The Robin Hood Tax takes off: update, arguments and counterarguments

March 1, 2010

     By Duncan Green     


The Robin Hood Tax campaign has certainly struck a nerve. On the one hand, huge public support (within three weeks of the launch, 300,000 views of the Bill Nighy youtube, 120,000 fans on Facebook, 30,000 signed up on email) and serious political interest (UK parliamentary launch with 80 MPs, lobby meetings with all the major parties). But also a significant amount of ‘pushback’ in the blogosphere and op-ed columns. Criticisms fall into two broad camps: although it’s an interesting phenomenon, I don’t intend to discuss the first – the ‘who does Bill Nighy think he is?’ tendency of policy wonks who clearly resent upstart celebs speaking out (except to say that Bill’s been campaigning for Oxfam for years, and that the policy wonks are presumably jealous at how much coverage he gets). Let’s get onto the substantial stuff. In the initial exchange of fire, two main issues emerged:

1. Who pays in the end, assuming $400bn doesn’t just come out of thin air? Critics like the FT’s Tim Harford claim that calling it a ‘tax on bankers’ hides the fact that ordinary punters will pay in the end.

My response: Because it is levied once per transaction, the FTT acts as a kind of frequency filter. If a financial institution turns over its whole portfolio once a day, it will pay 365 times as much tax as one that turns over its portfolio once a year. So in the first instance, the tax will fall on high frequency traders like hedge funds and the proprietary trading houses of investment banks, not on low frequency traders like retail investors, people changing money to go on holiday, or high street banks. 

But who has their money in the hedge funds? Well up until recently, it was almost entirely ‘henwees’ – High Net Worth Individuals (HNWIs) – so an FTT would have been hugely progressive, affecting only rich individuals ability to ‘use money to make money’. Admittedly, in the last few years pension funds and other institutional investors have started buying into the more speculative investment vehicles, so the boundary has got a bit more blurred. According to a recent report in the FT ‘most UK schemes were now looking to allocate up to 15 per cent of their portfolio to hedge funds’, although the current percentage is well below that. So an FTT could deter pension funds from moving into higher risk investments – arguably no bad thing. But yes, even though overall, an FTT would be extremely progressive, there would be some pass through to pension plans. In practice, however, an FTT would in reality be a family of taxes at different levels on different kinds of transaction,  and could be fine tuned to maximise that progressivity.

2.  If we don’t introduce it in all countries at the same time, it will put those that do at a commercial disadvantage, and lead to a mass flight of financial institutions.

rbsMy response: Ideally an FTT would be applied globally by all countries.  But while this is being negotiated at the G20 and elsewhere, there is nothing to stop governments taking steps, either as a group of like-minded countries, or unilaterally.

And here’s what for me is the killer counter-argument to this objection. A range of domestic FTTs imposed by different countries already exist! They show that unilateral action is completely possible, and that fears that introducing a tax makes firms go elsewhere are overblown:

– UK: a 0.5% Stamp Duty on share transactions raises more than £3.2 billion each year
– US: a small transaction tax finances the Securities and Exchange Commission
– Belgium: An FTT on the transfer of shares, bonds and other securities. At a rate of 0.5-1.7 % it raised Euro 147 million in 2005.

So if the UK investment houses are willing to stomach a 0.5% tax on share transactions, are they really going to flee these shores over a tax 10 or even 100 (in the case of currency transactions) smaller? Unlikely.

There are a number of other points that get picked up with less regularity: there are other taxes like a wealth tax that are even better (see my previous response); an FTT wouldn’t necessarily curb volatility (I have some sympathy with that one); we should go with an expansion of President Obama’s levy on banks instead (as well, maybe, but not instead – you won’t see much cash for climate change or development out of a bank levy).

And the question that’s been nagging at me for weeks finally surfaced at the parliamentary launch last week. Suppose an FTT were to be be introduced – what guarantee would there be that the revenue would not all go straight to filling fiscal holes in the North, rather than half of it going to climate change and development, as proposed? Two responses: firstly, moral suasion – governments would need pretty thick skins to raid the money destined for development. But thick skins go with the job description, so we also need to think through the mechanics of how the tax would be levied, and see if there is a stage before it reaches the hands of finance ministries, where it could be channeled into arms-length escrow-type accounts that would then distribute it in pre-agreed proportions.

Finally, some stick is being handed out to the Robin Hood Tax campaign for the (over) Robin_Hood_Mask-180x127simplicity of its messages (see Tim Harford’s follow up post). To which I would respond, duh, there’s a clue in the title – it’s a campaign, not a seminar. Campaigns need to have clear messages that inevitably do violence to some of the detail, but the groups that constitute the RHT are busily having detailed grown-up policy discussions with decision makers, reading the research, commissioning new work etc etc.

So where do I think the criticisms are justified? I think there are two places. Firstly, we should have made it clear that we were always talking about banks and other financial institutions, not just the banks, and that we recognized that money does not come out of thin air (but that this is a very progressive way to raise it). Mind you, ‘a tiny tax on wholesale transactions in financial markets’ isn’t quite as catchy – back to campaigning again.

Secondly, we should probably have devoted more attention to putting forward our thinking in policy wonkland, perhaps with a separate geeks website for debate, exchanges of information and research etc. That’s something we need to sort out as the campaign develops. But there should be no let up on the public campaigning – Bill Nighy. Richard Curtis et al have brought this discussion to a level of prominence that ‘undercover economists’ could only dream of. All power to them.

EinsteinLast word to Einstein: ‘We should be on our guard not to overestimate science and scientific methods when it is a question of human problems; and we should not assume that experts are the only ones who have a right to express themselves on questions affecting the organization of society.’ I’m with Albert.


Update 2 March: for more on ‘who pays the tax’, read this excellent paper by Sony Kapoor (who also gives Tim Worstall a good going over in the comments to this post).