In UK political circles, little serious consideration was given to the idea of a general financial transaction tax (FTT) before the financial crisis and recession. The City’s view that it would damage the UK’s successful financial industry held sway. But in the last few years, politicians have become more sceptical about what the City tells them and have expressed varying degrees of support for the principle of an FTT. The stumbling block, though, remains the possibility that an FTT introduced unilaterally in the UK would see the City lose business to other financial centres, in particular to New York.
Like the perennial threat that bankers are on the brink of leaving London for other shores as a result of the bankers bonus tax, or the bank levy, or the 50p tax rate, this claim is exaggerated. A badly designed FTT might result in business leaving these shores; a well-designed one could minimise that risk.
And the UK already has a well-designed FTT to act as a model: stamp duty on share purchases. This is very hard to avoid because the tax is paid when the change of legal ownership of shares is registered. If the tax is not paid, the purchaser does not legally acquire the shares. At least 30 other countries also have effective FTTs, and they are applied in 13 of the world’s top 15 financial centres.
Now 11 EU countries, including Germany, France and Italy, intend to introduce a financial transaction tax of 0.1 per cent on trades in shares and bonds and 0.01 per cent on trades in derivatives. We have argued in a recent paper that the UK should join with these countries broaden its FTT to trades in bonds and derivatives. If it is worried about losing business to New York, it should actively lobby US policy makers to introduce an FTT of their own, rather than waiting passively for them to act.
It has been estimated that joining the other 11 EU countries could raise up to £20bn a year in additional tax revenues. These could be used to ease the pressure for cuts in departmental spending and welfare payments. Better still, some of these revenues could be diverted to capitalise a British Investment Bank that would invest in infrastructure projects and lend to small and medium-sized business.
In a recent speech, Ed Miliband backed the idea British Investment Bank, together with a network of regional banks to help revitalise the economy. But he has not identified where the money to set up these banks and enable them to start lending would come from. Given the UK’s still large public sector borrowing requirement, this is a serious omission. An FTT could be the answer.
Of course, setting up these banks will take some time. In the interim, revenues from an FTT could be used directly to increase public spending on infrastructure. This would reconcile theviews of the Business Secretary, Vince Cable, who made the case for kick starting economic growth by investing in infrastructure projects and the Prime Minister, who has argued against unfunded tax cuts and borrowing for spending.
Extra infrastructure spending, a new bank – or set of regional banks – and a tax on financial transactions will not, on their own solve the UK’s economic problems. But they would be a step in the right direction. 11 EU countries are about to implement an FTT; the UK should make it 12.