From the Roosevelt Institute in the United States, a long report that seeks to generate an overall estimate of costs to the US economy of the financial sector, over and above the benefits that the finance sector provides:
“What has the flawed financial system cost the U.S. economy? How much have American families, taxpayers, and businesses been “overcharged” as a result of these questionable financial activities?
After some detailed work, an answer is in:
“In this report, we estimate these costs by analyzing three components: (1) rents, or excess profits; (2) misallocation costs, or the price of diverting resources away from non-financial activities; and (3) crisis costs, meaning the cost of the 2008 financial crisis. Adding these together, we estimate that the financial system will impose an excess cost of as much as $22.7 trillion between 1990 and 2023, making finance in its current form a net drag on the American economy.”
It has been widely suggested and supposed that the abolition of exchange controls – one of the great episodes of financial deregulation in the United Kingdom since the 1970s – was the result of lobbying by the City of London. In this post for Fools’ Gold, Jack Copley of Warwick University explores the history, and finds a rather different story, focusing particularly on the issue of ‘competitiveness’ as it applies to the exchange rate.
What role did the ‘competitiveness agenda’ play in the Thatcher government’s deregulation of finance?
The case of exchange controls
By Jack Copley, Warwick University
Fools’ Gold has continued to expose the nefarious power of the City of London in British policymaking. As the biggest sector of the British economy, it is able to exercise undue influence over the government in order to secure preferential treatment. The notion that the City must remain globally competitive, and that ordinary people should be concerned about ensuring this, is a key part of the ‘competitiveness agenda’ in the UK.
Margaret Thatcher is the British politician most commonly associated with the City. Under her administration, a number of key financial deregulations took place, including exchange control abolition (1979), the Big Bang (1986), and the Building Societies Act (1986). Experts generally points to two explanations for the Thatcher government’s deregulatory agenda: 1) the City’s lobbying power; and 2) Thatcher’s ideological desire to promote the interests of the City over those of industry. This was particularly the case with exchange control abolition, which is widely perceived to have been a case of Thatcher giving a direct subsidy to financial elites and justifying it with rhetoric about national competitiveness.
Update: also see Anti-Tax, Anti-Regulation Sirens emerge after Brexit.
We have our own particular reasons for disliking Brexit – the recent decision by the UK to leave the European Union. In a pre-Brexit analysis the Tax Justice Network quoted Adam Posen, director of the Peterson Institute for International Economics, who articulated a huge generic concern:
“If you’re anti-regulation fantasists to begin with, you start going down the path, ‘Oh we can become an even more offshore center. We can become the Cayman Islands writ large, or Panama writ large.’ And this frankly is the way I think this also spills over to the rest of the world, is that the UK decides, ‘Hey, regulatory arbitrage, letting AIG financial products run in London, actually destroyed the US financial system, but didn’t hurt us – made us a lot of money. Let us continue down this path. Let us be the ‘race to the bottom’ financial center. And I think this that’s where this going, because they’re not going to have any other option. It’s not good.”
Martin Hellwig is the co-author (with Prof. Anat Admati) of the book Banker’s New Clothes, a book about finance that the Financial Times’ chief economics commentator Martin Wolf described as “the most important to emerge from the crisis.” Hellwig is also Executive Director of the Max Planck Institute for Research on Collective Goods and, among other things, a former head of the German Monopolkomission (Monopolies Commission).
The Monopolkomission in 2003 published a report entitled Competition Policy under Shadow of “National Champions” which is a most useful document from our perspective. It argues, as we have, that the pursuit of what we at FG call the Competitiveness Agenda tends to lead to restrictions on market competition. It also argued against creating a German “banking champion” – a position that earned it a dismissive rebuke from the government of Gerhard Schröder, which basically said all was safe and well regulated.
A couple of short excerpts from that document provide flavour and context, and the interview with Hellwig is below.
From The Tax Justice Network, on a presentation by FG contributor John Christensen:
Highlighting a presentation by TJN’s Director John Christensen at the Max Planck Institute in December, and a chapter in a new book by two TJN authors, on the same theme. First, Max Planck, which published the details yesterday:
There’s been a lot of talk for a long time about a threat from globe-trotting HSBC to move its headquarters from London to Hong Kong. It seems there’s been a resolution of the question for now, of sorts. As Bloomberg puts it:
“HSBC Holdings Plc recommitted its future to London, ending 10 months of deliberations over whether to move its headquarters, after securing concessions from the U.K. government on regulation and taxes. The shares rose.”
That’s the Competitiveness Agenda at work, right there. Shower goodies on mobile capital and its owners for fear that they’ll flee elsewhere. More specifically, via Reuters:
Two FG authors, in partnership with Duncan Wigan of the Copenhagen Business School, have just published this new paper in the British Journal of Politics and International Relations.
This month the New York Times
republished a press release from discussed a recent report by the British Bankers’ Association, a lobby group. The NY Times article was entitled Britain Losing Its Competitive Edge in Banking, Trade Group Warns, and it began like this.
“The British government needs to take “urgent action” to address concerns about its regulatory and tax environment if London is to remain a global financial center and if lenders based in Britain are to remain competitive internationally, according to a banking trade group.”
Stuart Fraser is the former head of the powerful Policy & Resources Committee of the peculiar City of London Corporation, and an influential figure in Britain. He’s quoted in The Price We Pay, a recent documentary on tax havens and corporate tax avoidance. He says in the film:
“Many politicians have an illusion that they actually run their country, when actually they run their country within the confines that the global financial system places on them.”
Now then. You’ve probably heard this before.
Britain’s summer budget in July 2015 contained a set of reforms to the tax regime for the banking sector which it presented like this:
What those numbers mean, essentially, is that the changes will mean that the banking sector is going to be paying more tax. Hooray!
Time to get out the champagne?
In a word, no. There is serious mischief in here. We have just had a reply to a Freedom of Information request which confirms this.
Here’s the thing. Recently we posted an article entitled “Why a ‘competitive’ economy means less competition.” It explained, by way of background, how the ‘competitiveness agenda‘ – under which possibly politically astute (and possibly economically illiterate) politicians urge the government to shower subsidies on banks, multinational corporations and wealthy individuals under threat that they’ll flee elsewhere – will tend to boost the large and wealthy players more than they otherwise would have, enabling them to kill their smaller and more locally-rooted competitors on factors that have nothing to do with genuine innovation or productivity, and everything to do with pure wealth extraction.
We showed how this was the case both in the field of corporate tax, and in the financial sector too. (It doesn’t stop there, but that’s another set of cans of worms.)
Our article noted how the bank reforms in the summer budget were in fact two reforms: first, a reduction in a tax called the ‘bank levy’ (which hits the largest banks hardest, and predictably led to a load of hyperventilating claptrap about ‘tipping points’ and other such nonsense); and second, a new eight percent ‘bank surcharge’ (which hits a much wider range of banks, including the smaller so-called ‘challenger banks’.)
The first means less tax; the second means more tax; and the net result is forecast to be slightly more tax.
What was the justification given for these reforms? Well, they said:
Competitiveness, once again. (In fact that short section contains three more versions of the c-word, including this variant: “reducing the risk of . . .influencing banks’ decisions on the location of internationally mobile activities.”)
To summarise: the smaller banks will be penalised relative to the bigger banks – in the name of ‘competitiveness.’
This, of course, is likely to reduce competition in banking — which is what we argued in our more detailed earlier post.
But one of the things we noted then was that that in the official explanation for the bank levy, and even in the detailed budget policy costings, they didn’t (for obvious political reasons, it seems) break down the impacts of the two separate tax changes.
This was devious: it would have been a piece of cake to publish this data, but this would have exposed what was going on. Much easier to mash up the two different reforms and present it as a politically popular tax increase on the banks. It’s probably doubly devious in this respect – but we’ll get to that in a second.
Now then. Fools’ Gold submitted a Freedom of Information request to obtain this data, and the results of this request are now in:
(We’ve pasted the relevant part of the FOI response itself below.)
To be precise, they are forecasting that the changes to the bank levy will cost UK taxpayers £4.2 billion over the next five years. (And, of course, there’ll be a whole lot more after that.)
Update, Nov 9: we thought this was new information (and it still appears to be, in terms of precision), but Simon Bowers points out these less precise numbers on p94 of this OBR document.
For fuller context and explanation, please see our original blog.
One fourth-last thing. Let’s not forget that the bank levy was put in places for damned good reasons.
One third-last thing. We said earlier that they may have been doubly devious here. What we meant was that this may have been cynically planned as a long term double whammy to get rid of all those pesky bank taxes.
First, you cut the bank levy sharply, but soften up the population by dressing it up as just being part of a tax hike on banks. Next people will see what’s going on and say ‘but hey, this is reducing competition!’ And you use that as excuse to row back on the eight percent surcharge (or you simply repeat the exercise until the bank levy has finally been throttled.)
One second last thing. To be more precise about that FOI response we had, HM Revenue & Customs said this:
One final thing. Fools’ Gold posts have been a little thin, of late. Apologies. This is because of a big project that’s been going on elsewhere: that’s now done (and do check out all those country reports). We will shortly get back to more regular posting, once the backlog we’ve built up gets out of the way.