the public sector. Conservatives too are looking to make substantial cuts in public expenditure if they come to office next year and have talked of an era of austerity.
But will such cuts be too little too late? Has government spending on saving the banks and trying to boost the economy by cutting VAT actually damaged our recovery prospects and are the British people going to be the ones to suffer? Or should the fiscal stimulus be retained for some time yet to prevent a lurch back into recession? The following articles look at the public debt situation, which poses some interesting policy questions, especially with the Party Conferences!
£805,000,000,000: UK’s monstrous debt The Mirror (19/9/09)
Osborne gambles with cut plans BBC News (6/10/09)
Governments will have legal obligation to reduce UK’s debt Telegraph (28/9/09)
We’ll spend our way out of recession Independent (20/10/08)
Public sector borrowing soaring BBC News (18/9/09)
Govt spending cuts ‘could help pound’ Just the Flight (21/9/09)
Deficit danger worries Cameron BBC News (4/10/09)
Public debt hits £800 billion – the highest on record Times Online (19/9/09)
Pay freeze ‘to protect UK services’ The Mirror (6/10/09)
This recession demands that we employ logic and spend our way out of it Telegraph (11/1/09)
Cuts and pay freezes ‘just the beginning’, Tories admit Telegraph (7/10/09)
Robert Stheeman: So what’s worrying the banker in charge of our £1trn debt? Independent (8/10/09)
Has Darling or Osborne the best plan for cutting the deficit? Observer (11/10/09)
This public-spending squeeze will be much tighter than people expect Independent on Sunday (11/10/09)
Tax and spending squeeze will keep Bank rate low Sunday Times (11/10/09)
UK rates ‘to stay low for years’ BBC News (11/10/09)
- According to economic theory, how does increasing government spending or reducing taxation aim to boost the economy?
- What do we mean by a budget deficit or budget surplus? How does a budget deficit differ from national debt?
- What is the ‘golden rule’ for fiscal policy? Discuss the advantages and disadvantages of such a rule-based approach to fiscal policy.
- What are the advantages and disadvantages of a policy of ‘spending our way out of a recession?’
- With spending cuts looming, many will be affected. How will cuts in government spending affect the UK’s ability to recover from the recession? Will you be affected and, if so, how?
- Last year £85.5 billion was spent by the government on bailing out banks. Do you think this was money well spent, or is it the main cause of the current spending cuts that could see the recession worsen?
Adair Turner, chairman of the Financial Services Authority, the UK’s financial sector regulator, has proposed the possible use of Tobin taxes to curb destabilising financial transactions. The late James Tobin, winner of the 1981 Nobel prize in Economics, argued that a very small tax (between 0.1 and 1 per cent) should be imposed on foreign exchange transactions to dampen destabilising foreign currency speculation and thereby reduce exchange rate fluctuations. Lord Turner’s proposal would apply to a whole range of financial transactions, putting some friction in these very volatile and often highly leveraged markets. Such a tax would discourage some of the riskier and more exotic transactions on which many of the bonuses of bankers have been based.
Not surprisingly, his proposals have been met with derision by many in the banking sector. Many politicians too have been critical, arguing that the taxes will divert financial business away from London to other financial centres around the world. And yet, at the G20 summit in Pittsburgh on 24/25 September, both the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, and the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, argued in favour of such taxes. The result was that the IMF was asked to investigate the practicality of using Tobin taxes on financial transactions as a way of reining in more risky behaviour. A week later the IMF, while ruling out a simple Tobin tax, came out in favour of taxes on the global financial sector designed to reduce speculation.
So who is right? The following articles look at the issues.
FSA chairman Lord Turner says City too big Times Online (27/8/09)
Financial Services Authority chairman backs tax on ‘socially useless’ banks Guardian (27/8/09)
Cutting finance back down to size Financial Times (27/8/09)
Support for tax to curb bonuses BBC News (27/8/09)
FSA boss gets tough on bonuses (video 1) (Video 2) (Video 3) BBC News (27/8/09)
City tells FSA to stick to day job Reuters (27/8/09)
Charities applaud FSA’s support for new bank tax Guardian (27/8/09)
The time is ripe for a Tobin tax Guardian (27/8/09)
Ça fait malus: France gets tough on bankers’ pay The Economist (27/8/09)
Sarkozy chides bankers for bonuses, calls for tougher regulation (video) France 24 (18/8/09)
Politicians Clamp Down on Bankers’ Bonuses BusinessWeek (26/8/09)
Treasury would be crazy not to listen to Turner Guardian (27/8/09)
Three cheers for Turner and tax on easy money Guardian (27/8/09)
What is the City good for, again? Guardian (27/8/09)
Will Transaction Taxes Reduce Leverage? The Atlantic (27/8/09)
FSA backs global tax on transactions Financial Times (27/8/09)
The Tobin tax explained Financial Times (27/8/09)
Could ‘Tobin tax’ reshape financial sector DNA? Financial Times (27/8/09)
Turner defends bank tax comments BBC News (30/8/09)
Turner stands firm after Tobin tax backlash Financial Times (1/9/09)
Brown calls for bank bonus reform BBC News (1/9/09)
Brown pledges bonus clampdown Financial Times (1/9/09)
Cut the banks (and bonuses) down to size Financial Times (31/8/09)
Sarkozy to press for ‘Tobin Tax’ BBC News (19/9/09)
The wrong tool for the job The Economist (17/9/09)
Dani Rodrik: The Tobin tax lives again Business Standard (19/9/09)
IMF presses for tax on banks’ risky behaviour Guardian (3/10/09)
IMF’s Strauss-Kahn puts bank tax on the agenda Times Online (3/10/09)
Banks and traders threatened by new international tax plan drawn up by IMF Telegraph (3/10/09)
- Explain how a Tobin tax could be used to reduce destabilising speculation without preventing markets movement 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.
- How do Lord Turner’s proposals differ from those of President Sarkozy?
- Examine the advantages and disadvantages of using a Tobin tax on financial transactions. How might the disadvantages be reduced?
- Explain what Lord Turner means by “the financial services industry can grow to be larger than is socially optimal”. How would you define ‘socially optimal’ in this context?
There has been much discussion recently on the use of fiscal policy to combat recession. What measures should be used? How effective will they be? How will the resulting large budget deficit be brought back into balance in the future?
But what are the microeconomic implications of all the tax changes? Are the changes fair? What implications do they have for incentives? Perhaps it’s time for a completely fresh look at the structure of our tax system – a system that has been changed piecemeal over the past years to meet short-term macroeconomic and political goals. Can it be redesigned to meet the two microeconomic goals of efficiency and equity? The following article looks at what form a redesigned tax structure might take.
Our tax system is a mess. But Darling has a chance to fix it. (Peter Wilby) Guardian (11/4/09)
- In what ways does the present tax system fail to meet the goals of (a) fairness through redistribution and (b) creating appropriate incentives?
- Explain what is meant by “The whole system has been framed by Tory thinking to assist social engineering, Tory style”.
- Provide a justification and critique of the reforms proposed in the article.