Opinion

Hugo Dixon

After the Robin Hood tax

Hugo Dixon
Mar 26, 2012 09:13 UTC

Move over, Robin Hood tax. Make way for the FAT tax and the hot money levy.

The European Union’s plan to put an impost on financial transactions, popularly known as a Robin Hood tax, is dying. That’s a good thing. The idea was taken up by the Occupy movement as well as luminaries such as Bill Gates. But it never made economic sense. Taxing transactions wouldn’t have dealt with any of the causes of the financial crisis such as too much leverage and excessive reliance on hot money. It would just have driven business offshore.

Britain has always opposed the tax, meaning it had no chance of being adopted by the EU as a whole. Now the Netherlands has come out against it, so it can’t even be applied across the whole euro zone. With Germany’s finance minister saying that the “smallest thinkable unit” for the tax is the euro zone, it is only a matter of time before the Robin Hood tax is buried.

EU finance ministers will discuss alternative ways of taxing finance later this week in Copenhagen. The guiding principles should be to rein in excess risk-taking and remove distortions that bias one form of economic activity over another. With these ideas in mind, there are three specific things Europe, and for that matter the rest of the world, should do.

First, countries should impose a “hot money” tax on banks. Such a levy would apply to a bank’s wholesale borrowing. Ideally, short-term wholesale money should face an especially high levy: excessive reliance on such easy-come-easy-go funding was a big reason why banks from Royal Bank of Scotland to Lehman Brothers came a cropper. A hot money tax would encourage banks to raise longer-term money or attract relatively stable retail deposits. It would also mean that, if governments did have to bail out banks in future, the industry would at least have paid towards its own rescue.

So far 11 of the 27 EU countries – including Germany, Britain and France – have imposed such a levy, according to KPMG. The rest should follow suit. So should the United States, which has been toying with what the Obama administration calls a Financial Crisis Responsibility Fee. Although nothing will happen before the presidential election, a hot money tax could be one of the ways America eventually brings down its deficit.

Rajoy’s ploys risk stoking cynicism

Hugo Dixon
Mar 19, 2012 09:13 UTC

At a dinner in Madrid earlier this month, the main complaint about Mariano Rajoy was that the new prime minister was treating the electorate like children. Many of the guests, supporters of Rajoy’s Popular Party (PP), understood that Spain had to cut its fiscal deficit and restore its competitiveness. But they didn’t like the fact that the prime minister hadn’t been frank about his plans.

In advance of last November’s general election, Rajoy said he wouldn’t raise taxes, make it cheaper to fire people or cut the welfare state. But he has now done the first two. After this week’s election in Andalusia, Spain’s largest region, he is expected to do the last.

Rajoy’s camp doesn’t see any problem in failing to be upfront. It would have been foolish to talk too much about austerity in the general election campaign as that might have frightened the voters. For the same reason, it would be foolish to tell them about reforming the welfare state in advance of the Andalusia election.

Hollande’s sins more those of omission

Hugo Dixon
Mar 12, 2012 09:27 UTC

Francois Hollande’s sins are more those of omission than commission. The headlines might suggest otherwise. The socialist challenger to Nicolas Sarkozy as France’s next president has promised to cut the pension age to 60, tax the rich at 75 percent, renegotiate Europe’s fiscal treaty and launch a war on bankers. But these pledges aren’t as bad as they look. The real problem is that Hollande, who has a strong lead in the opinion polls, isn’t addressing the need to reform the country’s welfare state.

Hollande is a moderate. Like Sarkozy, for example, he is promising to cut the budget deficit to 3 percent next year, from 5.8 percent as estimated by the European Commission in 2011. But he still had to throw the left some red meat in the election campaign, which runs until May. That’s not just to prevent votes drifting to Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the far-left candidate. It’s also to avoid being outflanked by Sarkozy’s own populist attacks on corporate fat cats and bankers.

Still, the precise pledges probably aren’t what they seem, as I discovered on a trip to Paris last month.

LTRO was a necessary evil

Hugo Dixon
Mar 5, 2012 09:48 UTC

Bailout may not be a four-letter word. But many of the rescue operations mounted to save banks and governments in the past few years have been four-letter acronyms. Think of the TARP and TALF programmes that were used to bail out the U.S. banking system after Lehman Brothers went bust. Or the European Central Bank’s LTRO, the longer-term refinancing operation. This has involved lending European banks 1 trillion euros for three years at an extraordinarily low interest rate of 1 percent.

The markets and the banks have jumped for joy in response to all this liquidity being sprayed around. So have Italy and Spain, whose borrowing costs have dropped because their banks have been able to take cheap cash from the ECB and recycle it into their governments’ bonds — making a profit on the round trip. But as has been the case with other four-letter bailouts, the LTRO has come in for criticism — most of it a variation on the theme that the way to treat debt junkies isn’t to give them another heroin injection.

One problem is that European governments could now feel less pressure to reform their labour laws and do the other painful things that are needed to get their economies fit. Another is that banks may delay actions that are required to let them stand on their own two feet: such as rebuilding their capital buffers and raising their own longer-term funds on the markets.