The Obama administration has staked out grounds in opposition to the financial speculation tax is being considered by the European Union and was recently proposed in Congress by Senator Tom Harkin and Representative Peter Defazio. There are three main arguments that have been given:
- It is not enforceable;
- That it will be passed on to ordinary investors; and
- That is will raise the cost of capital, thereby reducing output and employment.
Each of these can be quickly dismissed.
On the first point, financial transactions taxes actually exist in the world and raise considerable revenue. The U.K. has a 0.5 percent tax on stock trades and raised between 0.2-0.3 percent of GDP annually ($30 billion to $40 billion a year in the United States). There will be some flight to tax havens, but the extent of this flight will largely depend on the willingness of the United States government to counter it. There have been many questions raised by the competency of the Obama administration, but surely it could limit this route to evasion, if it chose. People are not running guns for Al Queda from the Cayman Islands.
As far as the second point, since most investors trade infrequently, the amount of the tax would be trivial — considerably less than borkerage commissions and other fees charged by the financial institutions that manage 401(k)s and similar accounts. Furthermore, the response to a tax would be a decline in trading. Most research indicates that the decline in trading volume should roughly offset the increase in the cost per trade due to the tax. This means that for the typical investor they will be spending no more on their trades after the tax than before.
Finally the claims, based on dubious models, that the tax will lead to a substantial decline in GDP and jobs are just silly. The implication is that financial transactions costs have a large impact on productivity. The model implied that the 0.1 percent increase in the transactions costs for stock trades from the tax being considered by the EU would lead to a 1.76 percent decline in output.
Since transactions costs have fallen by around 5 times this amount over the last 30 years, this would mean that declining transactions account for about 8 percentage points of the increase in productivity growth over this period. This would be around 15 percent of the productivity growth over this period. If this was true then it is remarkable that none of the standard growth models includes financial transactions costs as an important contributing cost.
If this is true, then the U.S. should anticipate slower productivity growth in the years ahead, since there is little room for transactions costs to decline further, now that they getting close to zero. This claim would also mean that the U.K. could quickly see a a jump in its GDP of close to 9 percent if it got rid of its tax. (There was no notable jump when it reduced the tax from 1.0 to 0.5 back in 1986.)
In short, it highly unlikely that anyone really believes this claim about the impact of a financial speculation tax on growth and jobs. But hey, it’s a good thing to say if you want to protect Wall Street.