Politics & Policy

The Trouble With a Transactions Tax

Another reform proposal that doesn't consider the real world.

One reason I thought it was a bad idea to appoint a commission to study tax reform is that the members of such a commission would waste a lot of time reviewing options that most tax experts rejected long ago. I know from experience that most everyone has some brilliant scheme to reform the tax system that may appear superficially plausible. But once most plans are subjected to careful political and economic analysis, one quickly discovers why no one has ever given them serious consideration.

Take, for example, the deceptively simple-sounding idea of taxing all financial transactions, instead of income, profits, and sales. Since the volume of transactions in the economy is many times greater than the gross domestic product, one could theoretically match current federal revenues with a very low tax rate.

One advocate of a financial-transactions tax is economist Edgar Feige, who estimates that a tax of 0.6 percent (60 basis points), with each party to a transaction paying half, would be sufficient to abolish all existing federal taxes. He bases this on an estimated tax base of $337 trillion. By contrast, GDP is only about $12 trillion.

This tax would be assessed through the banking system, which would deduct a single fee on every check, electronic funds transfer, or credit card transaction. Currency would be taxed whenever deposited or withdrawn. Feige asserts that the collection cost of this tax system would be very low, while it would be progressive as the volume of financial transactions rises with income.

While it is true that a tax of 0.6 percent on a base of $337 trillion would in theory yield $2 trillion — about what the federal government will raise this year from conventional taxes — it’s important to remember that revenues still must ultimately come out of current production. All goods and services — including capital investment and intermediate goods — will have to be taxed dozens of times to get the federal government’s current 17 percent share of GDP in taxes.

However, not all goods and services involve the same number of transactions. Thus, the burden of the tax will vary wildly depending not on the price of a good or its profitability, but solely on whether its production involved many or few financial transactions before it reached the final consumer. Jewelry will bear a low tax, while groceries will be taxed heavily. This makes no sense from a distributional viewpoint.

Since GDP equals the money supply times the turnover of money — what economists call velocity — a fully effective transactions tax would presumably reduce velocity. Consequently, it would be severely deflationary unless the Federal Reserve substantially increased the money supply to compensate for it. It would also mean that the tax base would shrink as soon as the tax is imposed.

A recent study by the International Monetary Fund comes down very hard against transactions taxes. For starters, by targeting the means of payment, a transactions tax will hinder the development of a nation’s financial system, which all economists believe is critical to economic development, and lead to disintermediation from the banking system. Primitive economies use cash and barter; advanced economies use checks, credit cards, and debit cards. So why would we want to encourage people to use primitive financial methods and discourage them from using advanced methods?

The study notes that wealthy people were able to avoid transactions taxes by using offshore financial institutions, while businesses did so by vertically integrating in order to keep transactions in-house and not utilize the banking system. It also finds that governments often penalized themselves with such taxes as much financial activity involved trading in government securities. The tax raised interest rates, thereby forcing governments to pay more to finance their debts.

The problems generated by transactions taxes have always caused them to break down within a short time. Generally, they have been instituted only in relatively undeveloped nations experiencing extreme financial crises that demanded large, temporary injections of revenue. There is no reason to think that financial-transactions taxes could form the foundation of a tax system. “The use of these taxes should be avoided,” the IMF study concluded.

The nominal rate of taxation is very important, but only one factor in determining how burdensome a tax is. If the same income is taxed over and over again, the effective tax rate will be far higher than the statutory rate. Or if the tax base is badly defined, then a low tax rate can be much more debilitating than a higher rate on a proper base.

The only attraction of a financial-transactions tax is the low rate. But it is a chimera that would have many undesirable economic consequences if enacted. We should stick to taxes we better understand and know will work in the real world.

– Bruce Bartlett is senior fellow for the National Center for Policy Analysis. Write to him here.

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