Forget Tobin taxes – we need more competition in the banking sector

4 September 2009

As G20 finance ministers meet in London to discuss the economy, a new briefing paper from leading think-tank the Adam Smith Institute has attacked Financial Services Authority chairman Lord Turner for suggesting of a new tax on financial institutions, calling his plan "misguided", "unfounded" and "incoherent".

Miles Saltiel, author of the paper and the Institute's senior fellow in finance, accused Turner of playing politics, and said he was attempting to harness anti-City populism to shore up his position, as well as that of the FSA – which the Tories now say they will abolish.

The paper takes apart Turner's case for the so-called 'Tobin tax', arguing that there is no objective way of knowing whether the UK financial services sector has become disproportionately large. Since it operates internationally, comparisons with UK GDP are irrelevant. On a practical level, moreover, Turner's scheme is a no-go: such a tax could not be implemented domestically without driving business overseas, and reaching any international agreement would take a generation.

However, Saltiel's most damning criticism of the 'Tobin tax' is that it is a lazy alternative to undertaking the reforms the financial sector really needs. By guaranteeing them a bigger slice of the profits, it would encourage politicians to accept the too-big-to-fail, near-monopolies that have emerged in the banking sector over the last economic cycle. "This is nothing less than a corporatist Faustian pact", Saltiel added.

Tom Clougherty, the executive director of the Institute, said: "Turner is advocating precisely the wrong approach. What we need are smaller banks and more competition in the banking sector. That would reduce systemic risk and help prevent future crises, but it would also be good news for consumers. The government ought to start by breaking up RBS and Lloyds TSB - HBOS, before returning them to the private sector."

A PDF of Regulatory Corporatism: Lord Turner and the Tobin Tax can be downloaded here.

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