05.23.2012
By Terry Flanagan

European Parliament Lays Down Gauntlet On FTT

The European parliament has voted overwhelmingly in favor of implementing a financial transaction tax that is better designed to catch more traders and make evasion unprofitable—and that it plans to push ahead with the proposals even if only some member states adopt it.

With the crisis in the eurozone escalating and voters in both Greece and France throwing out politicians associated with austerity measures in recent weeks, politicians are looking at ways to raise new revenue and also be seen to be coming down hard on financial institutions, who some have blamed for starting the global financial crisis.

“The financial transaction tax is an integral part of an exit from the crisis,” said Anni Podimata, a Greek socialist MEP who is charged with driving the financial transaction tax proposals through parliament.

“It will bring a fairer distribution of the weight of the crisis. This FTT will not lead to relocation outside the European Union because the cost of this is higher than paying the tax.”

In its report today that was approved with 487 votes in favor, 152 against and 46 abstentions, the European parliament agreed with the European Commission’s legislative proposals for a FTT last year that set a 0.1% tax on all share and bond transactions and a 0.01% levy on derivatives trades, but says that pension funds should be the only sector exempt from the levy.

The adopted text from parliament has also added an an “issuance principle”, whereby financial institutions located outside the EU would also be obliged to pay the financial transaction tax if they traded securities originally issued within the EU. This would mean, for example, that Siemens shares originally issued in Germany and traded between a Hong Kong institution and one in the US would be liable to pay the tax.

The “residence principle” proposed by the Commission is also kept, which would mean that shares issued outside of the EU but subsequently traded by at least one institution established within the EU would be caught by the levy.

And in line with the UK stamp duty approach, the parliament’s text says that if the buyer of a security did not pay the FTT, he or she would not be legally certain of owning that security. As FTT rates would be low, this risk is expected to far outweigh any potential financial gain from evasion.

Podimata believes that the FTT proposals should not be “held hostage by a handful of member states”, and is keen to force the plans on to the statute books and hopes other jurisdictions around the world will follow suit. Out of the 27-nation European bloc, the UK, Netherlands, Sweden, the Czech Republic, Ireland, Malta and Luxembourg have either voiced concerns or have stated that they will vote against any FTT.

“With the EU having the largest financial market, it is up to us to make the first step,” said Podimata, although she admitted that introducing the tax in a limited number of member states could lead to the single market being undermined and that measures should therefore be taken to prevent this.

Kay Swinburne, a UK MEP, who is also the Conservative party spokesperson on economic and monetary affairs, said that any tax would be bad not only for the UK—which is home to Europe’s largest financial services sector in London—but the whole of Europe as well.

“It is no secret that the United Kingdom stands to lose the most from the imposition of such a tax,” she said. “But I am not here to argue against the FTT as a Brit, but as a European concerned about the welfare of our economy and the future wealth of Europe’s citizens.”

Swinburne believes that any discussion around the topic is rarely objective and not based on evidence, and says the negative effects of a financial transaction tax will be great.

“These are dire economic times and we have an awful lot of work still to do until we can rightfully claim to have made financial markets safer and more beneficial to the real economy,” said Swinburne. “Making our voters believe, however, that this tax will get us any closer to fairness and growth is untruthful and a distraction from our massive workload in the area of financial services.”

A recent recent report published by the Centre For Policy Studies, a UK think tank, said that claims the tax would be paid only by the financial services industry is “contradictory and flawed” and that even if the UK vetoed the tax and the scheme went ahead, it “could cause significant damage to the UK financial services industry”.

The legislative body of the EU, parliament, has been calling for such a tax for nearly two years and the European Commission, the executive body of the EU, tabled a legislative proposal on it late last year. A recent Eurobarometer poll, performed on behalf of the Commission, shows that 66% of Europeans favor such a tax. The Commission has set a deadline of December 31, 2013 for member states to adopt implementing the laws and entry into force of these laws will be December, 31 2014.

“The facts are undisputable,” said Podimata. “The financial sector caused the current crisis, which will cost governments €4.5 trillion in bailouts, while it remains largely under-taxed compared to the real economy. The arguments of the financial sector against the financial transaction tax collapsed when the European Commission, under pressure from the European parliament, undertook an impact assessment, which pointed out that introducing the financial transaction tax at EU level is not only feasible, but will also generate significant revenue without harming the European economy’s competitiveness.

“The tax will not only help curb speculation and bring the financial sector back to its primary function—the financing of the real economy—but also generate significant new resources at a time of strict fiscal consolidation. A more responsible financial sector will be more responsive to the long term needs of our economy—this is why primary markets are outside the scope of the financial transaction tax. I expect investments to shift from speculation and high-frequency trading to more productive activities. The revenue of the tax can also be used to stimulate growth.”

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