Is a Tobin tax on financial transactions just what the deficit and efficiency doctors ordered? Dean Baker has been advocating for a financial transactions tax, and here's his explanation for why it is needed:
A Financial Transactions Tax, by Dean Baker, Commentary, Counterpunch: Just like that perfect sweater, a financial transactions tax (FTT) would look just great on those Wall Street bankers and financiers. A modest tax, which would be too small for normal investors to even notice, could easily raise more than $100 billion a year. ...Here's a bit more on the tax, whether the Obama administration might support it, and Summer's support of the tax in the past:
[A]n FTT makes a huge amount of sense. The basic point is quite simple. A tax of 0.25 percent on the sale or purchase of a share of stock will make little difference to a person who intends to hold the share for 5-10 years as a long-term investment. ... A small increase in trading costs would be a very manageable burden for those who are using financial markets to support productive economic activity. However, it would impose serious costs on those who see the financial markets as a casino in which they place their bets by the day, hour, or minute. Speculators who hope to jump into the market at 2:00 and pocket their gains by 3:00 would be subject to much greater risk if they had to pay even a modest financial transaction tax. ...
The Wall Streeters and their flacks will insist that an FTT is unenforceable and will simply result in trading moving overseas. There is a small problem with this argument call the “United Kingdom.” The U.K. has had a tax on stock trades ... for decades. The revenue raised each year would be equivalent to $30 billion in the U.S. economy. Obviously, the tax is enforceable.
In fact, we can go beyond the U.K. and add other measures to make enforcement more fun. For example, we can give workers an incentive to turn in their cheating bosses by awarding them 10 percent of any revenue and penalties that the government collects. ...
Of course, the prospect of the financial industry moving overseas should not be troubling any case. Why should we be any more bothered by buying our financial services from foreigners than by buying our steel from foreigners? If the industry moved overseas, then it could corrupt some other country’s politics.
The basic point is simple. A FTT can allow us to raise more than $100 billion annually to finance health care or any other budget item that we consider important. It does so in a way that is very progressive and will weaken the financial industry both economically and politically. In fact, even Larry Summers, the head of President Obama’s National Economic Council, even argued that a FTT was a good idea. ...
A Tobin tax for Wall Street?, by Robert Kuttner, Prospect: Now that Adair Turner has opened the door to a forbidden subject—Tobin taxes on financial transactions—could the Obama administration embrace such an idea?
Professor Tobin first proposed his tax to address currency speculation. This was in 1972, when the fixed-rate regime of Bretton Woods had collapsed. His concern was that speculative trades were fundamentally distorting currency values and damaging the real economy. The tax that he proposed was intended to damp down the volatility in currency movements, and take much of the profit out of purely speculative, short-term moves.
The early 1970s was a period ... before the general financial deregulation that followed. Since that time, speculative trading has distorted not just currency markets, but the broad financial market itself. The volume of short-term trades has grown far faster than the value of the stock market or the real economy. The most recent case in point is ultra high-speed computerised trading...
A small tax on very short-term financial transactions would have two immense benefits. It would discourage purely speculative trades, while having no significant effects on long-term investments, and it would thus help restore the legitimate function of financial markets: connecting investors to entrepreneurs. Secondly, it could raise a substantial amount of revenue in a highly progressive fashion—at a time when large deficits loom.
The Obama administration might take a serious look at a Tobin tax for both of these reasons. Early in his career, Larry Summers, Obama’s economic policy chief, was a supporter of the Tobin tax. In a 1989 paper, co-authored with his former wife, Victoria Summers, he wrote that there might be times when it was salutary to throw a little sand in the gears of trading markets. The paper was titled: “When Financial Markets Work too Well: a Cautious Case for a Securities Transaction Tax.”
However, the Obama administration’s regulatory stance is still a long distance away from taking serious measures to discourage speculative trading markets as a general policy goal. The more likely motivation would be concerns about the federal budget deficit. ...
The tax, of course, would be fiercely resisted by Wall Street. For a reform administration, Obama’s government has approached any confrontation with Wall Street very gingerly. ... Even if Obama comes to a Tobin tax via the back door of revenue needs, this would be most welcome, as it would also lead to examination a larger, neglected issue: how to rein in financial engineering for the good of the larger economy.
Since I don't have a strong opinion on this, let's play "he said-he said." Here's Willem Buiter with an alternative view:
Forget Tobin tax: there is a better way to curb finance, by Willem Buiter, Commentary, Financial Times: Lord Turner, chairman of the UK’s Financial Services Authority, has set the cat among the financial pigeons by making highly critical comments about ... financial intermediation... He recommended some drastic remedies, and suggested considering a global tax on financial transactions – a generalised Tobin tax. ...
What problem would a Tobin tax on financial transactions solve? Lord Turner asserts ... that the UK financial sector has grown too big; that some financial sector activity is worthless from a social perspective; that the sector is destabilising...; and that new taxes may be required to curb excessive profits and pay in the sector. ... Even if all these assertions are correct, they do not imply the need for a Tobin tax.
Economics teaches us that taxes and other public interventions to correct distortions and other market failures should be targeted directly at the distortion or failure in question. What distortion is a tax on financial transactions targeted at?
The financial sector is too big throughout the overdeveloped world in part because much of it enjoys a free state guarantee against default on its unsecured debt. ... The cost of capital to the banking sector is subsidised, causing the sector to be too large.
The solution is clear, and it is not a tax on financial transactions: bring default risk back into the calculations of unsecured creditors and other counterparties of the financial sector. This would eliminate the capital subsidy to the industry. The obvious way to do this is through the creation of a “special resolution regime” as an alternative to bankruptcy for all systemically important financial institutions. This would permit their unsecured creditors and other counterparties to be forcibly and swiftly converted into shareholders, until the institutions are adequately capitalised. It must be possible to achieve such a mandatory recapitalisation by unsecured creditors and counterparties for any institution overnight, and without interrupting normal business. A regularly updated “will” for each systemically important financial institution would eliminate any remaining “too big, too interconnected, too complex and too international to fail” obstacles to the Darwinian discipline of the market, which has been sorely missed in the financial sector.
I believe that efficient financial intermediation and a dynamic financial sector are essential for the proper functioning of any decentralised market economy; I also believe that too much financial sector activity is not only socially worthless, but actually harmful. Take financial derivatives. ... To tame the rampant excessive speculation in the derivatives markets, it is sufficient to require that at least one of the parties involved in a derivatives transaction has an insurable interest. The Tobin tax does nothing to achieve this. ...
“Churning” can be a problem for individual savers. Excessive transaction volumes can be caused by perverse incentive systems that link the remuneration of traders – acting as agents for owners of wealth – to trading volumes. Even here, the right solution is not transaction taxes but regulation restricting the undesirable features of these contracts directly. If excessive pay in the financial sector is a problem, tax pay.
I agree with Lord Turner that the UK financial sector – too large to fail and possibly also too large to save – has become a destabilising force for the UK. ... One can share Lord Turner’s diagnosis that the UK financial sector was allowed to grow too large and to get out of control – almost a law unto itself – without accepting the Tobin tax as part of the solution. Tobin was a genius, but the Tobin tax was probably his one daft idea. Creating a viable and socially useful UK financial sector does not require this unfortunate fiscal intervention.
The efficiency properties of the tax depend upon how speculation is viewed. If you believe speculation is efficiency enhancing, and it can be, then reducing speculation would reduce rather than increase efficiency. But if you believe speculation is destabilizing, and it can be this too, then reducing speculation would be beneficial. I am not as negative toward speculation as many, and believe that while it can be both good and bad from a market efficiency perspective, on net, it does good. A general tax would reduce both the good and bad types of speculation, so it is not clear to me that this would be beneficial. I would prefer a mechanism that targets that bad speculation, but leaves the good type alone, but since it is difficult to tell the two apart, even ex-post, it is not practical to levy a tax on just the bad transactions while giving the good ones a free pass. But it may be possible to target the underlying market failures and distortions driving the problems in financial markets, which amounts to the same thing, and these extend far beyond just speculative ventures. Thus, I am somewhat persuaded by Buiter's argument that "public interventions to correct distortions and other market failures should be targeted directly at the distortion or failure in question." It's not clear a financial transactions tax has this property.
From a revenue point of view, the calculation is different. Given the government's spending needs (whatever they are), the question is how to best raise the revenue to pay for that spending. In that regard, the question is whether a financial transactions tax would be the least distortive (and fairest) means of raising the revenue needed to support government spending. Since I am somewhat on the fence regarding speculation, there is good speculation and bad speculation and it's not clear which prevails (though I give an edge to the good type), it may be that a tax of this type creates more distortions than it resolves. However, that also means that it may not create, on net, as many distortions as the next best alternative tax that would raise the same amount of revenue, and hence a financial transactions tax may be a desirable way to provide additional funds to the government.
This post has been republished from Mark Thoma's blog, Economist's View.