On the IMF’s bank tax proposals

The BBC reports that the IMF has unveiled its interim proposals on a new international tax on the financial sector, ahead of a meeting of finance ministers this weekend.

In fact, the IMF’s paper suggests two new taxes. The first, a ‘financial stability contribution’ would be levied on all financial institutions, initially at a flat rate, to help cover the ‘fiscal cost of any future government support to the sector’. The second, is a ‘financial activities tax’, which would be levied ‘on the sum of the profits and remuneration of financial institutions’.

The first point to be made is that justifying these taxes on the grounds that the proceeds will help governments deal with future crises is a straightforward con. The proceeds of the first tax could either ‘accumulate in a fund to facilitate the resolution of weak institutions or be paid into general revenue’ say the IMF, but you don’t need to be psychic to work out which of those is more likely – governments will just spend the money on current expenditure, as they always do. The second tax doesn’t even come with an either/or fig leaf – proceeds will go into general revenue, for governments to spend as they see fit.

So it is pretty clear that what we have here isn’t so much a policy to ensure financial stability, but rather to bail out profligate governments. Moreover, this could in itself worsen financial instability by making fiscal policy even more pro-cyclical (revenues would be highest during financial booms), and exacerbating boom and bust cycles.

There are other problems too. For example, the idea of compulsory ‘insurance’ against failure for banks (this is the direction the ‘financial stability contribution’ moves us in) is likely to make moral hazard – already a major issue – an even more severe problem. Even now, government guarantees to banks are largely implicit, but the IMF’s tax proposal would make them explicit. Indeed, the ‘financial stability contribution’ is not just an overt indication that irresponsible banks will be bailed out – it could easily be read as creating an obligation that they must be bailed out. And that’s hardly a way to encourage less risk-taking.

It is also problematic that these taxes will be applied to all financial institutions (including insurers, hedge funds and so on), most of which had little to do with the financial crisis. They are thus likely to damage the wider financial economy, without actually doing anything much to deal with the real offenders.

Which brings me neatly to the most depressing aspect of these proposals: the complete lack of understanding they exhibit about the actual causes of the financial crisis – loose monetary policy, ramped up by unrestrained fractional reserve banking, and amplified by fiscal incontinence. The saddest thing is that the world’s financial system desperately does need reform. Without a radically new approach to controlling the money supply and taming the credit cycle, history is doomed to repeat itself. But the IMF’s proposals do not even qualify as a step in the right direction.