A Robin Hood Tax will stop the machines wiping out the market

A small tax on each transaction will stop pointless yet risky high-frequency trading.

From Terminator to the Matrix, our fear that humanity may be supplanted by the machines we create has helped Hollywood make mega-bucks. But while Arnie’s cyborg killing machine and the Neo’s alternative reality remain firmly in the realms of science fiction, our financial sector’s love of a fast buck is leading us to cede control of markets to computers with sometimes disastrous consequences.

The extent to which financial markets are now dominated by computer-driven high frequency trading was revealed again last week, when Knight Capital, a leading New York trading firm made a mistake in its computer programming. The rogue programme swamped the stock market with errant trades, cost the firm $440 million and put the future of the firm in jeopardy.

So what? I hear you ask. Why should we care if a firm of traders loses millions because they rushed out a new computer programme before it was ready?

The fact is that beyond acting as a casino for traders to make or lose fortunes, financial markets are crucial to the functioning of the global economy. They are supposed to allocate resources efficiently and help firms raise capital and manage risk. When things go wrong, as in the crisis of 2008, the consequences for the real economy can be devastating.

A growing number of economists and financial experts – including more than 50 financiers who wrote a recent letter to David Cameron and other world leaders – are warning that unchecked high-frequency trading undermines markets’ economic efficiency and risks disaster. In May 2010, the most infamous "flash crash" dragged the Dow Jones index of shares down nine per cent with more than half the fall happening in just seven minutes. Shares in Accenture plunged from $40 per share to just $0.01, almost wiping out the value of the company.

High frequency trading (HFT) conducted may now account for more than three-quarters of all equity deals in the UK. When you consider that this sort of trading, managed by computers according to complex algorithms, was almost unheard of seven years ago, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that traders have been competing in a technological arms race that has left regulators floundering.

So what can be done? As anti-nuclear campaigners have discovered, it is not possible to un-invent a technology once the genie has left the bottle. But fortunately this is not necessary. High-frequency trading is only profitable because of the sheer volume of trades carried out; the profit margin on each trade is incredibly low.

A tiny tax of a fraction of a percent on each transaction would curb the worst excesses of this cyborg-style casino capitalism, while having little effect on long-term investments such as pensions where trades are carried out far less frequently.

European leaders are working towards such a tax – covering stocks, bonds and derivatives – but the UK government has chosen to side with City interests rather than back the efforts of Germany, France, Spain, Italy and others to make finance work in the interests of society rather than the other way around.

UK opposition to the tax, based as it is on the claim that such taxes have to be global to work, is somewhat ironic. The UK already has an FTT on shares, known as the Stamp Duty, which at 0.5 per cent is many times larger than the proposed European tax (0.1 per cent for shares and bonds, 0.01 per cent for derivatives). The problem is that banks, hedge funds and other high-frequency traders avoid the stamp duty by trading in derivatives.

Extending the UK’s existing FTT to derivatives and bonds would not only "throw sand in the wheels" of HFT and therefore increase stability in financial markets and the wider-economy; it would also raise billions in revenue – the reason the Robin Hood tax campaign is backed by almost 120 organisations from Oxfam to the TUC and by global figures such as Kofi Annan and Bill Gates.

Despite avoidance, the UK Stamp Duty raise £3bn a year. A full-blown FTT could raise as much as £20bn – money that could be used to help those hit by the economic crisis at home and abroad and to meet the UK’s obligations to help poor countries cope with climate change.

It can be done. The UK’s Stamp Duty is one of 40 or so FTTs that already exist around the world. Hong Kong has introduced an FTT on derivatives precisely to curb the excess of computer-driven trading. Charles Li, Chief Executive of the Hong Kong Stock Exchange, says it "effectively limits high frequency trading, just like a highway with many toll booths limits speeding."

By rejecting a broader FTT, the UK government is making its own bet on the markets. It is accepting instability and forgoing much needed revenue in the hope the City’s casino capitalism will help drive recovery from recession.

It is a risky bet. As Andrew Haldane, Executive Director of Financial Stability at the Bank of England has put it:

"Grit in the wheels, like grit on the roads, could help forestall the next crash."

"Whoa" ~ Neo, The Matrix. Do we all fear that machines will supplant us?

Jon Slater is a Senior Press Officer for Oxfam and a spokesperson for the Robin Hood Campaign

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Emily Thornberry heckled by Labour MPs as tensions over Trident erupt

Shadow defence secretary's performance at PLP meeting described as "risible" and "cringeworthy". 

"There's no point trying to shout me down" shadow defence secretary Emily Thornberry declared midway through tonight's Parliamentary Labour Party meeting. Even by recent standards, the 70-minute gathering was remarkably fractious (with PLP chair John Cryer at one point threatening to halt it). Addressing MPs and peers for the first time since replacing Maria Eagle, Thornberry's performance did nothing to reassure Trident supporters. 

The Islington South MP, who voted against renewal in 2007, said that the defence review would be "wide-ranging" and did not take a position on the nuclear question (though she emphasised it was right to "question" renewal). She vowed to listen to colleagues as well as taking "expert advice" and promised to soon visit the Barrow construction site. But MPs' anger was remorseless. Former shadow defence minister Kevan Jones was one of the first to emerge from Committee Room 14. "Waffly and incoherent, cringeworthy" was his verdict. Another Labour MP told me: "Risible. Appalling. She compared Trident to patrolling the skies with spitfires ... It was embarrassing." A party source said afterwards that Thornberry's "spitfire" remark was merely an observation on changing technology. 

"She was talking originally in that whole section about drones. She'd been talking to some people about drones and it was apparent that it was absolutely possible, with improving technology, that large submarines could easily be tracked, detected and attacked by drones. She said it is a question of keeping your eye on new technology ... We don't have the spitfires of the 21st century but we do have some quite old planes, Tornadoes, but they've been updated with modern technology and modern weaponry." 

Former first sea lord and security minister Alan West complained, however, that she had failed to understand how nuclear submarines worked. "Physics, basic physics!" he cried as he left. Asked how the meeting went, Neil Kinnock, who as leader reversed Labour's unilateralist position in 1989, simply let out a belly laugh. Thornberry herself stoically insisted that it went "alright". But a shadow minister told me: "Emily just evidently hadn't put in the work required to be able to credibly address the PLP - totally humiliated. Not by the noise of the hecklers but by the silence of any defenders, no one speaking up for her." 

Labour has long awaited the Europe split currently unfolding among the Tories. But its divide on Trident is far worse. The majority of its MPs are opposed to unilateral disarmament and just seven of the shadow cabinet's 31 members share Jeremy Corbyn's position. While Labour MPs will be given a free vote when the Commons votes on Trident renewal later this year (a fait accompli), the real battle is to determine the party's manifesto stance. 

Thornberry will tomorrow address the shadow cabinet and, for the first time this year, Corbyn will attend the next PLP meeting on 22 February. Both will have to contend with a divide which appears unbridgeable. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.