Millions of Europeans are about to become the subjects of a vast social experiment. What’s troubling is how little anyone understands about where it might lead.
A total of 11 European Union member states — including France, Germany, Italy and Spain, but not the U.K. — plan to introduce a small tax on financial transactions by the beginning of 2014. Financial institutions will pay 0.1 percent on all stock and bond trades, and 0.01 percent on derivatives. Although taxes that are at least crudely similar exist in about 40 nations around the world, the European measure will be the first introduced on such a large scale.
The idea of a financial transactions tax goes back to the economist John Maynard Keynes. In the 1930s, he argued that speculation on assets drives market instability and suggested that an appropriate levy could deter it. If small enough, the tax would have a negligible effect on long-term stock investors, who trade infrequently and focus on real economic factors in making their decisions. It would primarily deter short-term speculators who buy and sell frequently in response to temporary market movements.
The idea makes intuitive sense and could, in principle, help channel investment to productive economic activity. There’s much debate, though, over whether it can work in reality. Well- known economists such as Joseph Stiglitz and Larry Summers have supported a transactions tax. Others of equal prominence have countered that it would be likely to lower equity prices, drive trading across borders and possibly increase market volatility.