The International Monetary Fund is accustomed to rallies outside their Washington, D.C., headquarters during their annual meetings. What was different this past weekend was that the activists on the outside and several high-profile government and financial industry speakers on the inside were calling for the same thing: a financial transaction tax.
Outside, around a thousand activists called on world leaders to adopt a small tax on trades of stocks, bonds, and derivatives that could raise massive revenue for jobs, climate, global health, and other public investments.
Inside, in a somber basement auditorium, the IMF hosted a debate on the same topic. The uniform on the outside was a green Robin Hood hat. On the inside, it was a charcoal gray suit. In both spaces, however, there was the sense that the financial transaction tax is gaining momentum and credibility.
The rally, sponsored by the Robin Hood Tax campaign, was not the largest to date, but it appeared to be the most diverse, with strong representation from labor, environmental, and global health groups, including National Nurses United, National Peoples Action, Friends of the Earth, Amalgamated Transit Union, Jobs with Justice, and Health GAP.
Inside the IMF, European Commission official Manfred Bergmann reported on the strong progress on his side of the Atlantic, where 11 EU governments are negotiating the final details of a coordinated financial transaction tax. The proposal on the table would tax stock and bond trades at 0.1 percent and derivatives trades at 0.01 percent. Expected revenues: as much as $45 billion per year. If the United States adopted a similar tax, it would raise an estimated $750 million to $1 billion over 10 years, Bergmann said.
Of course the IMF event was not without opposition voices. The strongest was Luc Frieden, the finance minister of Luxembourg, where a light regulatory and tax regime has boosted the size of the banking sector relative to GDP to a level similar to that of Cyprus. Frieden is particularly upset about the potential cross-border effects of the proposed EU tax.
Residents of non-participating countries will have to pay the tax if they trade with financial institutions in one of the 11 participating countries or if they trade financial instruments issued in one of those countries. The UK government has just launched a legal attack on the plan over this extra-territorial issue, a move Frieden applauded.
Avinash Persaud, a former senior executive of JPMorgan, UBS, and State Street banks, noted the irony of the UK's complaint. Britain's own Stamp Duty, introduced hundreds of years ago, is also extra-territorial. Trades of shares in British firms are taxed at 0.5 percent -- no matter who's doing the trading. An estimated 40 percent of the revenue comes from non-UK residents.
In a recent congressional hearing, U.S. Treasury Secretary Jack Lew also raised concerns about the extra-territorial impacts of the EU proposal. He failed to mention that U.S. investors have been subjected to the UK Stamp Duty and other countries' transaction taxes for some time now -- without the sky falling.
Nor did Lew acknowledge the many ways in which U.S. laws impose costs on non-U.S. entities. Take, for example, the 2010 Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act (FATCA), which requires foreign financial institutions to report information about financial accounts held by U.S. taxpayers to the IRS. Foreign banks have also complained about the extra-territorial implications of the Volcker Rule, the provision of the Dodd-Frank financial reform legislation which seeks to prevent deposit-taking banks from making bets with their own capital.
At the IMF, Persaud also scoffed at the Luxembourger's position that any transaction tax should be global: "Samuel Johnson said 'patriotism is the last refuge of scoundrels.' In this case, internationalism is the last refuge of scoundrels."
Indeed, many countries are already raising significant revenue from national financial transaction taxes. In addition to the UK, Persaud listed South Korea, Taiwan, South Africa, Switzerland, and Brazil among the countries that already have some form of the tax. He estimated their combined revenues at around $23 billion per year. Beyond the revenue benefits, Persaud argued that the current lack of taxation on trading activities creates "incentives to build edifices of value that are actually mirages" and can cause systemic risk.
The IMF event was the latest example of the Fund playing a constructive role in the debate. It didn't start out that way. In September 2009, the G20 assigned the IMF to prepare a report on "how the financial sector could make a fair and substantial contribution toward paying for any burdens associated with government interventions to repair the banking system." Initially, then-IMF Managing Director Dominique Strauss-Kahn said financial transaction taxes weren't even worth studying. In his view, such taxes were a "simplistic idea" that wouldn't work.
But in response to international public pressure, the Fund agreed not only to include the issue in their analysis but also to engage in civil society consultations. In the IMF report for the G20 leaders, they made clear their preference for other forms of financial sector taxation, particularly a "financial activities tax" on bank profits and compensation. Nevertheless, they also acknowledged that transaction taxes were administratively feasible and could raise significant revenue. And in a follow-up technical paper, they acknowledged that most G-20 countries, including Brazil, India, and South Africa, have already implemented some form of FTT. In October 2012, current IMF Managing Director Christine Lagarde said that the EU progress on a coordinated financial transaction tax was "clearly a good move."
At the debate, the Director of the IMF's Fiscal Affairs Department, Carlo Cottarelli, stressed that the IMF would still be pushing their "beloved" financial activities tax. But he admitted that since the IMF's 2010 report to the G20, there hasn't been much progress on that. "The momentum behind FTT was so strong, it was hard to turn in another direction. Sometimes life just isn't fair," he said with a laugh.