Financial Transactions/Wall Street Speculation Tax Picks Up Steam

Dave Johnson

The idea of putting a small “Robin Hood” tax on financial transactions has been kicking around for a while, but in the last month the idea has picked up some real steam.

The Financial Transaction Tax (FTT), also called a “Wall Street Speculation Tax,” proposal asks for a small tax on financial transactions. Such a tax would slow down extreme speculation while raising money to pay for essential public services. The idea has been called a “Robin Hood Tax” because it takes from the rich. The FTT is a very tiny tax. Some proposals have suggested a tax of just three hundredths of a percent – a mere 30 cents on a $1,000 stock transaction.

This small tax would raise a lot of money, largely from automated “high-frequency trading.” This is an extreme practice of using computers to place extremely high volumes of stock orders at extremely high speeds, buying and selling the same shares sometimes in a fraction of a second. As much as half or more of all stock trading volume now comes from this high-speed trading. This practice makes extreme profits from a few traders but increases “volatility” (risk) in the market while doing nothing that benefits the economy.

A small FTT would make high-speed trading more costly, slowing it down while raising money for public services. For stocks, bonds and other financial transactions, the tax would be so small as to be practically unnoticed, while still raising significant sums because of the volume of trading.

An FTT has been endorsed by the 2016 Democratic Party Platform draft, which says:

“We support a financial transactions tax on Wall Street to curb excessive speculation and high-frequency trading, which has threatened financial markets. We acknowledge that there is room within our party for a diversity of views on a broader financial transactions tax.”

Hillary Clinton’s financial services reform proposal include a piece of the idea, applying it only to high-frequency trading:

Impose a tax on high-frequency trading. The growth of high-frequency trading has unnecessarily placed stress on our markets, created instability, and enabled unfair and abusive trading strategies. Hillary would impose a tax on harmful high-frequency trading and reform rules to make our stock markets fairer, more open, and transparent.

Bernie Sanders proposed an FTT on “high-speed trading and other forms of Wall Street speculation; proceeds would be used to provide debt-free public college education.” He had also supported previous FTT proposals, the 2011 and 2013 Harkin-DeFazio bills calling for a 0.03 percent tax on the sales of stocks and bonds.

A year ago Jared Bernstein explained the benefits in a New York Times op-ed, “The Case for a Tax on Financial Transactions,” writing:

An itty-bitty, one-basis-point transaction tax (a basis point is one-hundredth of a percentage point, or 0.01 percent) would raise $185 billion over 10 years… That would be enough to finance an ambitious expansion of prekindergarten programs for 3- and 4-year-olds and restore funding of college assistance for low-income students.

What’s more, a financial transaction tax could significantly reduce the amount of high-frequency trading.

… A one-basis-point tax on $1,000 worth of stock would cost the stock trader a dime. A $100,000 trade would generate a tax of only $10.

[. . .] 75 percent of the liability from the tax would fall on the top fifth of taxpayers, and 40 percent on the top 1 percent. The tax would also fall more on high-volume traders than on long-term investors, of course.

New DeFazio FTT Bill Introduced

This week Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) introduced a FTT bill. His bill would raise $417 billion over 10 years, which could be used to fund national priorities like free higher education or job-creating infrastructure repair. At a news conference DeFazio said:

“Thanks to the reckless greed of Wall Street over the past few decades, the American economy is a grossly unbalanced playing field,” said Rep. DeFazio. “The only way we can level it is if we rein in reckless speculative financial trading and curb near-instantaneous high-volume trades that create instability in the stock market and our national economy. These financial practices have no intrinsic value, and exist to make a quick buck for already-wealthy speculators. If we want to give middle-class families a fair shot at a strong economy that works for all Americans, we need to put Main Street first.”

The legislation is supported by the Take On Wall Street Coalition. Learn more about the FTT/Wall Street Speculation Tax at the Take On Wall Street website.

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