The UK government has reiterated that it will “resist” European plans to introduce a tax on financial transactions.
This comes after José Manuel Barroso, the European Commission president, unveiled the proposals as part of his annual State of the Union address in Strasbourg yesterday. He said that the tax could raise some €55bn (£50bn; $75bn) a year.
Under the proposals, the tax would be levied at a rate of 0.1 per cent on all financial transactions between institutions. Derivative contracts would be taxed at a rate of 0.01 per cent. Both parties would be charged, even if only one was EU-based.
It would be a popular measure with the public. A recent poll by Eurobarometer found that 61 per cent of Europeans support a financial transaction tax, including 65 per cent of Britons.
On Radio 4 this morning, Stuart Fraser of the City of London said that this would effectively be a “tax on London”, as around 80 per cent of Europe’s financial transactions come through the British capital. In the Financial Times, business groups such as the CBI have queued up to dismiss the plans, saying that they would simply divert transactions to Hong Kong and New York.
This is the line that the government has taken too. As I reported last month, the Treasury said it would not back such a tax unless it was adopted globally. Since global agreement is highly unlikely, the UK (which can veto it in the EU) could successfully scupper the tax. There is little doubt that the tax would be more successful if implemented across the world — the European Commission concedes this — but the UK government is not even willing to engage with the idea or seek global accord.
The BBC’s business editor, Robert Peston, explains why the disproportionate effect on London might not necessarily be a bad thing:
Research by the Bank for International Settlements, the central bankers’ central bank, provides a useful counterpoint. This demonstrates that countries with disproportionately large financial sectors, like the UK, have disproportionately small manufacturing sectors – because capital and talent tend to gravitate to the ostensibly big returns on offer in banks, hedge funds and so on, and because the exchange rate tends to rise to a level well above what’s comfortable for exporters.
So, arguably, the British economy will not be rebalanced — towards more making, and less financial engineering — unless and until the City is less dominant. Which possibly means that a government committed to such rebalancing, as this one is, should not be quite so wary of a tax that would squeeze City profits.
Part of the thinking behind the tax is that it would force a culture change, limiting what Peston calls “deals that the world would be better off without”. Unfortunately, it seems that the UK government is more concerned with defending a return to business as usual.