Osborne will score a financial own-goal tomorrow

The Chancellor, in turning down the chance to implement a Financial Transactions Tax, will cost the UK dearly.

A fiscal measure that could raise £8bn, boost GDP by 0.25 per cent, provide vital funds for job-creation, infrastructure projects and poverty reduction, calm excessive speculation and reduce the regularity of financial crashes would seem like a no-brainer for a Chancellor. Struggling to reduce the deficit and bring public finances under control, George Osborne is set to score an own goal by refusing to sign up for the Financial Transaction Tax (FTT) which is rapidly becoming a reality in Europe.

Twelve European countries, including the big economies of Germany, France, Italy and Spain, have agreed to a small transaction tax of 0.1 per cent on equities and bonds and 0.01 per cent on derivatives. The initiative, which could generate €37bn per year, is expected to be given the green light by the European Parliament on 12 December.

The UK government’s reasons for rejecting the FTT are flawed on many counts. The Chancellor stubbornly clings to the argument that the FTT must be global to work. This ignores the fact that over 40 countries including some of the world’s leading financial centres and dynamic economies, have successfully implemented FTTs.

Hong Kong raises £1.7bn a year through taxes on derivative transactions while South Korea raises £3.8bn. Even Switzerland and the US have their own taxes on transactions which do not seem to have harmed their reputations as financial centres. Indeed, the UK’s very own stamp duty of 0.5 per cent on share transactions currently raises about £3bn a year for the Treasury; much of this tax (around 40 percent) is paid by people, including non-British, based abroad, who trade in UK shares.

Another myth often touted is that ordinary people and pensioners will end up paying the price. But the rate for the FTT is set so low precisely to avoid hitting longer term investments such as people’s pensions. On the contrary, a paper published this week shows that the FTT is an opportunity to help safeguard pensioners’ investments through reducing short-term speculative activity and encouraging pension funds to return to their traditional, less risky role as buy-and-hold investors - exactly the sort of cautious, long-term funds which experienced the most growth over the rocky 2008-2010 period.

Sparked by recent low interest rates, the increased turnover of assets amongst pension funds contributes to management costs of between two and 20 per cent. It is these high fees - reaped by intermediaries such as advisers, managers and brokers - that are having a major impact on pensioners’ returns.

The tax will also help improve market stability by reducing high-frequency trading including computer-driven trading in which shares are bought and sold hundreds of times a second. Virtually unheard of seven years ago, high frequency trading now accounts for up to 77 percent of all trading in UK equities.

Dictated by computers, too fast for humans to monitor, high frequency trading can create sudden crashes and wild fluctuations in stock prices that bear no relation to market fundamentals and serve little economic purpose. Applying a tiny tax every time a stock is traded will dramatically reduce the incentive to use computers at lightening speeds as the tax outweighs the wafer-thin profits. This will improve financial stability and help reduce the likelihood of future crises, which can lead to a higher level of GDP in the future.

If a levy of 0.1 per cent also makes other elements of City trading unprofitable, you have got to ask how valuable was that activity in the first place?

By triggering a shift away from short-term trading in favour of long-term holding the FTT will thus help reduce misalignments in markets and their subsequent abrupt adjustments or crashes, decreasing the likelihood of future crises. Indeed, countries with FTTs were amongst those least affected by the 2008 crash.

At a time when the UK government continues to struggle with the impact of a crisis that will according to the Bank of England, ultimately cost the UK at least £1.8trn and as much as £7.4trn in lost GDP, it seems reasonable to expect the financial sector, largely responsible for creating the crisis, not just to contribute to repair the damage but also to adopt measures to help reduce the likelihood of future crises.

To us and 50 other financiers who wrote to David Cameron and other European leaders in support of the tax, it is clear the FTT would help rein in markets, help kick-start national economies and provide money to help the world’s poorest countries. The FTT will shortly be a reality in Europe’s biggest economies. The UK cannot afford to ignore it.

Campaigners for a FTT protest in Westminster. Photograph: Getty Images

Jack Gray is currently an Adjunct Professor at the Paul Woolley Centre for Capital Market Dysfunctionality, University of Technology Sydney and an adviser to pension funds in Australia and overseas.

Professor Stephany Griffith-Jones is Financial Markets Director at the Initiative for Policy Dialogue, Columbia University.

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Air pollution: 5 steps to vanquishing an invisible killer

A new report looks at the economics of air pollution. 

110, 150, 520... These chilling statistics are the number of deaths attributable to particulate air pollution for the cities of Southampton, Nottingham and Birmingham in 2010 respectively. Or how about 40,000 - that is the total number of UK deaths per year that are attributable the combined effects of particulate matter (PM2.5) and Nitrogen Oxides (NOx).

This situation sucks, to say the very least. But while there are no dramatic images to stir up action, these deaths are preventable and we know their cause. Road traffic is the worst culprit. Traffic is responsible for 80 per cent of NOx on high pollution roads, with diesel engines contributing the bulk of the problem.

Now a new report by ResPublica has compiled a list of ways that city councils around the UK can help. The report argues that: “The onus is on cities to create plans that can meet the health and economic challenge within a short time-frame, and identify what they need from national government to do so.”

This is a diplomatic way of saying that current government action on the subject does not go far enough – and that cities must help prod them into gear. That includes poking holes in the government’s proposed plans for new “Clean Air Zones”.

Here are just five of the ways the report suggests letting the light in and the pollution out:

1. Clean up the draft Clean Air Zones framework

Last October, the government set out its draft plans for new Clean Air Zones in the UK’s five most polluted cities, Birmingham, Derby, Leeds, Nottingham and Southampton (excluding London - where other plans are afoot). These zones will charge “polluting” vehicles to enter and can be implemented with varying levels of intensity, with three options that include cars and one that does not.

But the report argues that there is still too much potential for polluters to play dirty with the rules. Car-charging zones must be mandatory for all cities that breach the current EU standards, the report argues (not just the suggested five). Otherwise national operators who own fleets of vehicles could simply relocate outdated buses or taxis to places where they don’t have to pay.  

Different vehicles should fall under the same rules, the report added. Otherwise, taking your car rather than the bus could suddenly seem like the cost-saving option.

2. Vouchers to vouch-safe the project’s success

The government is exploring a scrappage scheme for diesel cars, to help get the worst and oldest polluting vehicles off the road. But as the report points out, blanket scrappage could simply put a whole load of new fossil-fuel cars on the road.

Instead, ResPublica suggests using the revenue from the Clean Air Zone charges, plus hiked vehicle registration fees, to create “Pollution Reduction Vouchers”.

Low-income households with older cars, that would be liable to charging, could then use the vouchers to help secure alternative transport, buy a new and compliant car, or retrofit their existing vehicle with new technology.

3. Extend Vehicle Excise Duty

Vehicle Excise Duty is currently only tiered by how much CO2 pollution a car creates for the first year. After that it becomes a flat rate for all cars under £40,000. The report suggests changing this so that the most polluting vehicles for CO2, NOx and PM2.5 continue to pay higher rates throughout their life span.

For ClientEarth CEO James Thornton, changes to vehicle excise duty are key to moving people onto cleaner modes of transport: “We need a network of clean air zones to keep the most polluting diesel vehicles from the most polluted parts of our towns and cities and incentives such as a targeted scrappage scheme and changes to vehicle excise duty to move people onto cleaner modes of transport.”

4. Repurposed car parks

You would think city bosses would want less cars in the centre of town. But while less cars is good news for oxygen-breathers, it is bad news for city budgets reliant on parking charges. But using car parks to tap into new revenue from property development and joint ventures could help cities reverse this thinking.

5. Prioritise public awareness

Charge zones can be understandably unpopular. In 2008, a referendum in Manchester defeated the idea of congestion charging. So a big effort is needed to raise public awareness of the health crisis our roads have caused. Metro mayors should outline pollution plans in their manifestos, the report suggests. And cities can take advantage of their existing assets. For example in London there are plans to use electronics in the Underground to update travellers on the air pollution levels.

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Change is already in the air. Southampton has used money from the Local Sustainable Travel Fund to run a successful messaging campaign. And in 2011 Nottingham City Council became the first city to implement a Workplace Parking levy – a scheme which has raised £35.3m to help extend its tram system, upgrade the station and purchase electric buses.

But many more “air necessities” are needed before we can forget about pollution’s worry and its strife.  

 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.