The outcry at proposals recently floated by FSA chief Lord Turner in Prospect suggests that the City knows they would be effective. The City does not fear “regulation”; regulations can always be circumvented. But a Tobin tax, an infinitesimal levy on all financial transactions, would squash the profitability of much of the short-term trading which swells investment bank profits without doing anything to create value in the real economy.
For the past 30 years, the economics profession has been in the grip of a dangerous delusion, namely that all financial transactions are intrinsically beneficial, in that they create “deeper, more liquid markets.” The credit freeze that began on 9th August 2007 tells us that this liquidity is more apparent than real, that in moments of danger, when markets really need liquidity, it just evaporates. Without the liquidity “fig leaf,” the rationale of social and economic benefits for much trading activity becomes impossible to maintain.
The current financial crisis gives us a chance to return to an earlier understanding of the purpose and function of financial markets. Finance exists in order to most efficiently transform societal savings into productive investment. It is a deal between the present and the future; forgoing consumption now in order to invest in capital goods which will spur productivity, thus allowing greater consumption at a later date.
The explosion in the size and profitability of the financial sector since the early 1980s has almost nothing to do with the creation of capital goods. Real investment as a share of GDP has declined even as financial sector profits have gone through the roof. Arbitrage, intra-day trades, short term purely financial self-referential transactions, which do nothing to create real investment and do nothing for the real economy, would all be priced out of business by a Tobin tax.
The financial sector has grown too big. It needs to shrink. The Tobin tax will do that, without hurting the rest of us. That’s why the bankers are getting apoplectic in the Financial Times. Finance needs to stop being a parasite on the real economy and once again return to its traditional role of creating capital goods and so increasing worker productivity. That is how finance can make all of us richer.