The 2017 Trump tax cut committed at least two fiscal sins. By delivering most of its cuts to those at the top of the wealth scale, it worsened our already high-levels of pretax inequalities. And in so doing, it robs the Treasury of much needed revenues; based on our aging population, we’re going to need more, not less, revenues for the next few years.
Now, along comes an idea that pushes back against both of these problems (and one other one!): a small tax on financial transactions (FTT). Sen. Schatz (D-HI) and Cong. DeFazio (D-OR) are planning to introduce a tax of one-tenth-of-one-percent, or 10 basis points (100 basis points, or bps, equals 1 percentage point), on securities trades, including stocks, bonds, and derivatives, one that would raise $777 billion over 10 years (0.3 percent of cumulative GDP a decade), according to CBO (by the way, 10 bps on a $1,000 trade comes to a dollar).
Numerous articles have gotten into the arguments for and against an FTT. I’ve got one from a few years back that covers similar ground. My colleague Dean Baker has long argued on behalf of FTTs as has Sarah Anderson of IPS. Importantly, FTTs exist in various countries, including the UK and France, with Germany considering the tax (also, Brazil, India, South Korea, and Argentina). The UK is a particularly germane example, where an FTT has long co-existed with London’s vibrant, global financial market (though we’ll see if Brexit changes that).
In fact, we have an FTT here too! The SEC funds its operating budget through a tiny FTT of 0.23 basis points on securities transactions and $0.0042 per transaction for futures trades.
The pro-FTT argument focuses on the reversing the two fiscal sins noted above, along with raising the cost of high-frequency trading. In a Vox interview, Sen. Schatz was particularly motivated by this latter aspect of the tax: “High-frequency trading is a real risk to the system, and it screws regular people; that’s the main reason to do this. If in the process of solving that problem we happen to generate revenue for public services, that’s an important benefit, but that’s not the main reason to pass this into law.”
Because the value of the stock holdings is highly skewed toward the wealthy, the FTT is highly progressive: The TPC estimates that 40 percent of the cost of the tax falls on the top 1 percent (which makes sense as they hold about 40 percent of the value of the stock market and 40 percent of national wealth).
Finally, on the pro-side, there’s a certain justice in taxing the pumped-up transactions of a financial sector that not only played a key role in inflating the housing bubble that led to the Great Recession, but thanks to government bailouts, recovered from it well before the median household. In this expansion, corporate profits and the securities markets that rise and fall on such profitability have mostly boomed while workers’ wages have only recently caught a bit of a buzz.
So, as my grandma used to say, “What’s not to like?”
Opponents raise numerous concerns, some of which should be taken more seriously than others. The high-speed traders correctly note that even a small FTT would upend their business model. Unlike most such squawking of those effected by tax proposals, in this case I suspect they’re right. While a dollar on a $1,000 trade doesn’t sound like much, when your industry is running 4 billion trades a day, 10 bps can be a prohibitive increase in the cost of transactions.
But again, on this point, opponents and advocates agree. We just have different goals. Someone could make an argument that high-frequency trading improves capital allocation, but it would be a steep, uphill argument.
The more serious objection is that the FTT catches more than just the “flash boys” in its net, raising transaction costs for plain vanilla traders. This is, by definition, true, and because of this effect, FTTs tend to reduce trading volumes. But too often, opponents stop there, as if this is some sort of coup de grace for the tax.
That’s only the case, however, if current trading volumes are somehow optimal, or if diminished volumes create markets that are too thin to reveal price signals to buyers and sellers. But in markets where half the daily trades are high frequency, reduced volume does not necessarily translate into reduced liquidity or dampened price signaling. There’s such a thing, it turns out, as too much volume (you’ve heard heavy metal, right?).
In fact, work by economists Thomas Philipon and Rajiv Sethi have documented ways in which something unusual has occurred. As transaction costs have fallen—quite dramatically, given the rise of electronic trading and its diminished marginal transaction costs—financial markets have not become more efficient. One reason is that falling transaction costs have been offset by higher “intermediation costs,” meaning the incomes of the brokers and dealers in the industry (Sethi provides compelling examples of “superfluous financial intermediation”).
It is therefore plausible, as Sen. Schatz believes, that an FTT will reduce “rent seeking” in the finance sector (economese for excess profits beyond those they’d get under normal, competitive conditions), unproductive financial “innovation,” and speculative bubbles.
But it is also possible that both assets and trading volumes will be more negatively affected than I and other advocates of the tax believe to be the case. Design issues can help here. Sweden’s FTT worked badly as it was set at a high rate but with a relatively narrow base, so avoidance was rampant. The Schatz/DeFazio bill avoids this pitfall with a low rate and a broad base. It’s notable in this regard that the CBOs revenue estimate of a plan upon which the new proposal is modeled includes the budget office’s guesstimates of these dynamic responses (e.g., reduced volumes), and it still raises serious revenues.
Given the uncertainty, here’s what I think should guide our thinking regarding an FTT. First, there is no perfect tax. In every case, you can come up with stories, some of which will be true (most of which will be hugely exaggerated) about some person or sector who is going to get hurt. In this case, the tax is small and there’s a plausible argument that its sectoral impact could be benign or useful. Second, we need the revenues. Third, we need the progressivity.
In other words, if the Trump tax cuts committed fiscal and distributional sins, the FTT looks potentially corrective and meritorious. I’d say it’s time we give it a Schat(z).