Financial Regulatory Forum

from The Great Debate:

Merkel and Sarkozy are right about a Tobin tax

By Mark Thoma
All opinions expressed are his own.

The financial transactions tax is back in the news today. According to reports, French President Nicolas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel will propose a financial transactions tax in September.

Is this a good idea? It would certainly provide needed revenue to cash strapped governments, but at what cost? Governments must raise revenue somehow, but is this the best way to get the cash they need? Some taxes have a large distortionary effect on economic activity -- with a financial transactions tax, the worry is that investment activity will be curtailed-- and others have a much smaller effect. Some taxes can even make markets work better, e.g. taxes that force firms to internalize pollution costs and other externalities improves the decisions firms make. From society's point of view, they are more, not less efficient. Thus, in designing a tax system, we should look for taxes that provide the most revenue at the least cost.

So is a financial transactions tax a highly distortionary, costly tax? The answer is no. The tax would discourage short-term speculative activity, but much of this activity provides little social value. It pushes money around among winners and losers, and traders like it for that reason, but if this activity is discouraged through taxation it would have little effect on long-term investment decisions by firms. For example, one thing this would discourage is high frequency computer trading to exploit minute differences in prices. Does it really matter for long-term investment if these differences persist for a few seconds or minutes more?

In fact, there's even an argument that this tax will improve the efficiency of financial markets. The late economist James Tobin, the originator of the tax, argued that speculative activity causes harmful fluctuations in financial markets. For example, pursuit of speculative gains can cause firms to increase leverage, and if a financial crisis hits it can be very disruptive to the economy when firm are forced to unwind that leverage quickly. That wouldn't be so much of a problem if the costs fell only on those making the decision to take on so much leverage. But, unfortunately, as we have seen in this crisis, the costs can be very large and spread beyond the firms and individuals making the decision to take on so much risk. Thus, just as with pollution there are externalities -- costs that fall on the innocent -- and to the extent that a transactions tax forces firms to internalize the costs of their decisions, it improves rather than hinders the efficiency of financial markets.

There is one potential problem however: the ability to avoid the tax by moving activity elsewhere. But I don't see this as a huge worry. Trading is mostly carried out on centralized exchanges, so keeping track of the transactions and taxing them isn't that hard (the UK has had a tax on stocks for some time, and that hasn't driven all activity elsewhere). Nevertheless, if the U.S. were to follow suit, as I think it should -- it could raise hundreds of billions a year in revenue with minimal distortions -- that would help to prevent evasive activity.

ANALYSIS-Transaction taxes, liquidity and patience

By Mike Dolan

LONDON, Sept 8 (Reuters) – The case for a tax on global financial transactions may have been perversely boosted by the relative success of foreign exchange markets through the past three years of world banking turmoil.

As markets in credit, interbank and securities lending malfunctioned and stock markets lurched violently, currency markets, for the most part, appeared to have a “good crisis”.

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SCENARIOS – G20 efforts to agree on a bank levy

By Huw Jones

LONDON, March 31 (Reuters) – France backed Germany’s plans for a bank levy on Wednesday to boost momentum for a global deal among the G20 group of leading countries later this year.

But national differences are emerging over details and some countries oppose the principle of a levy or tax.

NEXT STOP WASHINGTON

The IMF was asked last November to put forward proposals for making banks contribute towards bailouts and will present its recommendations to G20 finance ministers in Washington on April 24-25

SCENARIOS – Bank tax idea gains traction, still ill-defined

  LONDON/WASHINGTON, Feb 16 (Reuters) – World leaders want banks and financial firms to pay up for government interventions — past and future — to stabilize the international financial system. While details are sketchy, some form of bank balance sheet tax appears to be gaining ground.

Bank tax proposals vary widely, with global coordination seen as crucial, but hard to attain as ever, with all eyes on an upcoming International Monetary Fund report due in April.

Any levy that might result must dovetail with strategies for tackling the “too big to fail” issue, related moral hazards, resurgent banker bonuses and capital standards.

EU presses IMF over financial transaction tax

   By David Brunnstrom and Timothy Heritage
   BRUSSELS, Dec 11 (Reuters) – The European Union increased pressure on the International Monetary Fund on Friday to consider a global tax on financial transactions to limit the risk of another economic crisis.
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EU backs global financial transaction tax

By David Brunnstrom and Timothy Heritage

BRUSSELS, Dec 11 (Reuters) – The European Union urged the International Monetary Fund on Friday to pursue a global tax on financial transactions to limit the risk of another economic crisis, despite U.S. opposition.

EU leaders also underlined the need for “sound and effective” financial sector pay at a two-day summit but, with the notable exception of Germany, did not broadly support French and British proposals to tax bankers’ bonuses heavily.

Although the leaders of the 27-nation bloc largely revived existing ideas, they signalled a desire to address voters’ outrage over a return of the big bonus culture in the banking sector so soon after it was bailed out with tax payers’ money.

Darling says will not harm UK’s financial sector

 A man looks out over Hampstead Heath, with the City of London in the background October 29, 2009.   By Matt Falloon and Steve Slater

HORSHAM, England, Dec 7 (Reuters) – The British government will not do anything to hurt London’s financial prowess and would rather go too far with economic support measures than not go far enough, Finance Minister Alistair Darling said on Monday.

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China seeks feedback on bond trade tax changes

    By Hua Zhong
   SHANGHAI, Nov 12 (Reuters) – China’s State Administration of Taxation is seeking suggestions from the industry on standardising the basis of different types of bond trading on  how they will be taxed, which may dampen trading activity, several sources told Reuters. (more…)

UK gives impetus to global banks tax, U.S. doubtful

Britain's Prime Minister Gordon Brown addresses the G20 Finance Ministers meeting at a hotel in St. Andrews, Scotland November 7, 2009. A tax on financial transactions to fund future bank bailouts should be considered with urgency, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown told G20 policymakers on Saturday, a significant departure from London's line to date.      REUTERS/Andrew Winning (BRITAIN BUSINESS POLITICS)   By Huw Jones
ST ANDREWS, Scotland, Nov 7 (Reuters) – Britain urged world governments on Saturday to consider a levy on banks to fund future bailouts, departing from long-held opposition, though there was little sign of the consensus needed to make it fly.

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown raised the idea at a weekend meeting of Group of 20 financial leaders in Scotland — ending London’s resistance to such moves on behalf of its huge financial sector.The United States, key to the success of any global initiative, rejected a tax on day-to-day transactions, though it left the door open to other ways to protect taxpayers from losses. Canada was also lukewarm.

“A day-by-day financial transaction tax is not something we are prepared to support,” U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner told reporters.

G20 to task IMF to probe “Tobin tax” on financial transactions -G20 source

Economist James Tobin, who conceived the idea of a global tax on financial transactions that now bears his name. PITTSBURGH, Sept 25 (Reuters) – G20 leaders have tasked the International Monetary Fund to investigate ways the financial markets could pay for the effects of the economic crisis, such as a tax on all international financial transactions, a G20 source said on Friday.

“A so-called ‘Tobin tax’ on all international financial transactions will not be mentioned specifically in the final communiques, but it was discussed. The IMF will now investigate and report back to the next G20 meeting,” the source involved in the G20 summit in Pittsburgh said.

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