ECONOMIC SCENE: Is a currency transactions tax an answer to national budget woes?

A 'Tobin Tax' would add a tiny premium to foreign currency trades — with perhaps $1 trillion in benefits.

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    Currency dealers trade the US dollar and Japanese yen under an electric quotation board at the foreign exchange market in Tokyo on Nov. 27, 2009. A 'Tobin tax,' the well-known but never implemented surcharge on foreign currency trades, is one idea to help governments recoup massive public spending.
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When the United States went fully off the gold standard in 1971, a Yale University economist, James Tobin, proposed a small tax on foreign-exchange transactions to curb currency speculation. Over the years, this tax idea has popped up, recently at a Nov. 7 Group of 20 meeting in St. Andrews, Scotland.

The idea has a certain allure. Currency transactions exceed $2 trillion a day, so a 0.1 percent tax might net more than $2 billion a day. With stock trades and, possibly, other financial transactions, that’s perhaps a $1 trillion-a-year honey pot that cash-strapped governments find tempting.

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown brought up the idea at the St. Andrews meeting of the world’s key finance ministers. French Finance Minister Christine Lagarde called the tax “a very good thing.” But it was whacked down by US Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner. That doesn’t mean the Tobin tax is completely dead.

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To Da Vid, the holistic, New Age director of the San Francisco Medical Research Foundation, the Tobin tax is attractive because, he figures, it could raise $3 trillion a year (at a 1 percent rate) for good purposes and “doesn’t threaten anybody.” As founder of the “political paradigm” Light Party, with about 1,500 members, Mr. Vid doesn’t carry the clout of, say, a finance minister. But he eagerly promotes the Tobin tax.

A less enthusiastic advocate is Jeffrey Frankel, a highly respected financial economist at Harvard University. He sees a political advantage. The tax would “accomplish the political goal of aiming a silver bullet into the heart of the [understandable] popular outrage” over spending billions of taxpayer dollars to rescue the banks, he wrote in a blog a year ago. “The public is out for blood,” he says today.

Like many, Vid disapproves of the billions of dollars in bonuses being paid executives at financial institutions. He sees the Tobin tax as a way to redistribute such wealth.

But a keen advocate of taxing the rich harder, Robert McIntyre, director of Citizens for Tax Justice in Washington, maintains that the tax advocated by the late Mr. Tobin, a Nobel laureate, would be “bad for the financial markets.” And he adds, it would tax financial transactions by small investors as well as by wealthy investors.

Tax people on money they make, rather than on what they do, Mr. McIntyre says.

To others, the tax seems like a kind of zombie, a dead idea that keeps rising from its grave. Yves Mersch, a member of the European Central Bank’s governing council, recently called it “scurrilous.” Critics say the tax would damage the liquidity of financial markets.

Another challenge: Unless the Tobin tax is embraced by at least the major economic powers, financial transactions would soon migrate to some nations that did not impose it.

As long as the tax is tiny, say 0.1 percent, Professor Frankel doesn’t think it would seriously damage liquidity – the ability of financial markets to clear most transactions. Of course, that would also imply far less revenue than $3 trillion. Maybe the tax could come into effect, he suggests, if government revenues prove inadequate in three to five years after the economy has recovered.

Twenty years ago, an up-and-coming Harvard professor also advocated a Tobin tax in a paper titled, “When financial markets work too well: A curious case for a securities transaction tax.” The author? Lawrence Summers, currently director of President Obama’s National Economic Council.
So far, that idea is not official administration policy.

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