The Overselling of Financial Transaction Taxes

CAMBRIDGE – However November’s presidential election in the United States turns out, one proposal that will likely live on is the introduction of a financial transaction tax (FTT). While by no means a crazy idea, an FTT is hardly the panacea that its hard-left advocates hold it out to be. It is certainly a poor substitute for deeper tax reform aimed at making the system simpler, more transparent, and more progressive.

As American society ages and domestic inequality worsens, and assuming that interest rates on the national debt eventually rise, taxes will need to go up, urgently on the wealthy but some day on the middle class. There is no magic wand, and the politically expedient idea of a “Robin Hood” tax on trading is being badly oversold.

True, a number of advanced countries already use FTTs of one sort or another. The United Kingdom has had a “stamp tax” on stock sales for centuries, and the US had one from 1914 to 1964. The European Union has a controversial plan on the drawing boards that would tax a much broader array of transactions.

The presidential campaign of US Senator Bernie Sanders, which dominates the intellectual debate in the Democratic Party, has argued for a broad-based tax covering stocks, bonds, and derivatives (which include a vast array of more complex instruments such as options and swaps). The claim is that such a tax will help repress the forces that led to the financial crisis, raise a surreal amount of revenue to pay for progressive causes, and barely impact middle-class taxpayers.