Opinion

The Great Debate

Taxing spoils of the financial sector

If you want less of something, tax it.

That truism is often used as an argument against a tax on profits, or health benefits, or employment, but in the case of the rents extracted from the economy by the financial services industry here’s hoping it proves more of a promise than a threat.

The International Monetary Fund has put forward two new taxes on banks to pay the costs of future rescues, one of which is a fairly conventional “Financial Stability Contribution,” with an initial flat levy on all banks, to be refined later into something with more precise institutional and systemic risk adjustments.

More interestingly, the IMF is also proposing a “Financial Activities Tax,” (FAT) a tax on bank pay and profits which, if correctly designed, could serve as a tax on rents — the unwarranted spoils — of the financial sector.

In economics the concept of “rents”, essentially the extra money a given individual or industry is able to extract from its clients above what it would if there were perfect competition, is central. If there is only one cable television provider in your neighborhood you will know what I am talking about.

In financial services, the evidence is that rents are huge, in part because of impaired competition and in part because increasingly complex financial services allow banks to sell clients products that they don’t understand, may not need and will almost always be over-charged for. Bank employees in turn charge hefty rents to their bosses, boards and shareholders, each of whom, as you journey up the organizational chart, understand less about the complex services, and like clients, are then less able to defend their own interests.

A rally that is both rational and crazy

(Jjamessaft1ames Saft is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own)

Stocks and other risky assets are rallying around the world this week because the Group of 20 nations said on the weekend they would keep the economic stimulus flowing, a state of events which illustrates where we are and what a very strange place it is.

The G20, the only group of big hitters that matters because it is the only group which includes the Chinese, met in Scotland over the weekend and, as is the way of these things, did very little with immediate consequences for anybody.

In the communique they issued, the Group of 20 finance ministers, after congratulating themselves on the recovery, more or less admitted that the measures we once thought of as heroic are in the process of becoming commonplace.

Fortress balance sheets at financial institutions

bob-bench– Robert Bench, a former Deputy Comptroller of the Currency in the Reagan administration, is a senior fellow at the Boston University School of Law Morin Center for Banking and Financial Law. The views expressed are his own. –

Financial Institutions inherently are fragile, simply because they are intermediaries exposed to both exogenous and endogenous forces.

Externally, they are vulnerable to wars, weather, or worn-out economic conditions. Internally, they always are susceptible to excessive risk takings as well as inadequate controls over operations.

Pittsburgh: A city transformed by R&D

Phil_Bond_headshot.jpg– Phil Bond is President of TechAmerica, which represents 1,500 companies across the technology industry. The views expressed are his own. —

Will Pittsburgh, with its historical role in two American industrial revolutions, remain a leader in revitalization? Or will it be have to carry the extra burden of uncompetitive national policy?

The first revolution, perhaps a product of geographical chance, made the city and the nation a manufacturing powerhouse. The second, resulting from a tremendous act of will by the people, remade Pittsburgh into a great research and development (R&D) center that could help lead us out of the current recession. These hardworking Americans are going to need smart policy from Washington if their technology revolution, and efforts to emulate it across the country, are to continue.

Worry about bank capital, not bonuses

jamessaft1–James Saft is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.–

The effort to rein in banking bonuses, outrageous as they may be, is akin to banning glue sniffing because you are worried about the effects of intoxication.

There are, as the kids in the alley behind the high school can tell you, other ways of getting high.

Africa and the global economic crisis

- Jorge Maia is head of Research and Information for Industrial Development Corporation of South Africa, established in 1940 to promote economic growth and industrial development. The opinions expressed are his own –

Serious shockwaves are hitting Africa’s shores as the global economic crisis unfolds.

The extent and depth of the damage is extremely difficult to assess or project, but it is clear that the pattern of financial flows associated with investment, lending and trading activity has been dramatically altered, with detrimental economic and social implications for the continent at large. The adverse impact has been gradually spreading from a regional perspective – a serious setback to Africa’s recent growth performance, which had averaged 6 percent a year from 2003 to 2008.

World Bank’s Zoellick responds to bloggers

Robert Zoellick

World Bank President Robert Zoellick spoke at a Thomson Reuters Newsmaker on March 31st  in front of an invited audience and announced a $50 billion programme to counter a decline in global trade.

Zoellick, who once called for a  “Facebook for multilateral economic diplomacy”, also agreed to answer questions from bloggers, which our social media team had collected via Twitter and on this blog ahead of the Newsmaker.

You can watch video of the social media session here and follow the Newsmaker chatter on our Great Debate Twitter channel.

How G20 can unfreeze credit and cut bailout costs

Lena Komileva– Lena Komileva is Head of G7 Market Economics, Tullett Prebon –

One of the big historical lessons of this crisis for economic policy is that bringing down the risk-free cost of money – central bank rates or government bond yields – and injecting liquidity into the banking system cannot on their own fix broken credit markets.

Quantitative easing by central banks may help to solve short-term liquidity problems for domestic borrowers and lenders, by going around broken markets during times of extreme financial and economic uncertainty. However, this is no substitute for efforts to restore international credit markets back to health.

Effective policy measures would contain the economic fear and channel private sector incentives – the foundation of free markets – in a way that alters the behaviour of lenders, companies and consumers. The end-game policy strategy cannot be to replace free markets.

What Asia needs from the G20 meeting

stanchartJaspal Bindra is Chief Executive, Asia, for Standard Chartered Bank. The views expressed are his own.

Asia has come of age. When leaders from the Group of 20 nations converge in London, Asia’s rising powers – China, India,  Korea and Indonesia – will be sitting at the global high table to decide on ways to reshape the world’s financial and economic order.

There are expectations that the meeting will include concrete steps to revive economic growth, a boost in funding for the International Monetary Fund, and an understanding on the new financial architecture to restore trust in the financial system.

Obama honeymoon ends in Europe

Robin Shepherd

– Robin Shepherd is Director, International Affairs at the Henry Jackson Society. His areas of expertise are transatlantic relations, American foreign policy, Middle Eastern relations with the West, Russia, eastern Europe, NATO and the European Union. The views expressed are his own. –

It is to be hoped that President Obama has a developed sense of humour. The man heralded by many as the new Messiah of political renewal lands in London this week not to the chorus of approval he might have expected on his first official trip to Europe but to crowds roaring with anger and frustration at the global economic system which his country underpins.

It isn’t personal – yet. Few but the most unreasonable would hold the new American president responsible for woes that he inherited. Nonetheless, Obama campaigned on a platform of change. The implicit claim that his election was a grand, indeed poetic, instance of the time finding the man will be explicitly rejected – in Europe as well as at home – if he fails to deliver. We know he can give a pretty speech. But at the G-20 summit in London this week, that simply won’t be enough. For the first time at a major international gathering the blinding lights of international scrutiny will pour over Obama’s credentials on substance. His mettle is about to be tested.

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