National Tax Journal

Financial transaction taxes in theory and practice

The Great Recession, which was triggered by financial market failures, has prompted renewed calls for a financial transaction tax (FTT) to discourage excessive risk taking and recoup the costs of the crisis. The chorus of FTT advocates includes Bill Gates, Jr., George Soros, and Pope Benedict XVI (Greenhouse and Bowley, 2011). The idea is not new, however. Keynes proposed a FTT in 1936 as a way to discourage the kind of speculation that fueled the stock market bubble that led to the Great Depression. More recently, leading economists Tobin (1978), Stiglitz (1989), and Summers and Summers (1989) have advocated similar taxes.

Taxes on financial transactions have a long history. The British stamp duty was enacted in 1694 and remains in effect today. The United States imposed a nontrivial stock transaction tax from 1914 to 1965, as did New York State from 1905 to 1981. A miniscule securities transfer tax currently funds the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). FTTs have long been popular in less developed countries as a way to raise significant revenue from a small number of relatively sophisticated financial entities.

The FTT is experiencing a resurgence in the developed world. Ten European Union (EU) countries have agreed to enact a coordinated FTT that is scheduled to go into effect in January 2017 (assuming participant countries can work out some significant differences). France adopted a FTT in 2012 that will be integrated with the EU tax if and when it takes effect. In the United States, several recent Congressional proposals for FTTs have been introduced, including those put forth by Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-OR) and Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA), and by Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN) and Sen. (and Democratic primary presidential candidate) Bernie Sanders (I-VT).

Proponents advocate the FTT on several grounds. The tax could raise substantial revenue at low rates because the base — the value of financial transactions — is enormous. A FTT would curb speculative short-term and high-frequency trading, which in turn would reduce the diversion of valuable human capital into pure rent-seeking activities of little or no social value. They argue that a FTT would reduce asset price volatility and bubbles, which hurt the economy by creating unnecessary risk and distorting investment decisions. It would encourage patient capital and longer-term investment. The tax could help recoup the costs of the financial-sector bailout as well as the costs the financial crisis imposed on the rest of the country. The FTT — called the “Robin Hood Tax” by some advocates — would primarily fall on the rich, and the revenues could be used to benefit the poor, finance future financial bailouts, cut other taxes, or reduce public debt.

Opponents counter that a FTT is an “answer in search of a question” (Cochrane, 2013, p. 44). They claim it would be inefficient and poorly targeted. A FTT would boost revenue, but it would also spur tax avoidance. As a noncreditable tax that falls on intermediate inputs in the production process, it would cascade, resulting in unequal impacts across assets and sectors, which would distort economic activity. Although a FTT would curb speculative trading, it would also curb productive trading, which would reduce market liquidity, raise the cost of capital, and discourage investment. It could also cause prices to adjust less rapidly to new information. Under plausible circumstances, a FTT could actually increase asset price volatility. A FTT does not directly address the factors that cause the excess leverage that leads to systemic risk, so it is poorly targeted as a corrective to financial market failures of the type that precipitated the Great Recession. Opponents claim that even the progressivity of a FTT is overstated, as much of the tax could fall on the retirement savings of middle-class workers and retirees.

This paper addresses these issues, with particular attention to the question of the potential applications of a FTT in the United States. Our review and analysis of previFinancial Transaction Taxes in Theory and Practice 173 ous work suggests several conclusions. First, the extreme arguments on both sides are overstated. At the very least, the notion that a FTT is unworkable should be rejected. Most EU countries have or are planning to adopt FTTs, and many world financial centers, including Hong Kong, Switzerland, Singapore, South Africa, and the United Kingdom, thrive despite the presence of FTTs. On the other hand, the idea that a FTT can raise vast amounts of revenue — 1 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) or more — is inconsistent with actual experience with such taxes.

Second, a wide range of design issues are critical to the formulation of a FTT and can help explain why some FTTs are thought to be more successful (e.g., in the United Kingdom), while some are widely acknowledged to have been failures (e.g., Sweden). Third, although empirical evidence demonstrates clearly that FTTs reduce trading volume, as expected, it does not show how much of the reduction occurs in speculative or unproductive trading versus transactions necessary to provide liquidity. The evidence on volatility is similarly ambiguous: empirical studies have found both reductions and increases in volatility as a result of the tax.

Fourth, the efficiency implications of a FTT are complex, depending on the optimal size of the financial sector, its impact on the rest of the economy, the structure and operation of financial markets, the design of the tax, and other factors.

We also present new revenue and distributional estimates for hypothetical U.S. FTTs using the Tax Policy Center microsimulation model (Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center, 2013). We find that a FTT could raise a maximum of about 0.4 percent of GDP ($75 billion in 2017) currently in the United States, allowing for reasonable behavioral responses in trading, and the maximum revenue would occur if the base rate were 0.34 percent.1 We also find the tax would be quite progressive.

The plan of the paper is as follows. Section II provides background information on FTTs. Section III discusses design issues. Section IV explores the issues with the financial sector that motivate consideration of FTTs. Section V reviews the effect of FTTs on the financial sector and implications for economic efficiency and administrative and compliance costs. Section VI presents our estimates of the revenue and distributional effects of a FTT. Section VII offers conclusions. Appendix A provides additional detail on the methodology and data we use to estimate FTT revenue and distributional effects.


Editor's note: This piece was originally published in National Tax Journal, March 2016, 69 (1), 171–216.