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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Cambridge Analytica and the digital war in Africa

Across the continent, UK expertise is being deployed online to sway elections and target dissidents.

Cambridge Analytica, the British political consultancy caught up in a huge scandal over its use of Facebook data, has boasted that they ran the successful campaigns of President Uhuru Kenyatta in the 2013 and 2017 Kenyan elections. In a secretly filmed video, Mark Turnbull, a managing director for Cambridge Analytica and sister company SCL Elections, told a Channel 4 News’ undercover investigative reporting team that his firm secretly stage-managed Kenyatta’s hotly contested campaigns.

“We have rebranded the entire party twice, written the manifesto, done research, analysis, messaging. I think we wrote all the speeches and we staged the whole thing – so just about every element of this candidate,” Turnbull said of his firm’s work for Kenyatta’s party.

Cambridge Analytica boasts of manipulating voters’ deepest fears and worries. Last year’s Kenyan election was dogged by vicious online propaganda targeting opposition leader Raila Odinga, with images and films playing on people’s concerns about everything from terrorism to spiralling disease. No-one knows who produced the material. Cambridge Analytica denies involvement with these toxic videos – a claim that is hard to square with the company’s boast that they “staged the whole thing.” 

In any event, Kenyatta came to power in 2013 and won a second and final term last August, defeating Odinga by 1.4 million votes.

The work of this British company is only the tip of the iceberg. Another company, the public relations firm, Bell Pottinger, has apologised for stirring up racial hostility in South Africa on behalf of former President Jacob Zuma’s alleged financiers – the Gupta family. Bell Pottinger has since gone out of business.

Some electoral manipulation has been home grown. During the 2016 South African municipal elections the African National Congress established its own media manipulations operation.

Called the “war room” it was the ANC’s own “black ops” centre. The operation ranged from producing fake posters, apparently on behalf of opposition parties, to establishing 200 fake social media “influencers”. The team launched a news site, The New South African, which claimed to be a “platform for new voices offering a different perspective of South Africa”. The propaganda branded opposition parties as vehicles for the rich and not caring for the poor.

While the ANC denied any involvement, the matter became public when the public relations consultant hired by the party went to court for the non-payment of her bill. Among the court papers was an agreement between the claimant and the ANC general manager, Ignatius Jacobs. According to the email, the war room “will require input from the GM [ANC general manager Jacobs] and Cde Nkadimeng [an ANC linked businessman] on a daily basis. The ANC must appoint a political champion who has access to approval, as this is one of the key objectives of the war room.”

Such home-grown digital dirty wars appear to be the exception, rather than the rule, in the rest of Africa. Most activities are run by foreign firms.

Ethiopia, which is now in a political ferment, has turned to an Israeli software company to attack opponents of the government. A Canadian research group, Citizens Lab, reported that Ethiopian dissidents in the US, UK, and other countries were targeted with emails containing sophisticated commercial spyware posing as Adobe Flash updates and PDF plugins.

Citizens Lab says it identified the spyware as a product known as “PC Surveillance System (PSS)”. This is a described as a “commercial spyware product offered by Cyberbit —  an Israel-based cyber security company— and marketed to intelligence and law enforcement agencies.”

This is not the first time Ethiopia has been accused of turning to foreign companies for its cyber-operations. According to Human Rights Watch, this is at least the third spyware vendor that Ethiopia has used to target dissidents, journalists and activists since 2013.

Much of the early surveillance work was reportedly carried out by the Chinese telecom giant, ZTE. More recently it has turned for more advanced surveillance technology from British, German and Italian companies. “Ethiopia appears to have acquired and used United Kingdom and Germany-based Gamma International’s FinFisher and Italy-based Hacking Team’s Remote Control System,” wrote Human Rights Watch in 2014.

Britain’s international development ministry – DFID – boasts that it not only supports good governance but provides funding to back it up. In 2017 the good governance programme had £20 million at its disposal, with an aim is to “help countries as they carry out political and economic reforms.” Perhaps the government should direct some of this funding to investigate just what British companies are up to in Africa, and the wider developing world.

Martin Plaut is a fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London. He is the author of Understanding Eritrea and, with Paul Holden, the author of Who Rules South Africa?