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.

Photo: Getty
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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.