The leaders of continental Europe's four biggest countries agreed at last week's euro zone summit on the principle that the European Union should move toward imposing a tax on financial transactions. Though it was hardly mentioned in the US press, the agreement was big news in Europe. The leaders say they will raise funds equal to 1 percent of total euro zone gross domestic product through a financial transactions tax (FTT), though no details were forthcoming on just what would be taxed or at what rates.
That President François Hollande of France, Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, Prime Minister Mario Monte of Italy and Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy should all take time out from acute crisis talks to agree on any long-term policy position is remarkable. That they should agree on a new tax is more remarkable still. Nonetheless, Chancellor Merkel stated flatly that she was "pleased that all four here have committed to a financial transactions tax."
FFTs are nothing new. They used to be called "stamp duties" and all industrialized countries used to have them. Today, they survive mainly in real estate transfer taxes. Stamp duties on frequently traded financial instruments like stocks and bonds were eliminated in the twentieth century in most countries under pressure from the finance industry.
When the world went off the gold standard in 1971 and modern foreign currency markets came into existence, economist James Tobin recommended that a small transactions tax be applied to foreign exchange transactions as a way to prevent instability in these new markets. He argued that the hyper-efficiency of foreign exchange markets could lead to unwanted volatility that might harm countries' real economies and that a transactions tax would reduce these tendencies.
If Tobin was right for the foreign currency markets, he was even more right for stock markets. He couldn't anticipate in 1972 that by 2012 stocks would be traded electronically at such high speed that banks would move their computers physically closer to the exchanges so that their trading orders would be executed faster. Tobin taxes are probably more important today for damping down volatility in share markets than in currency markets.
The goal of a Tobin tax on financial transactions is not to take from the rich and give to the poor. It's to prevent the rich from destroying the economy for the rest of us. Tobin taxes are meant to slow down runaway markets, to let a little air out of inflating bubbles and in general to give people and governments just a little more time to respond to economic problems before they get out of hand. Tobin taxes give the real economy just a miniscule edge over the speculative economy. Usually, that's all that's needed to prevent the speculators from running roughshod over the rest of us.
What turns a Tobin tax into a Robin Hood tax is what you do with the money you collect. President Hollande et compagnie have made no mention of taking from the rich to give to the poor. Their plan, to the extent that they have one, seems to be to use the proceeds of a FFT to fund the European Union budget. At best, the money collected might go to the poor of Europe. There's certainly no talk of spending it on the poor of the world.
And, yet, the rich countries of the world - including the euro four and the United States - have all agreed to dedicate at least 0.7 percent of their national incomes to official development assistance (ODA) to poor countries. This foreign aid commitment has been in place in various forms since 1970, though it has been met by only a few (mainly Nordic) countries. Since the beginning of the global financial crisis, levels of ODA have actually declined for many countries.
United States ODA to poor countries is only 0.21 percent. The top three recipients are Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan, which hardly suggests that our aid money is independent of our foreign policy goals. France, Germany, Italy and Spain give 0.50 percent, 0.39 percent, 0.15 percent and 0.43 percent, respectively (2010 figures from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development).
The numbers being mooted for the euro zone FTT are tantalizingly similar to the figures that developed countries have committed to spending on foreign aid. It is, however, highly unlikely that any money raised will be used for this purpose. A new tax imposed during an upturn might go to aid. A new tax imposed during a downturn will inevitably be spent at home.
The best solution might be a threshold split. The first 0.5 percent of gross domestic product raised by an FTT could be spent on national debt relief. Any remaining sum could then go to the aid budget. The advantage of such an arrangement would be to make the tax politically palatable now, but morally palatable later. It would also make the tax anti-cyclical: in a downturn the money raised would stay at home, while in an upturn it would go abroad. Wins all around.
But waiting in the wings is the sheriff of Nottingham. The UK's Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, staunchly opposes a European FFT that might cover British-based companies. Of course, if it doesn't include the UK, a European FTT would just drive business to London. The City of London is by far the world's largest offshore financial center, dwarfing other even shadier British territories like Bermuda, the Channel Islands, the Cayman Islands, the Isle of Man and the Turks and Caicos Islands.
To have any hope of helping the ordinary citizens of Europe and the poor people of the rest of the world, a European FTT would have to be coupled with European legislation to prohibit the trading of European financial instruments outside Europe. This is technically feasible, but it would require a higher level of commitment than European leaders have shown to date.
To be morally and politically palatable, a FFT should have a built-in threshold beyond which any funds collected would go straight to official development assistance. On the one hand, it is politically unrealistic to expect a European FTT to be devoted entirely to foreign aid. On the other hand, a narrowly targeted FTT designed only to respond to the current euro crisis might simply be repealed once the crisis passes. A well-designed FTT should serve both purposes.
Throughout this debate it must be remembered that a well-designed FTT will pay for itself. The original Tobin tax idea wasn't about feeding the poor. It was about improving economic performance by damping down the worst excesses of financial markets. Runaway markets can severely misallocate financial capital. We should all have learned that lesson in 2007, if not in 1929. If we can save the euro while improving the economy and at the same time divert part of the benefit to help the poorest people on Earth ... why not?
The sheriff might just have to accept a happy ending after all.