Sunday, November 8, 2009

Tobin Tax is back?

At the G-20 in St Andrews on 7 November, the British PM Gordon Brown has proposed a levy on financial transactions to stabilize markets and raise new resources. This is nothing else than the so-called 'Tobin tax' ( proposed by the Nobel Price for Economics James Tobin in 1972) . Since then, that proposal was discussed in several occasions, but in particular after the two important financial crises which preceded the current one: in 1992 where the European Monetary System was under threat after the massive speculative attacks against the Sterling and the lira (which lost about 30% of its value) putting the Italian economy in a quasi default situation; the Asian crisis in 1997, which had devastating consequences for some Asian economies with riots and demonstrations for hunger.

The Tobin tax consists in a minimum levy on financial transactions , for instance 0,5% (as proposed by Prof. Tobin in an interview to Der Spiegel in 2001). In global finance, gains could be infinitesimal but the high frequency of operations and the large sums involved yield gigantic profits . So even a low tax could result in cancelling a large volume of transactions, which would not be profitable, although markets would gain in stability. Furthermore, tax revenues would be significant : at 0,5% it is estimated that they would represent more than 80 billion dollars a year, which according to many would be sufficient to eradicate extreme poverty in the world.

Such tax requires a large consensus among the most powerful governments and so far it has been opposed by all financial agents- which is not surprising- and also by many economists. According to opponents, speculation may be bad ethically speaking but has an important role in financial markets operation to guarantee financial liquidity. We can still think that the risks deriving from the Tobin tax might be deliberately overstated: even George Soros, who gave rise to the currency crisis in 1992, declared that the tax would have undermined his interests, but that it could have beneficial effects for the world economy.

It is not surprising that the proposal has been endorsed by all opponents of globalization, but Prof. Tobin himself argued that his idea was intended to make the world economy work better, although he also supported the idea to use it as a remedy to fight poverty. Created in 1998, an international organisation called Attac* supports the idea of introducing such tax to promote social justice.

Hitherto Europe was divided on the tax, with on the one hand France and Germany in favor and the United Kingdom against it. Gordon Brown's declaration in support of the tax is most welcome, although he made clear that the tax revenues would go into a fund for the State to intervene in bailouts. There is thus an important nuance: it would be reinvested in the country for emergence purposes not to redistribute resources to eradicate poverty. In any event, an agreement among European states will not suffice, and would need to be endorse by G-20. In the final declaration**, there is no mention of this tax but the discussion is far from being over.

* Attac (Association for the Taxation of Financial Transactions for the Aid of Citizens ) -

1 comment:

  1. P.S: Martin Wolf (FT Nov.20) supports the tax on windfall bank profits, not to contain excessive risks but to bear the wider fiscal costs of the crisis. But it is also a way to avoid 'moral hazard' as the state has become the last resort financier of the banks . It would be a one-off tax (unless banks continue taking excessive risks to cause systemic crises every few years). This is reasonable but it is far from being sufficient to prevent future crises.