Wednesday, June 30, 2010

The Tobin Tax Of The VAT?

While Congress caters to the banks, the states have been left to fend for themselves. Where is the money to come from to pull off the impossible feat of balancing their budgets? Bleeding a VAT tax out of an already-anemic working class is more likely to kill the patient than to alleviate the disease. A more viable and equitable solution would be to tap into the only major market left on the planet that is not now subject to a sales tax - the "financial products" that are the stock in trade of the robust financial sector itself.

A financial transaction tax on speculative trading is sometimes called a "Tobin tax," after the man who first proposed it, Nobel laureate economist James Tobin. The revenue potential of a Tobin tax is huge. The Bank for International Settlements reported in 2008 that total annual derivatives trades were $1.14 quadrillion (a quadrillion is a thousand trillion). That figure was probably low, since over-the-counter trades are unreported and their magnitude is unknown. A mere 1% tax on $1 quadrillion in trades would generate $10 trillion annually in public funds. That is only for derivatives. There are also stocks, bonds and other financial trades to throw in the mix; and more than half of this trading occurs in the United States.

A Tobin tax would not generate these huge sums year after year, because it would largely kill the computerized high-frequency program trades that now compose 70% of stock market purchases. But that is a worthy end in itself. The sudden, thousand-point drop in the Dow Industrial Average on May 6 showed the world how vulnerable the stock market is to manipulation by these sophisticated market gamblers. The whole high-frequency trading business needs to be stopped, in order to protect legitimate investors using the stock market for the purposes for which it was designed: to raise capital for businesses. As Mark Cubanobserved in a May 9 article titled "What Business Is Wall Street In?":

Creating capital for business has to be less than 1pct of the volume on Wall Street in any given period. . . . My 2 cents is that it is important for this country to push Wall Street back to the business of creating capital for business. Whether it's through a use of taxes on trades, or changing the capital gains tax structure so that there is no capital gains tax on any shares of stock (private or public company) held for 5 years or more, and no tax on dividends paid to shareholders who have held stock in the company for more than 5 years. However we need to do it, we need to get the smart money on Wall Street back to thinking about ways to use their capital to help start and grow companies. That is what will create jobs. That is where we will find the next big thing that will accelerate the world economy. It won't come from traders trying to hack the financial system for a few pennies per trade.

Besides protecting legitimate savers and investors by exempting stock held five years or more, they could be exempted from a Tobin tax on total stock purchases of under $1 million per year. That would make the tax literally a millionaire's tax -- and a small one at that, at only 1% per trade.