Saturday, November 20, 2010

The Parasite Tax

When I learned about economics in high school, we were told how the stock market works and why it is good. Inventors and entrepreneurs who had good ideas about new and useful products could form companies and issue stock. Investors who thought these ideas or products were promising could take a risk and invest in the stock, thus becoming part "owners" of the company. The money they paid would be used by the company to grow and develop its products. If all went well, the company would thrive and the investors would be rewarded for the risk they took. Sounds wonderful. Like so much of capitalist theory.

But that's not quite the way it works, especially these days. There are still people who buy stocks based on the "fundamentals" of the companies: the management, ideas, and products. These are the true investors. However, most of the trading of securities these days is based on speculation. This is not speculation about the fundamentals of the company, but speculation about how the market and other investors will behave. Probably most stocks (and bonds) are not kept for months and years, but are traded monthly, weekly, daily, and even by the minute and second (see the insider newsletter Zero Hedge for some estimates). Sophisticated computer programs can use statistics and mathematical modeling to estimate small-scale fluctuations in segments of the market and relate that to the second-by-second behavior of particular stocks. Lightning fast buying and selling programs can trade thousands of stocks a second based on these analyses. All this computer power is available to trading companies and their best and wealthiest customers. Often a trading company (Goldman Sachs is a notorious example: see this blog) will pit their best customers against their less-favored customers.

There are tens of thousands of individual "day-traders" who do similar things on their own or are the favored customers of the big brokerage houses.

Make no mistake about it:

These People And Brokers Are Social Parasites.
They serve no useful purpose and do what they do solely out of greed. They are responsible for a lot of the volatility of the market. The tiniest bit of news or financial gossip can set off flurries or cascades of day-trading and computer sales that account for big fluctuations in the daily indices. No wealth or products or innovation or anything of social value is produced. The stock market is already very liquid (i.e. it's easy to pair buyers and sellers), so what these parasites do is create "churning" or "hyperliquidity": meaningless buying and selling that enriches only speculators. Responsible investors such as pension funds, hospitals and schools end up, more often than not, as victims of these irrational market swings.

Now add in derivatives: side bets on the performance of bundles of stocks and bonds; even bets on the financial indices themselves. Sometimes these bundles are only theoretical, as is the case of synthetic CDOs (Collateralized Debt Obligations) which may not actually contain anything more than a list of securities that one bets on. Or consider the trading of Credit Default Swaps, which are like "insurance policies" on securities. The whole setup has absolutely nothing to do with the fundamentals of capitalism, and everything to do with wild speculation and gambling.

It is universally acknowledged now that this gambling culture on Wall Street is responsible for the recent economic collapse and resulting unemployment. Unlike other ruined gamblers, however, the big players here -- investment banks (Citi e.g.) and insurance companies (AIG e.g.) were bailed out because their excesses threatened our entire economic system. Not only are many of the villains in this debacle now taking home huge annual bonuses -- often more than the average family's life savings -- but the Republicans and the woefully ignorant Tea Screamers think that we need fewer regulations of Wall Street.

(Gambling behavior by banks was forbidden after the Great Depression by the Glass-Steagall Act. This worked to prevent a major market crash for more than 60 years. It was repealed by a Republican Congress helped by then President Bill Clinton. For more, see my blog about it.)

The time has come to make Wall Street start paying. One effective way to do this is to enact recently proposed legislation to tax stock and bond sales. This has just been done in Europe and, in fact, there was such a tax in the U.S. from 1914 to 1966.

Yes, Virginia, it's true that we all pay sales taxes on purchases, except the gunslingers on Wall Street.

They can trade a hundred million shares in a day and not pay a dime in sales tax, while you and I fork over 5% or 6% or even more on back-to-school supplies and lawnmowers.

The idea of a Speculation Tax is simple and fair and necessary. Each time a stock is traded, the buyer and seller each pay a small tax -- about 1/4% in some plans. This is a tiny amount: $25 on $10,000 worth of stock, or about what you'd pay in sales tax on a $500 stove. It is absolutely no burden whatever on a long-term investor or conservative pension fund, or hospital or university. It does amount to a burden -- and rightfully so -- on people who make massive and frequent computer trades to take advantage of tiny point fluctuations in securities. It could also be called a Parasite Tax. Conservative estimates say it would bring in at least $100 billion a year in tax revenue (e.g. see Robert Kuttner's article). This revenue could be used constructively to undo some of the bad things that Wall Street has done to us.

Here is a fairly extensive article on the Parasite Tax (a.k.a. the Financial Transactions Tax or Tobin Tax) from SourceWatch and some other articles from the AFL-CIO and The Hill. Google it yourself to find out more.

Another important thing we can do is to make stock and bond traders' profits subject to regular income tax, not just the capital gains tax. But that will be the subject of another blog.

The important thing is: Make Wall Street Pay.

Write your rep about it.

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