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.

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North Yorkshire has approved the UK’s first fracking tests in five years. What does this mean?

Is fracking the answer to the UK's energy future? Or a serious risk to the environment?

Shale gas operation has been approved in North Yorkshire, the first since a ban introduced after two minor earthquakes in 2011 were shown to be caused by fracking in the area. On Tuesday night, after two days of heated debate, North Yorkshire councillors finally granted an application to frack in the North York Moors National Park.

The vote by the Tory-dominated council was passed by seven votes to four, and sets an important precedent for the scores of other applications still awaiting decision across the country. It also gives a much-needed boost to David Cameron’s 2014 promise to “go all out for shale”. But with regional authorities pitted against local communities, and national government in dispute with global NGOs, what is the wider verdict on the industry?

What is fracking?

Fracking, or “hydraulic fracturing”, is the extraction of shale gas from deep underground. A mixture of water, sand and chemicals is pumped into the earth at such high pressure that it literally fractures the rocks and releases the gas trapped inside.

Opponents claim that the side effects include earthquakes, polluted ground water, and noise and traffic pollution. The image the industry would least like you to associate with the process is this clip of a man setting fire to a running tap, from the 2010 US documentary Gasland

Advocates dispute the above criticisms, and instead argue that shale gas extraction will create jobs, help the UK transition to a carbon-neutral world, reduce reliance on imports and boost tax revenues.

So do these claims stands up? Let’s take each in turn...

Will it create jobs? Yes, but mostly in the short-term.

Industry experts imply that job creation in the UK could reflect that seen in the US, while the medium-sized production company Cuadrilla claims that shale gas production would create 1,700 jobs in Lancashire alone.

But claims about employment may be exaggerated. A US study overseen by Penn State University showed that only one in seven of the jobs projected in an industry forecast actually materialised. In the UK, a Friends of the Earth report contends that the majority of jobs to be created by fracking in Lancashire would only be short-term – with under 200 surviving the initial construction burst.

Environmentalists, in contrast, point to evidence that green energy creates more jobs than similar-sized fossil fuel investments.  And it’s not just climate campaigners who don’t buy the employment promise. Trade union members also have their doubts. Ian Gallagher, Secretary of Blackburn and District Trade Unions Council, told Friends of the Earth that: “Investment in the areas identified by the Million Climate Jobs Campaign [...] is a far more certain way of addressing both climate change and economic growth than drilling for shale gas.”

Will it deliver cleaner energy? Not as completely as renewables would.

America’s “shale revolution” has been credited with reversing the country’s reliance on dirty coal and helping them lead the world in carbon-emissions reduction. Thanks to the relatively low carbon dioxide content of natural gas (emitting half the amount of coal to generate the same amount of electricity), fracking helped the US reduce its annual emissions of carbon dioxide by 556 million metric tons between 2007 and 2014. Banning it, advocates argue, would “immediately increase the use of coal”.

Yet a new report from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (previously known for its opposition to wind farm applications), has laid out a number of ways that the UK government can meet its target of 80 per cent emissions reduction by 2050 without necessarily introducing fracking and without harming the natural world. Renewable, home-produced, energy, they argue, could in theory cover the UK’s energy needs three times over. They’ve even included some handy maps:


Map of UK land available for renewable technologies. Source: RSPB’s 2050 Energy Vision.

Will it deliver secure energy? Yes, up to a point.

For energy to be “sustainable” it also has to be secure; it has to be available on demand and not threatened by international upheaval. Gas-fired “peaking” plants can be used to even-out input into the electricity grid when the sun doesn’t shine or the wind is not so blowy. The government thus claims that natural gas is an essential part of the UK’s future “energy mix”, which, if produced domestically through fracking, will also free us from reliance on imports tarnished by volatile Russian politics.

But, time is running out. Recent analysis by Carbon Brief suggests that we only have five years left of current CO2 emission levels before we blow the carbon budget and risk breaching the climate’s crucial 1.5°C tipping point. Whichever energy choices we make now need to starting brining down the carbon over-spend immediately.

Will it help stablise the wider economy? Yes, but not forever.

With so many “Yes, buts...” in the above list, you might wonder why the government is still pressing so hard for fracking’s expansion? Part of the answer may lie in their vested interest in supporting the wider industry.

Tax revenues from UK oil and gas generate a large portion of the government’s income. In 2013-14, the revenue from license fees, petroleum revenue tax, corporation tax and the supplementary charge accounted for nearly £5bn of UK exchequer receipts. The Treasury cannot afford to lose these, as evidenced in the last budget when George Osborne further subsidied North Sea oil operations through increased tax breaks.

The more that the Conservatives support the industry, the more they can tax it. In 2012 DECC said it wanted to “guarantee... every last economic drop of oil and gas is produced for the benefit of the UK”. This sentiment was repeated yesterday by energy minister Andrea Leadsom, when she welcomed the North Yorkshire decision and described fracking as a “fantastic opportunity”.

Dependence on finite domestic fuel reserves, however, is not a long-term economic solution. Not least because they will either run out or force us to exceed international emissions treaties: “Pensions already have enough stranded assets as they are,” says Danielle Pafford from 350.org.

Is it worth it? Most European countries have decided it’s not.

There is currently no commercial shale-gas drilling in Europe. Sustained protests against the industry in Romania, combined with poor exploration results, have already caused energy giant Chevron to pull out of the country. Total has also abandonned explorations in Denmark, Poland is being referred to the European Court of Justice for failing to adequately assess fracking’s impact, and, in Germany, brewers have launched special bottle-caps with the slogan “Nein! Zu Fracking” to warn against the threat to their water supply.

Back in the UK, the government's latest survey of public attitudes to fracking found that 44 per cent neither supported nor opposed the practice, but also that opinion is gradually shifting out of favour. If the government doesn't come up with arguments that hold water soon, it seems likely that the UK's fracking future could still be blasted apart.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.