Bank tax should pay off the TARP, not raise spending

Will the bank tax proposed by the Obama administration really raise money to pay off TARP costs?

By , Guest blogger

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    US Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner (back to camera) testifies May 4 before the Senate Finance Committee on a proposed bank tax. The proposal raises several questions, including whether the tax will be used to pay down TARP costs.
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Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner appeared before the Senate Finance Committee to push the Administration’s proposal for a Financial Crisis Responsibility Fee, more commonly known as the Bank Tax. The purpose of the fee is to

[M]ake sure that the direct costs of TARP are paid for by the major financial institutions, not by the taxpayer. Assessments on these institutions will be determined by the risks they pose to the financial system. These risks, the combination of high levels of riskier assets and less stable sources of funding, were key contributors to the financial crisis.

The fee would be applied over a period of at least ten years, and set at a level to ensure that the costs of TARP do not add to our national debt. One year ago we estimated those costs could exceed half a trillion dollars. However, we have been successful in repairing the financial system at a fraction of those initial estimates. The estimated impact on the deficit varies from $109 billion according to CBO to $117 billion according to the Administration. We anticipate that our fee would raise about $90 billion over 10 years, and believe it should stay in place longer, if necessary, to ensure that the cost of TARP is fully recouped.

As noted by other participants in today’s hearing, the bank tax raises a host of questions: Is it possible to design the tax so that it is ultimately paid by major financial institutions (by which I presume Geithner means their shareholders and top management), or will it get passed through to their customers? How much, if at all, would the tax reduce bank lending? Is it fair to target the banks even though the bank part of TARP actually made money for taxpayers? Would the tax reduce risks in the financial system?

Those are all interesting questions, but today I’d like to highlight another one: Can Congress embrace the idea of a bank tax that would be used to “ensure the costs of TARP do not add to our national debt”?

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As described by the Administration, the bank tax would be used to reduce the deficit, thus offsetting budget costs of TARP. Congress, however, is hungry for revenues that it can use to offset the budget costs of new legislation, e.g., extending the ever popular research-and-experimentation tax credit or limiting the upcoming increase in dividend taxes. With PAYGO now the law of the land (for many legislative proposals), some members are looking at the $90 billion of potential bank tax revenues as the answer to their PAYGO prayers.

All of which points to a looming budget battle: Will the bank tax be used to pay off the costs of TARP, as the President has proposed, or will it be used to pay for other initiatives?

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