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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Let's turn RBS into a bank for the public interest

A tarnished symbol of global finance could be remade as a network of local banks. 

The Royal Bank of Scotland has now been losing money for nine consecutive years. Today’s announcement of a further £7bn yearly loss at the publicly-owned bank is just the latest evidence that RBS is essentially unsellable. The difference this time is that the Government seems finally to have accepted that fact.

Up until now, the government had been reluctant to intervene in the running of the business, instead insisting that it will be sold back to the private sector when the time is right. But these losses come just a week after the government announced that it is abandoning plans to sell Williams & Glynn – an RBS subsidiary which has over 300 branches and £22bn of customer deposits.

After a series of expensive delays and a lack of buyer interest, the government now plans to retain Williams & Glynn within the RBS group and instead attempt to boost competition in the business lending market by granting smaller "challenger banks" access to RBS’s branch infrastructure. It also plans to provide funding to encourage small businesses to switch their accounts away from RBS.

As a major public asset, RBS should be used to help achieve wider objectives. Improving how the banking sector serves small businesses should be the top priority, and it is good to see the government start to move in this direction. But to make the most of RBS, they should be going much further.

The public stake in RBS gives us a unique opportunity to create new banking institutions that will genuinely put the interests of the UK’s small businesses first. The New Economics Foundation has proposed turning RBS into a network of local banks with a public interest mandate to serve their local area, lend to small businesses and provide universal access to banking services. If the government is serious about rebalancing the economy and meeting the needs of those who feel left behind, this is the path they should take with RBS.

Small and medium sized enterprises are the lifeblood of the UK economy, and they depend on banking services to fund investment and provide a safe place to store money. For centuries a healthy relationship between businesses and banks has been a cornerstone of UK prosperity.

However, in recent decades this relationship has broken down. Small businesses have repeatedly fallen victim to exploitative practice by the big banks, including the the mis-selling of loans and instances of deliberate asset stripping. Affected business owners have not only lost their livelihoods due to the stress of their treatment at the hands of these banks, but have also experienced family break-ups and deteriorating physical and mental health. Others have been made homeless or bankrupt.

Meanwhile, many businesses struggle to get access to the finance they need to grow and expand. Small firms have always had trouble accessing finance, but in recent decades this problem has intensified as the UK banking sector has come to be dominated by a handful of large, universal, shareholder-owned banks.

Without a focus on specific geographical areas or social objectives, these banks choose to lend to the most profitable activities, and lending to local businesses tends to be less profitable than other activities such as mortgage lending and lending to other financial institutions.

The result is that since the mid-1980s the share of lending going to non-financial businesses has been falling rapidly. Today, lending to small and medium sized businesses accounts for just 4 per cent of bank lending.

Of the relatively small amount of business lending that does occur in the UK, most is heavily concentrated in London and surrounding areas. The UK’s homogenous and highly concentrated banking sector is therefore hampering economic development, starving communities of investment and making regional imbalances worse.

The government’s plans to encourage business customers to switch away from RBS to another bank will not do much to solve this problem. With the market dominated by a small number of large shareholder-owned banks who all behave in similar ways (and who have been hit by repeated scandals), businesses do not have any real choice.

If the government were to go further and turn RBS into a network of local banks, it would be a vital first step in regenerating disenfranchised communities, rebalancing the UK’s economy and staving off any economic downturn that may be on the horizon. Evidence shows that geographically limited stakeholder banks direct a much greater proportion of their capital towards lending in the real economy. By only investing in their local area, these banks help create and retain wealth regionally rather than making existing geographic imbalances worce.

Big, deep challenges require big, deep solutions. It’s time for the government to make banking work for small businesses once again.

Laurie Macfarlane is an economist at the New Economics Foundation