Yet again, the UK government has sided with the robotraders on a Robin Hood Tax

A financial transactions tax is the most economically efficient way to lessen the harm of HFT – but the government keeps fighting it.

Fifteen years ago the computer program Deep Blue made headlines around the world by beating chess giant Garry Kasparov. In the years since, computer algorithms have quietly gone on to dominate large parts of the financial markets.

Computer-driven trading now accounts for 70 per cent of trading in the US equity market, 36 per cent in the UK. Machines fire tens of thousands of trades a second, relying on state-of-the art technology and proximity to stock exchanges to shave microseconds off transaction times.

Yet tiny errors in the algorithms can have devastating consequences. During the infamous 'Flash Crash' of 2010 the Dow Jones index dropped nine per cent in a matter of minutes. Over the summer Knight Capital – a leading New York HFT (high frequency trading) firm – erroneously swamped the stock market with errant trades, wiping $440m from the firm's value.

That's why the European Parliament's powerful Economic Affairs Committee this week voted through legislation – the Markets in Financial Instruments Directive II – designed to curb HFT. A key proposal being that trades will have to be posted for at least 500 milliseconds (currently traders can execute 10,000 trades during the same period).

Proponents of HFT argue their churning sea of trades brings liquidity to the markets. The reality is more capricious - in times of crisis traders pull the plug, draining liquidity when it is needed most.

Adair Turner described such corners of financial markets as "socially useless". The Financial Times recently said “hard evidence and common sense point to a host of social benefits from removing unnecessary intermediation and curbing predatory trading strategies”, adding that in some areas Mifid II was simply too mild.

It's no surprise that high frequency traders themselves have mounted a defence against the reforms. What's of more concern is that in the days preceding the vote the UK Government lobbied for them to be watered-down. Its official response did not support the call for HFT firms to hold equities for a minimum period.

Yet as the Bureau for Investigative Journalism revealed last week, of a 31-member panel tasked by the UK Government to assess Mifid II, 22 members were from the financial services, 16 linked to the HFT industry. A study by the Bureau last year revealed that over half the funding for the Conservative Party came from the financial sector, 27 per cent coming from hedge funds, financiers and private equity firms. This perhaps helps explain how the interests of a select group of traders get confused with the interests of the economy as a whole.

It's a similar story for the Financial Transaction Tax. No longer a pipe dream, European Governments of all political hues, including its largest economies, are working towards its implementation by next year. The tax of between 0.1 - 0.01 per cent on financial transactions offers a more effective mechanism to limit market excesses by making certain speculative trades less profitable. But crucially, it is also capable of raising billions in much needed revenue that would ensure the financial sector pays it fair share for the damage caused to our economy.

Yet the UK Government has again chosen to stand apart in blocking a Europe wide-FTT, turning down billions in desperately needed revenue that could help save jobs, protect the poorest and avoid the worst in cuts to public services. Instead, advice of previous Party Treasurers Michael Spencer and Peter Cruddas was heeded, who infamously lobbied against the FTT. Both incidentally own multi-million pound financial firms which would be hit by such a tax.

Taken together, this tells the story of a post-financial crisis Europe: as governments embark on the arduous task of making markets once again work in the interests of society, the UK Government remains intoxicated by the Square Mile - protecting vested interests and relying on the same market principles that got us into this mess to get us out again. Best brace ourselves for a bumpy ride.

The EU Parliament. Photograph: Getty Images

Simon Chouffot is a spokesperson for the Robin Hood Tax campaign and writes on the role of the financial sector in our society.

Getty
Show Hide image

Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle