"If you had kept quiet, you would have remained a philosopher" – The Commission utterly fails to address flaws in the financial transaction tax
May 23, 2013
There’s an old Latin saying, “If you had kept quiet, you would have remained a philosopher.” Reading the Commission’s defence of its proposed EU financial transaction tax (FTT), that phrase immediately sprung to mind. It’s not the strongest piece, to say the least.
In our continuing quest for transparency, we have published the Commission’s direct response to the concerns raised by the 11 participating FTT member states (docs which we exclusively published last month).
The Commission’s response ranges from weak to capricious to outright ridiculous. For example, when it says that “we’re not aware of any credit crunch” in Europe. Right…
Arguably the most worrying part of this response is the tone. The Commission is essentially saying ‘we know better’ than financial markets. For example, in dealing with concerns over the impact of the FTT on short term trading, it suggests much short term trading is often “myopic” and that asset managers which trade predominantly in the short term should be subject to less investor demand in transparent markets, despite the success of money market funds and their importance for liquidity.
Now, ‘financial markets’ are diverse, far from perfect and certainly not always right. However, the Commission would be remiss to just dismiss concerns raised by governments inside and outside the FTT zone – but also actors from across the business and manufacturing community (in addition to virtually every bank in Europe).
We have long suggested that there are three key areas of concern which will have to be addressed before the FTT can even hope of being implemented without huge market distortions – the extraterritoriality, the impact on repo markets and the impact on government (and corporate) bond markets.
Many of the concerns raised by the 11 FTT states – and the Commission’s response – related to these issues. Sorry in advance for the length of this post but here are the key points:
As reported this morning, the Commission argues that a “business case” can be created for enforcing the FTT outside the FTT zone. Essentially, exchanges and clearing houses will be responsible for collecting the tax and if they don’t, the firms in the FTT zone will not want to trade with them.
This is concerning development for a number of reasons:
- First, it will increase tensions and splits within the single market. Financial firms are unlikely to just roll over and accept this. In fact, given the size of the market outside the FTT zone, they could validly refuse to trade with those inside the FTT zone. In any case, the prospects of a scenario similar to that of escalating protectionism in trade dispute cannot be ruled out.
- It also seems very punitive, using alterations in the legislation (the joint and several liability) to enforce it in areas where the tax has already been rejected.
- This also assumes firms do not move out of the FTT zone to escape the tax. This seems unlikely in the first instance, while not being able to trade with those outside the FTT zone if they do not pay the tax (or having to pay their share yourself) seems to make staying inside even less appealing.
The Commission also accepts that double taxation is a concern. However, the proposed solution of setting up agreements on where the tax will fall, seems unlikely especially in the UK’s case since it has launched a legal challenge against the tax.
Impact on government and corporate debt
The Commission also fails to provide much comfort on the impact of the FTT on national debt and borrowing costs. It admits it has been unable to estimate the impact due to lack of info, but further accepts that “Member States might be better placed to have access to such information.”
This raises two questions:
- First, surely legislating on such a sensitive issue without fully knowing the costs on a key area, with many of countries involved in the midst of an economic crisis, is nothing short of negligent.
- Second, if member states are better placed to judge these issues, why does the Commission and the EU need to take the lead and push such a tax in the first place?
Furthermore, we doubt the concerns over ‘redistribution’ will have been assuaged as the Commission accepts that some money from the trading of government bonds will not go to the country that issued them.
This could be of concern for countries such as Spain, Italy or even France which have huge debt markets but whose debt is widely traded around the world and the EU but international firms. It also seems to punish small countries with less developed financial sectors, since the tax will be paid where the bond is traded firstly with the residence principle only kicking in afterwards.
Possibly more worrying is the response to concerns over the corporate debt market. The Commission seems to brush this off, adding that it is “not aware of any credit crunch” with regards to borrowing for businesses. This is despite the clear survey results showing businesses struggle to access credit in many European countries and the many, many press stories on the issue. It surely cannot argue that given the state of the economy, now is the best time to implement the tax.
As we have highlighted this is an area of serious concern. Unfortunately, the Commission continues to persist with a weak counter-argument insisting that repo markets can be easily replaced by secured loans or lending by central banks (while accepting the short term repo market will be all but destroyed by the tax).
This argument is flawed for numerous reasons:
- The market has access to these other instruments but see repo as preferable, the Commission still insists, however, that it knows better.
- Moving more lending to central banks is not desirable! European policy makers are working hard to restore usual financial markets and move lending off central bank balance sheets.
- Without normal functioning markets, monetary policy cannot have an effective impact, while in the eurozone money will not flow cross border and imbalances will continue to build up (any hope of an integrated banking union would be dead).
- Furthermore, all the risks will be taken onto the central banks’ taxpayer-backed balance sheet – surely this is a terrible form of risk being socialised but profit privatised.
- Secured loans do not provide the same level of legal protection as repos. Since collateral is purchased under a repo, if there is a default the collateral has already changed hands. However, under secured loans the claim would go back into normal (lengthy and costly) insolvency proceedings.
The Commission does raise the point that Repos can hurt financial stability, but surely this is more a case for effective supervision and regulation than taxing the market out of existence.
With widespread talk of the FTT being shelved for at least another year, perhaps it’s time for the Commission to just admit defeat?Open Europe blog team