Tag Archives: rent-seeking

The Case for a Financial Transaction Tax

The financial industry is a behemoth. Over the past 150 years, it has grown dramatically as a share of GDP. And entrance into its ranks has become a great way to enter into the top 1 percent of earners. (According to recent data, financial professionals have nearly doubled as a share of Americans in the top 1 percent.) At the same time, Wall Street is one of the most reviled institutions in the United States, with a recent study finding the lowest trust in finance recorded over 40 years.

Here are three good reasons to be distrustful of Wall Street, followed by one policy that would address all of them.

1. The Financial Industry Engages in Rent-Seeking

In economics, rent-seeking is the practice of making money simply by moving money around and collecting the resulting fees, rather than by facilitating profitable investment. The latter role is necessary for functioning markets; rent-seeking, however, is not.

There is now a strong literature suggesting that at some point, finance largely becomes extractive, while remaining at the same efficiency level. Thomas Philippon finds that the cost of financial intermediation has not fallen in 30 years. As Gautam Mukunda writes in a recent Harvard Business Review article, “Creative work increases a society’s wealth. Distributive work just moves wealth from one hand to another. Every industry contains both. But activity in the financial sector is primarily distributive.” Other studies come to the same conclusion:

  • Ozgur Orhangazi finds a negative relationship between real investment and financialization. The author proposes two channels to explain the relationship: “First, increased financial investment and increased financial profit opportunities may have crowded out real investment by changing the incentives of firm managers and directing funds away from real investment.”
  • Stephen Cecchetti and Enisse Kharroubi examine a sample of developed and emerging economies and find that financial development is good for emerging economies, but is detrimental to productivity growth for advanced economies.
  • Jean-Louis Arcand, Enrico Berkes and Ugo Panizza find that when private sector credit exceeds 110 percent of GDP finance begins to become a drag on growth, a situation the U.S. is currently in.

This rent-seeking has increasingly starved the public sector across the nation. The Financial Times reports that “public investment in the U.S. has hit its lowest level since demobilization” after World War II.

2. The Financial Industry Makes Inequality Worse

The International Labor Organization’s (ILO) Global Wage Report finds that the financialization of the economy has been the most important factor in the decline of income share accruing to labor in developed countries. This is because the financial industry primarily distributes wealth upward.

A 2011 study examining the U.S. finds that, “financialization accounts for more than half of the decline in labor’s share of income, 10 percent of the growth in officers’ share of compensation, and 15 percent of the growth in earnings dispersion between 1970 and 2008.” In a paper published this year in the British Journal of Political Science, Christopher Witko finds, “financial deregulation was one policy translating the political power of these actors into economic outcomes.” That is, the rise of finance was a money grab by the 1 percent.

Because relatively few low-income and middle-income families own financial assets, they largely haven’t benefited from the rise of finance. Instead, it’s enriched the wealthy while saddling the middle class with debt. A recent study by Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman finds,

The key driver of the declining bottom 90%  share is the fall of middle-class saving, a fall which itself may partly owe to the low growth of middle-class income, to financial deregulation leading to some forms of predatory lending, or to growing behavioral biases in the saving decisions of middle-class households.

The charts below show how finance has enriched the top, whose wealth came from equities, while sucking money from the middle, whose wealth consisted of housing and pensions:


Those who had no assets at all saw their incomes shrink while wages remained stagnant for decades. As Matt Yglesias notes, in 2013, 25 hedge fund managers took home more twice as much as every kindergarten teacher in the country combined. This while hedge funds have failed to perform better than the market.

3. The Financial Sector Is Increasingly Engaged on High-Frequency Trading

One particularly negative form of trading that the STT could reduce is High-Frequency Trading (HFT). HFT is a useless and distortionary practice that allows investors to make money off of millisecond-quick trades. (HFT recently attracted attention in Michael Lewis’ book “Flash Boys.”) The practice has been derided by Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz as a sophisticated version of front-running (buying a stock shortly before a pending order to take advantage of the price increase).

The problem is that instead of channeling money toward profitable investment, HFT is a prime example of making money off of moving money around. A recent study finds that a one millisecond advantage can increase a firm’s earnings by $100 million a year. Ironically, while bridges are vulnerable to collapse across the country and infrastructure in general is sorely undercapitalized, high-speed traders spent $2 billion on infrastructure in 2010 — for high-speed cables to NYSE. HFT does nothing to benefit markets, but instead makes them more volatile. 

The solution: A Financial Transaction Tax

When an industry has negative impacts on the broader public, economists call these effects “externalities.” It doesn’t mean we should destroy the industry, but rather, limit the harmful behavior. In much the same way that we should tax carbon dioxide — and do tax cigarettes and alcohol — we should also tax financial transactions.

The idea for a financial transaction tax has been around since John Maynard Keynes’ “General Theory.“ However, the idea began to gain traction in the late ’70s and ’80s with the rapid growth of the financial sector. In 1989, Lawrence Summers and Victoria Summers proposed a U.S. Securities Transfer Excise Tax, arguing that it could raise some $10 billion annually. Recently, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) hassupported a financial transaction tax as well. A metastudy by Neil McCulloch and Grazia Pacillo finds that a Tobin Tax (a type of FTT) would be “feasible and, if appropriately designed, could make a significant contribution to revenue without causing major distortions.”

From 1914 to 1966, the United States levied a 0.02 percent tax on sales and transfers of stock. Federally, Speaker Jim Wright pushed for a renewed tax in 1987, proposing a fee of 0.25 percent to 0.5 percent on the buyer and seller of each securities transaction, highlighting the tax’s progressive aspects. More recently, the “Wall Street Trading and Speculators Tax Act” was proposed by Sens. Harkin and DeFazio, which would assess a tax of 0.03 percent on trades of stocks, bonds, futures, options, swaps and credit-default swaps, and would generate $352 billion over 10 years.

Such a tax would not be unprecedented. On May 6, 2014, 10 European nations issued ajoint statement that a financial tax will begin in 2016 as a means to reduce speculation and raise revenue. The initial tax will focus on the trading of stocks and some derivatives, even though the initial proposal included taxing most financial products. The European Commission estimates that a broad tax could raise $39 billion (31 billion EUR) in annual revenues.

Further, there was a Stock Transfer Tax (a type of FTT) in place in New York from 1905 to 1981; revenue from the tax was split between the city and state (in the 1960s the full revenue reverted entirely to New York City). Because of a quirk in its phase-out, the STT remains technically legal in New York, though it is automatically rebated to the trader at a rate of 100 percent. Reducing this rebate would be a great way to boost revenues for New York and show the viability of a more expansive tax.

Finance is an important part of any economy. But the unprecedented rise of finance has harmed the real economy, propelled inequality and created opportunities for rent-seeking. To rein in Wall Street and prevent another financial crisis, and to give governments much needed money to invest, we should levy a modest tax on financial transactions. Right now, the financial industry subsists on monetizing privilege. It needs to shrink so we can grow.

This article originally appeared on Salon

How Wall Street is crushing Main Street

Co-Written with Wallace Turbeville.

The conservative assertion that government spending “crowds out” private investment has been ascendant since Ronald Reagan’s claim that “government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.” The idea is that the government is so big that it discourages private investors from competing in the marketplace.

Today, we face the reverse condition: the casino market that dominates the finance sector is crowding out important public investments. The deregulation of the financial sector — promoted by Republican and Democratic administrations — has changed America from an economy focused on sustainable growth toward a free-for-all for the wealthy.

This change is called “financialization.” The financial sector has grown to almost 8 percent of GDP, from about 4 percent in Reagan’s time. That the financial sector has grown isn’t necessarily a problem; what is a problem is that it has grown faster than the rest of the economy. The purpose of the financial sector is to facilitate investment in a wide array of activities — to grease the wheels of the economy, so to speak. If the rest of the economy doesn’t grow along with the financial sector, it is not fulfilling that purpose.

Financialization causes many problems. First, the financial industry is a poor producer of middle-class jobs, disproportionately benefiting high-end earners (see chart). Second, the financial industry is extremely myopic when it comes to economic trends. One study finds that the growth of the financial sector has decreased long-term investment in the real economy because financiers work in short-term gains and losses. Finally, financial “innovations” like securitization and derivatives have freed trading markets to grow unconstrained by the actual amount of stocks, bonds, and commodities in the real economy. One need only to recall the mortgage-backed market that crashed in 2008 to grasp the scope of this phenomenon.

A consequence of the rise of the financialization machine is that there is less money available for government investment in the real economy. Direct federal investment is already constrained by fiscal dysfunction, so indirect investment is even more important. When the Federal Reserve tries to pump up the economy through easy money, that easy money flows disproportionately to the supercharged investment in the financial sector. The banks end up using it to backstop trading businesses, rather than lending it to productive enterprises that generate jobs in the real economy.

State and local governments, already strapped by tax bases decimated by the Great Recession, have to compete with the financial industry, since investing in Wall Street is more profitable than investing in Main Street. The financial sector’s preference for the trading markets means that small businesses and households, the bulwark of state and local government tax bases, lose out in the competition for investment. As a result, critical public infrastructure investments have been ignored. One study estimates that our infrastructure system needs a $3.6 trillion investment over the next six years. In South Dakota, Alaska, and Pennsylvania, water is still transported via century-old wooden pipes. Large portions of U.S. wastewater capacity are more than half a century old. And in Detroit, some of the sewer lines date back to the mid-19th century.

Government investment in research and development has plummeted, and this will not be replaced by private investment that must compete with the short-term returns from capital investment in trading. The Financial Times reports that “public investment in the U.S. has hit its lowest level since demobilization” after World War II. That’s a shame, because investments in science, for example, produce huge benefits, both in terms of well-being and economic growth. The Human Genome Project, for instance, cost 3.8 billion in public funding and has produced economic gains of $796 billion. That’s a return of $140 to $1! The internet, too, was a product of government research and has produced tens of trillions of dollars in economic output and growth.


Public spending in the U.S. is far below the international average (see chart), and the rise of finance is part of the cause. By taking up a larger and larger share of the economy’s resources and using them for the economic equivalent of roulette, we’ve allowed important public investments to be passed up.

This is simply unsustainable. Rabindranath Tagore once warned of “precocious schoolboys of modern times, smart and superficially critical, worshippers of self, shrewd bargainers in the market of profit and power” who, “driven by suicidal forces of passion, set their neighbors’ houses on fire and were themselves enveloped by flames.” Today, these schoolboys increasingly sit on Wall Street, diverting resources from the real economy into fat paychecks. The only question is when the economy will again be enveloped by flames.

Originally published on The Week.