How to get our money back from the banks

By Felix Salmon
January 11, 2010
had to pay back some of the enormous fiscal cost of the financial crisis they were largely responsible for causing.

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Of course it would be great if the big banks, currently making outsize profits thanks to the Fed’s zero interest-rate policy, had to pay back some of the enormous fiscal cost of the financial crisis they were largely responsible for causing.

The Obama administration has come under pressure at home and abroad to support a financial transactions tax on institutions and to heavily tax their executive compensation.

But the United States, led by the Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner, has been opposed, arguing that a transactions tax would simply be passed on to customers and a bonus tax could be easily circumvented.

So, how to do this? The NYT and Politico are talking about some kind of “fee”, but it’s hard to see how to stop that from being passed on to customers. Simon Johnson, then, reckons it should be the bankers who are targeted, rather than the banks:

The answer is easy: people working at our largest banks – say over $100 bn in total assets – should get zero bonus for 2009…

The administration should immediately propose and the Congress must at once take up legislation to tax the individuals who receive bonuses from banks that were in the Too Big To Fail category – using receipt of the first round of TARP funds would be one fair criterion, but we could widen this to participation in the stress tests of 2009.

The supertax structure being implemented in the UK is definitely not the right model – these “taxes on bonuses” are being paid by the banks (i.e., their shareholders – meaning you, again) and not by the people receiving the bonuses.

Essentially, we need a steeply progressive windfall income tax – tied to the receipt of a particular form of income. This is tricky to design right – but a lot of good lawyers can get cranking.

I think Simon is right that such a tax is hard to design, and therefore wrong that it’s in any way “easy”. If you tax 100% of bankers’ 2009 bonuses, then the banks simply won’t pay any 2009 bonuses, and you’ll get no revenue. Meanwhile, banks will just double those bankers’ bonuses in 2010.

I don’t think there’s any easy answer here, but I do think that Simon is unnecessarily harsh on the UK supertax, which seems to have worked quite well: banks are doubling their bonus pools and paying half to the government, raising a lot of money for the public fisc. Yes, the public does own a large number of bank shares. But I see no evidence that the UK supertax has done particular damage to bank stocks.

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