Transaction Taxes and Transparency

The City of London is in a stir over the EU proposal of a financial transactions tax. The great and the good are uniformly arrayed against such a tax. I am not so sure that it wouldn’t be a good thing.

Here in Britain we now pay 20 per cent Value Added Tax on virtually everything we buy, except food, medicines and children’s clothing. Yet the financial sector is exempt of any similar tax on transactions. This is patently unfair since approximately 5 pence of the 20 is required to finance the state bailouts of the financial sector. As a regressive and unfair tax, that is hard to beat.

In addition to raising revenues from an investment banking sector which has decimated public finances for a generation to come, a transaction tax might be a very good thing from an accountability and transparency perspective.

Those opposing say it would be anti-markets and drive trading offshore. Markets clearly do not work properly anymore at price discovery, liquidity aggregation or trade transparency. I rather think markets would work better if those participating had an economic stake in the transaction longer than a nanosecond, and a trading objective more durable than front-running real investors with HFT gaming.

More than that, a transaction tax would recognise that the state adds value to the market and deserves to be recompensed for that value. A huge part of the operational value of developed markets is derived from the rule of law. Taxing transactions would be recognising that each transaction benefits from the legal system which makes such a transaction valid and enforceable.

In my view, the way to make the transaction tax workable and cost-effective is to incentivise the reporting of transactions and the payment of tax. The way to do this is to legislate that transactions themselves will only be legally enforceable if there is a record that the tax has been paid. Anyone might choose not to pay the tax, but if they want to enforce a trade or debt obligation they are on their own. If they want recourse to the courts, rights to exercise on margin/collateral or a valid claim in insolvency, then they pay the tax as their ticket to rely on the legal system.

In the United States we see that the MERS scandal boils down to the wholesale attempt by US banks to avoid paying the transaction taxes on land mortgage registrations with local counties and states. As a result, the very enforceability of millions of mortgages is being thrown into doubt as a matter of law.

Had originators, banks, investment banks and investors been forced to register interests in mortgages in compliance with the law, some of the great abuses of securitisation would have become much more difficult to sustain for so long. In that sense, transparency would have promoted greater accountability and helped curb abuse.

The public has an interest in the integrity of markets. That integrity has been undermined horribly over the past 25 years by demutualisation of exchanges and clearing houses, fragmentation of markets to off-exchange systems and derivatives, leveraged shadow banking, and information assymetries between highly concentrated market insiders and everyone else. We now don’t know who owns what and who owes what, and that means that economies are operating with dangerous blind spots. Relaxed accounting rules and forbearance on capital mean that mis-pricing and mis-allocation of capital are endemic and worsening, making any recovery even more doubtful.

A transaction tax on trades, as a pre-condition to legal enforceability, might restore some integrity to markets. That would help restore more efficient functioning to economies with much greater promise than further bailouts to banks.

This post originally appeared on London Banker and is reproduced here with permission.