Europe’s Tobin Tax Distraction

CAPE TOWN – At last, European leaders have revealed their top-secret plan for solving the euro’s crisis. And it is – drum roll – a version of the “Tobin tax,” a levy on financial transactions first suggested in 1972 by the Nobel laureate economist James Tobin.

Now, 40 years later, the European Commission has proposed – and French President Nicolas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel have endorsed – a turnover tax on all financial transactions, varying from 0.1% on stocks to 0.01% on financial derivatives like futures and credit-default swaps. If the tax can’t be imposed globally or even Europe-wide, France and Germany will go it alone. Given Sarkozy’s enthusiasm for the tax, there is even talk of France adopting it unilaterally.

But how, exactly, a tax on financial transactions would help to cure Europe’s ills is unclear. According to the European Commission’s own estimates, it would raise only about €50 billion ($65.7 billion) a year, even if imposed throughout the European Union. This is a pittance compared to the eurozone’s debts and deficits, and would fall far short of funding Europe’s permanent rescue facility, the European Stability Mechanism, which is supposed to be capitalized to the tune of €500 billion.

Moreover, the Commission’s €50 billion estimate surely overstates the prospective receipts. If France imposes the tax unilaterally, trading in equities and derivatives will simply migrate to Frankfurt. If it is limited to the eurozone, transactions will move to London. And if it is adopted by all EU member states – a fanciful scenario, given British resistance – the market will simply migrate to New York and Singapore.