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"Little else is requisite to carry a state to the highest degree of opulence from the lowest barbarism, but peace, easy taxes, and a tolerable administration of justice" - Adam Smith

Hanging London out to dry: The impact of an EU Financial Transaction Tax

Written by Adam Baldwin & Sam Bowman | Friday 04 November 2011


Our new report, released today, assesses the impact of a Financial Transaction Tax (aka Robin Hood Tax) on Britain's economy. The results are eye-watering – it would destroy the City's derivatives trading sector, hit Britain's growth and ramp up market volatility. The executive summary is below:

1) The European Commission has proposed a Financial Transaction Tax (FTT) on all securities traded with at least one party within the European Union. A tax of 0.1% would be applied to shares and bonds trades and 0.01% to derivatives trades, including over-the-counter derivatives, of which London is a world centre.

2) The EC’s impact assessment projects a 1.76% hit to long-term (20-year) growth across the EU. This would amount to a £25.58 billion cost to the UK economy over this period, and a £185 billion cost to the total European Union economy (2010 prices). This is based on a direct application of the cost to Britain’s economy. The true figure is likely to be far greater, because of Britain’s disproportionately large financial sector (and especially its derivatives trading sector).

3) The EC impact assessment also projects up to a 90% decline in derivatives trading if its proposed Financial Transaction Tax is implemented. The City of London is the centre of global over-the-counter derivatives trading, accounting for nearly half (45.8%) of all global interest rates derivatives turnover. This would adversely and disproportionately hurt the London economy, and would destroy a socially-valuable financial activity that it integral to the modern British economy.

4) Contrary to some supporters of the FTT, the tax would increase market volatility. There is no empirical support for the idea that the FTT would reduce volatility. Indeed, by making transactions more costly, the tax would make markets less responsive to new information and more prone to violent lurches up and down. Academic models of the tax have been inconclusive at best.

5) The FTT would reduce market liquidity in all securities markets. 40% of the London Stock Exchange’s volume is based on high-volume, low-margin transactions, which would be wiped out by the FTT, making markets far more illiquid. Markets’ ability to incorporate new information into asset prices would be undermined.

6) Unemployment would rise if an FTT was introduced. At the margin, the FTT would mean less investment and less output. The tax, if implemented in 2014 as proposed by the EC, would slow down an economic recovery and reduce capital investment. The EC’s long-run projection for this is a 4.5% reduction in investment.

7) If the FTT was only introduced in the EU or G20, many traders currently operating in the UK would relocate to places like Hong Kong, Singapore or Zurich. There is little scope for a worldwide FTT – even types of trades that are affected in a minor way by the FTT would likely move en masse to other jurisdictions that would flourish as FTT-free zones.

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Charities and the Robin Hood Tax

Written by Sam Bowman | Thursday 03 November 2011

Have you ever given money to Oxfam thinking, "Gee whiz, I hope some of this goes on support for the Robin Hood tax campaign!"? Me neither. I doubt many people do. The phenomenon of charities like Oxfam, Médecins Sans Frontières, The Salvation Army and others supporting the Robin Hood Tax is bizarre. Most people give to charity thinking that their money will go on doctors for poor people, food for starving people, shelter for homeless people, or the like. They would be surprised – and, I expect, angry – to find out that the charity they are donating to is a supporter of the Robin Hood Tax campaign.

In the interests of people who want to give money to charity without supporting the Robin Hood Tax, here is a list of the more prominent charities that support the campaign (I've emboldened some of the most prominent ones):

  • Action for Global Health
  • ActionAid
  • Barnardo's
  • Bond
  • Chartered Society of Physiotherapy
  • Christian Aid
  • Christian Medical Fellowship
  • Church Action on Poverty
  • Comic Relief
  • Concern Universal
  • Health Poverty Action
  • International HIV/AIDS Alliance
  • Oxfam
  • Pump Aid
  • Restless Development
  • Save the Children UK
  • Stop AIDS Campaign
  • TB Alert
  • The British Dietetic Association [I had never heard of these guys, but I thought it was funny]
  • The Salvation Army
  • Water Aid

Now, are there a lot of people who donate to The Salvation Army with the intention of supporting the Robin Hood Tax? Probably not. When I give to charity, I want to help people who are less fortunate in life than me, not support crackpot, celebrity-backed economic cyanide masquerading as "tax justice". Fake Charities monitors charities that get money from the government.

In future, I'll only be giving to charities like these, which (as far as I'm aware) do not support anything like the Robin Hood Tax:

There are plenty of others (leave suggestions in the comments). Charity should mean charity, nothing else.

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That higher education bubble you've been hearing about

Written by Sam Bowman | Thursday 03 November 2011

Talk of the higher education bubble is all the rage these days, especially in the US. I'm convinced we've got one here too, for slightly different reasons, but this graphic of US degrees really puts the idea that more graduates equal a better economy into perspective. There's nothing wrong with a "degree that doesn't pay", but there's no economic case for government subsidy for visual and performing arts degrees (US data):


Read the article I got it from for more.

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The proper functions of trade unions

Written by Whig | Thursday 03 November 2011


The public sector trade unions are threatening strike action over plans to reform their pension arrangements. These plans are so moderate and the current arrangements so generous to public sector workers that even the Labour Party appears to support them! In short, the trade unions are arguing that future taxpayers should fund them to the tune of £770 billion and £1,176 billion, depending on which estimate one uses.

I had to laugh at the sheer effrontery of the unions’ argument that pensions will begin to fall as a share of GDP by 2060. 50 years hence the problem may begin to ease somewhat, so that’s alright then! The unions are right about their claim that they’re going to have to work longer, contribute more and get less – that’s the only way by which public sector pensions could be made affordable.

Trade unions are by far a bigger issue for the public sector than the private. At present (2010 statistics), trade union membership stands at 56% in the public sector compared to only 14% in the private (UK average trade union membership at 28% is quite high compared to the OECD average, the Nordics somewhat distorting the figures).

Given that the public sector employs 6 million workers in the UK this is a serious issue – not because there is anything wrong with trade union membership, far from it, but because the nature of public sector employment gives trade unions disproportionate power, as most public sector (i.e. nationalised) services are monopolies or near monopolies and their users have few alternatives. Of course, this is one of the many compelling reasons to privatise most state controlled services.

Perhaps an easier step would be to prohibit public sector unions or unions with public sector employees lobbying and donating funds to political parties. This would prevent the eminently unjust position under the previous and likely future administrations whereby the public sector was financing the governing party with the authority to determine the pay and employment of the public sector! If civil servants in a personal capacity wish to donate money to any party that is at their discretion, but to do so via a corporate mechanism is simply corrupt. That Labour and the unions would complain bitterly is an indication that it ought to be done.

In spite of past reform, the trade unions still have more legal privileges than they deserve – most importantly they possess a right to strike without a corresponding right of employers to sack. Moreover, a good deal of the trade unions’ agenda has been enacted through legislation – the minimum wage, maternity leave and discrimination legislation.

This legislation comes to the benefit of current employees but reduces employment and hinders the newer entrants to the labour market (particularly the young and the long-term unemployed). It almost goes without saying that national pay bargaining and pay scales should be ended immediately – they prevent reform of the labour markets and distort regional economies. 

Instead of lobbying the government, trade unions should focus on their proper functions. Naturally, a large role is to bargain with employers for pay and conditions – this should be done without legal privilege on either side. This would be better done by more, smaller trade unions who could negotiate wages and conditions more suited to local conditions – of course, if they were dealing with smaller employers and more competitive industries rather than the state this would make far more sense.

Secondly, as observed by Hayek in the Constitution of Liberty, the origins of trade unionism lay in providing benefit and support to their members for sickness, unemployment and old age. As with many areas of civil society they were crowded out of these functions by state intervention. How much better would it be if instead of trying to strongarm the government into promising taxpayer’s money the unions were instead the providers of private, probably mutual, pension funds for their members. Far better that the unions revert to their traditional position of providers to their members of welfare, social security and social capital rather than the faceless bureaucracy of the state.

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A measure of paternalism

Written by Anton Howes | Wednesday 02 November 2011

deliciousboozeIs measuring alcohol units a good thing? That was the question posed by a debate on Saturday at the Battle of Ideas. At first glance, it seems entirely reasonable that we should know the alcohol content of a given drink. But units are quite different: they allow us to compare the amount of alcohol to an ostensibly objective 'daily guideline'.

It very quickly emerged that this 'guideline' is flawed, if not harmful. From a medical perspective, it is almost impossible to predict the effect of alcohol on the average person. After all, we all have different levels of tolerance, are susceptible to different conditions, and are affected by a multitude of other factors too. The truth is all alcohol is unhealthy; and we know it! But by creating this artificial, arbitrary, and ultimately quite useless measure of alcohol consumption, we risk creating a problem. By definition.

Without an objective standard of what is healthy and unhealthy, we tend to conform to cultural norms. Alcohol consumption experiences its ups and downs, with one generation guzzling gin in Georgian proportions, and another religiously enthralled to temperance. Society itself defines this level of socially acceptable drinking. When we exceed it we are seen to have a problem. More importantly, we're brought up to see ourselves as having a problem, and in extreme cases friends and family intervene. It is a process that has been serving humanity well since at least 3000 BC, when Egypt's Pharaohs started mass-producing wine.

Despite agreeing that the measurement was flawed, a panellist at a government health body stood up and said that we nevertheless needed to look beyond the individual's right to drink, and look at society as a whole. He implied that measures needed to be taken to protect people from themselves, as individuals are too stupid or ignorant to know what is good for them. And thus that society is too ill informed to define an acceptable drinking norm. He brought up extreme problem cases, citing studies of alcohol addiction, and its effects on families and friends. Another doctor chipped in by saying the flaws of alcohol units paled in comparison to the need to inform the public of what they are consuming. They all called for greater regulation, restrictions and taxation, to the detriment of all drinkers.

Of course doctors know better than anyone else what the individual can suffer from excessive alcohol consumption, but these statements suggest a more sinister campaign for wider social control rather than individualised help for the particular patient. There is a fundamental difference between providing "information", and providing knowledge. The first is by their own admission deeply biased. Whereas knowledge is already provided not only by individual diagnoses and by society at large, but every Saturday morning by alcohol's very own resident teacher from experience: the hangover.

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Things don't look good

Written by Tom Clougherty | Wednesday 02 November 2011

I was sceptical about the eurozone deal agreed last week from the very beginning. In a talk I gave on Thursday, the day the deal was announced, I said that it would either do no good, or be positively harmful.

Firstly, the debt restructuring announced was clearly insufficient to deal with the problem – Greece would still have been left with an unsustainable debt load. For an orderly debt restructuring to work, it needs to be so bold and radical that it convinces everyone the problem has been dealt with. That clearly wasn’t the case in this instance.

Secondly, the bank recapitalisation plans were (and are) dangerously ill thought through. If you force banks to significantly raise their capital ratios by June next year, you’ll get one of two things happening. Either lots of capital will be sucked out of the wider private sector, which means funding going out of productive, wealth-creating industries to prop up dodgy, wealth-destroying banks. Or banks will raise their capital ratios by shrinking their assets – and that means another credit crunch, with a contracting money supply and less funds for businesses. In either case, there’s a good chance that hasty bank recapitalisation will trigger that long-awaited double-dip.

Thirdly, the deal meant more bailouts. And there are two big problems with bailouts. One: they don’t deal with the problem; they just kick the can down the road. Two: we do not have the money to fund bailouts on the scale that is required. Where is the sense in countries that don’t yet have a debt crisis borrowing money to bail out those that do? That doesn’t resolve the debt crisis, it just spreads it to otherwise healthy economies.

Yesterday’s announcement of a Greek referendum – or will it be a snap election? – underlines the futility of the entire exercise. It practically confirms what has seemed inevitable for some time: that Greece will soon undergo a complete and disorderly default. It will nationalise its financial sector, leave the euro and, in an attempt to avoid unpopular ‘austerity’, print lots of its own, new money – raising the spectre of hyperinflation and, in extremis, complete economic and societal collapse. Needless to say, I sincerely hope I am proved wrong about this – but things do look very grim.

Of course, Greece alone isn’t that big a problem to the rest of us. But the potential knock-on effects of a Greek collapse are terrifying. Italy, home to the world’s eighth-largest economy, has to roll over €300bn of its government debt next year. If its borrowing costs don’t fall (the government was recently forced to pay a record 6.06 percent on its 10-year bonds) then it too will face the prospect of default. And then we really will be in trouble.

Ultimtately, this is the entirely predictable outcome of governments borrowing too much money, of politicians buying votes with a larger state than people are prepared to pay for through taxes. As Ayn Rand put it, “We can evade reality, but we cannot evade the consequences of evading reality”.

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Regional Fund: Coalition's job plan destroys jobs

Written by JP Floru | Tuesday 01 November 2011

treeBy handing out cheques to selected companies, the Coalition expects to create or protect 201,000 jobs. Even though three quarters of bidders were disappointed, the government promised to dole out £950 million.

As state money does not grow on trees, it has to be raised elsewhere. Thereby destroying other jobs. The only thing we see is displacement: jobs are taxed away to subsidise the government's favourites. Nick Clegg, for example, who is the MP for Sheffield Hallam, announced the new plan while visiting Sheffield Forgemasters - which will benefit from the government's profligacy.

When governments pick winners, they invariably end up picking losers. This stems from the classical Hayekian knowledge problem: millions of decisions by people are infinitely better placed to allocate funds to guarantee maximum returns, than bureaucrats from Whitehall are. Investment decisions should be left to those who are best placed to assess them: the parties concerned. They are driven to success by risking their own money on their own projects. Let's make sure we follow up on the "success" of the winners in today's cash bonanza. It will make for a splendid disaster book in about five years time.

The government will hand over £1 to the private companies for every £5 of investment the companies can find privately. It is to be expected that most projects were planned a long time ago and would have been gone ahead anyway. And if they would not have happened without the government's cash, then they should not be subsidised, as the market had determined that it was not a sound investment.

One would have thought that after the disastrous bank-and country bailouts the government would have been wisened up enough by now not to gamble with taxpayers' money in this way.

It looks as if this year Wesminster's Father Christmases will fill company stockings with presents the companies paid for themselves.

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Slouching towards stimulus

Written by Sam Bowman | Tuesday 01 November 2011

Peter Boettke has a short post on political parties, where he quotes Luigi Zingales from the start of the Great Recession:

If Keynesian principles and education are the cause of the current depression, it is hard to imagine they can be the solution. Keynesianism has conquered the hearts and minds of politicians and ordinary people alike because it provides a theoretical justification for irresponsible behaviour. Medical science has established that one or two glasses of wine per day are good for your long-term health, but no doctor would recommend a recovering alcoholic to follow this prescription.

Unfortunately, Keynesian economists do exactly this. They tell politicians, who are addicted to spending our money, that government expenditures are good. And they tell consumers, who are affected by severe spending problems, that consuming is good, while saving is bad. In medicine, such behaviour would get you expelled from the medical profession; in economics, it gives you a job in Washington.

It's depressing to think that it's this straightforward, but when you see headlines like this it's difficult to disagree. If even an "austerity" government is swallowing Keynesian silliness about government spending "kickstarting" the economy (even for PR reasons), it's pretty clear that we're in trouble. I wrote about the recalculation view of recessions recently:

The policy implications of this perspective are quite signficant. Forget trying to "stimulate" your way out of a recession through spending or printing money – all you'll be doing is creating another type of false, unsustainable demand. You'll do the most damage if the stimulus is aimed at the unemployed, the people who need to retrain to cope with the real economy the most: reskilling takes time, and will be put off if there's some public works project nearby that will hire you instead. Even taking up unemployed people's time has an opportunity cost; justification for "stimulus" programmes ignore this.

It's the "unsustainable" that's key there – governments could reinflate the bubble, or inflate another one somewhere else, through fiscal or monetary policy. But we don't want to do that, because it's not sustainable and diverts resources from where there is real demand. The Coalition's "kickstart" for the economy is bad news: it's the wrong thing to do economically, and it suggests that the government is slouching towards Keynesianism again.

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No big deal

Written by Madsen Pirie | Monday 31 October 2011

I'm with Liam Halligan all the way on his response to the European bailout deal. It isn't enough and it won't work. They are trying for political reasons to escape what economic necessity dictates. They will not admit they made a mistake in admitting Greece into the Euro (although President Sarkozy has called that an error perpetrated by his predecessors). They do not want to undertake any step that might retreat from 'ever closer union'.

The austerity measures ('fiscal responsibility') are hard for electorates to accept, much harder than the automatic effects of devaluation. Frankly, I don't see how the governments concerned can deliver. Greece should exit the euro, followed by Portugal. Faster than anyone supposes, markets would adjust to the new facts and stability would emerge.

Halligan is skeptical about the 'relief rally; staged by equity markets in response to the deal.

"By late Thursday, though, and certainly on Friday, the warning signs were there. Global bond markets, by character more sober and smarter than the excitable equity guys, were voting against the deal. This is alarming. For it is only by selling more bonds that the eurozone's deeply indebted governments can roll-over their enormous liabilities and keep the show on the road…"

"Let's be clear – if global bond markets stop lending to a number of large Western economies, we are in the realms of unpaid state wages and pensions, transport chaos and closures of schools and hospitals – sparking the prospect of serious civil unrest."

He describes the deal as another of the "extend and pretend" non-solutions, and gives the deal two weeks before it begins to unravel. I'm not sure about the timing, but given the lack of information about how the EFSF's €440bn is to be leveraged, and from where the funds will come and why, I think pessimism has it by a length. This is not over and it's going to get worse.

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Leviathan is swallowing the voluntary sector

Written by Whig | Monday 31 October 2011

According to the Charities Aid Foundation the UK is one of the most generous countries in the world for charitable giving. The UK has a large and very diverse voluntary sector with an income of £55 billion this year. Worryingly, charities are increasingly being co-opted into the apparatus of the state and being turned into dirigiste organisations reliant upon and supportive of state aid. This is not just a logical fallacy – organisations supported via taxation cannot ipso facto be termed charities – but a serious problem.

From the Charity Commission data we can observe that there is considerable consolidation occurring in the sector, with large charities (income >£10 million p.a.) now accounting for 56% of the sector, up from 43% ten years ago. This coincides with the period beginning in 1997 where the successive Labour governments increased funding to charities as part of their attempts to reform ‘public’ (i.e. socialised) services. According to a report by the National Council of Voluntary Organisations’ (NCVO) Funding Commission government funding of charities has increased from £8.4 billion in 2000/01 to £12.8 billion in 2007/08. “As a proportion of all income to the sector it now accounts for just over one third (36%)”. 77% of charities receive no government funding, so there are relatively few charities gaining all the largesse. But don’t worry, it’s not just HM Government doing this – the EU is also doling out large grants to charities and has spawned a small industry in navigating the complex bureaucracy.

Given these concurrent phenomena it is amazing that the link between them has not been fully observed. There can be little doubt that engagement with the bureaucratic procedures and compliance with big government and receipt of state funding has led to ‘big charity’ consolidation. As with other sectors, regulation and subsidy erects barriers to entry and reduces competition and innovation (yes, there is competition in the voluntary sector and yes it is necessary and beneficial).

We have arrived at a point where the ‘voluntary sector’ is rapidly losing its voluntary characteristics but instead marches to the beat of the politicians’ and bureaucrats’ drums. As the NCVO report tells us:

“[G]overnment funding has not helped them to become more resilient. Charities working in these areas have very limited reserves or assets to call on. As a consequence, they are potentially vulnerable to cuts in public spending; changing political priorities; and / or changes to the way services are commissioned and procured.”

Yet these effects notwithstanding, groups such as Cutswatch have grown up to lobby for greater charitable involvement in public service provision. Charities were particularly vociferous in their opposition to government funding reductions. Once hooked on the drug of taxpayer’s money it’s hard to let go.

Best guesses suggest that the sector will probably see a 7.7% fall in government spending (£911million) by 2015/16. However, I suspect that this may be pessimistic. The Coalition Government’s nebulous Big Society agenda seeks to increase charitable involvement in ‘public’ service provision particularly via the Open Public Services White Paper. An analogy with the problems of the Private Finance Initiative can be drawn. While public service reform is vital and necessary I see it as profoundly dangerous to increase charitable involvement in and reliance upon government and their transformation into recipients and providers of taxpayer-funded services – in other words, QUANGOs. A symptom of where we stand is that there is an Office and a Minister for Civil Society – no, that’s not a joke.

Instead, government’s focus should be on reducing taxation, red tape and decreasing barriers to entry for innovative and small charities – supply side reform in other words. The best thing government could do to promote philanthropic activity would be to slash taxation whilst at the same time divesting itself of many welfare functions (which would fund the tax reductions) that free markets and charitable organisations would be far better at performing. An economy and society less harassed and restricted by government would be far better able to support philanthropic giving in time and money. Moreover, many of the problems that charities seek to assuage such as drug addiction, educational failure and poor housing are caused by government intervention. Eliminate this intervention and we would have far less need for charity!

Charities and voluntary activity fulfil a vital role in civil society. As statist economists are fond of telling us, markets are imperfect in that they do not provide certain goods in ‘sufficient’ quantity. QED – to the statist - this is an argument for government intervention. To the Classical Liberal, shortcomings in markets instead constitute an argument for philanthropy and altruism as intervention by the state can only lead to greater government failure and unintended consequences. If the state continues to co-opt voluntary organisations it will further erode the basis of civil society and ultimately lead to even greater intervention to ‘correct’ the inevitable failures of government controlled ‘charities’.

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