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Goldman's Profits Come from Our Pockets: Why We Need a Tobin Tax

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"The homeless in America have Goldman Sachs to thank for their homelessness and starvation right now. They took the money from their pockets, they put it in their bonuses for this year. . . . That's a financial terrorist crime."

-- Former stock trader Max Keiser in a France 24 interview

In the midst of the worst recession since the Great Depression, Goldman Sachs is having a banner year. According to an October 16 article by colin Barr on CNNMoney.com:

While Goldman churned out $3 billion in profits in the third quarter, the economy shed 768,000 jobs, and home foreclosures set a new record. More than a million Americans have filed for bankruptcy this year, according to the American Bankruptcy Institute.

Barr writes that Goldman's "eye-popping profit" resulted "as revenue from trading rose fourfold from a year ago." Really. Revenue from trading? Didn't we bail out Goldman and the other Wall Street banks so they could make loans, take deposits, and keep our money safe?

That is what banks used to do, but today the big Wall Street money comes from short-term speculation in currency transactions, commodities, stocks, and derivatives for the banks' own accounts. And here's the beauty of it: the Wall Street speculators have managed to trade in practically the only products left on the planet that are not subject to a sales tax. While parents in California are now paying 9% sales tax on their children's school bags and shoes, Goldman is paying zero tax to sustain its gambling habit. Race track winnings and other forms of gambling are taxed at up to 25%. But stock market trades get off scot free.

That helps explain Goldman's equally eye-popping tax bracket. What would you guess - 50%? 30%? Not even close. In 2008, Goldman Sachs paid a paltry 1% in taxes - less than clerks at WalMart.

Speeding Tickets to Slow Day Traders?

Wall Street bankers have been called today's "welfare queens," feeding at the public trough to the tune of trillions of dollars. The fact that their speculative trades remain untaxed suggests a tidy way that taxpayers could recover some of their bailout money. The idea of taxing speculative trades was first proposed by Nobel Prize winning economist James Tobin in the 1970s. But he acknowledged that the tax was unlikely to be implemented because of the massive accounting problems involved. Today, however, modern technology has caught up to the challenge, and proposals for a "Tobin tax" are gaining traction. The proposals are very modest, ranging from .005% to 1% per trade, far less than you would pay in sales tax on a pair of shoes. For ordinary investors, who buy and sell stock only occasionally, the tax would hardly be felt. But high-speed speculative trades could be slowed up considerably. Wall Street traders compete to design trading programs that can move many shares in microseconds, allowing them to beat ordinary investors to the "buy" button and to manipulate markets for private gain.

Goldman Sachs admitted to this sort of market manipulation in a notorious incident last summer, in which the bank sued an ex-Goldman computer programmer for stealing its proprietary trading software. Assistant U.S. Attorney Joseph Facciponti was quoted by Bloomberg as saying of the case:

The bank has raised the possibility that there is a danger that somebody who knew how to use this program could use it to manipulate markets in unfair ways.

The obvious implication was that Goldman has a program that allows it to manipulate markets in unfair ways. Bloomberg went on:

The proprietary code lets the firm do 'sophisticated, high-speed and high-volume trades on various stock and commodities markets,' prosecutors said in court papers. The trades generate 'many millions of dollars' each year.

Those many millions of dollars are coming from ordinary investors, who are being beaten to the punch by sophisticated computer programs. As one blogger mused:

Why do we have a financial system? I mean, much of its activity looks an awful lot like gambling, and gambling is not exactly a constructive endeavor. In fact, many people would call gambling destructive, which is why it is generally illegal....

What makes Goldman Sachs et. al. so evil is that they offer vast wealth to our society's best and brightest in exchange for spending their lives being non-productive. I want our geniuses to be proving theorems and curing cancer and developing fusion reactors, not designing algorithms to flip billions of shares in microseconds.

Gambling is an addiction, and the addicted need help. A tax on these microsecond trades could sober up Wall Street addicts and return them to productive labor. It could transform Wall Street from an out-of-control casino back into a place where investors pledge their capital for the development of useful products.

The Tobin Tax Gains Momentum

Various proposals for a Tobin tax have received renewed media attention in recent months. President Obama gave indirect support for the tax in a Press briefing on July 22, when he recommended that the government consider new fees on financial companies pursuing "far out transactions". Leaders from France, Germany, and the European Commission endorsed putting a speculation tax on the agenda at the G20 meeting in Pittsburgh in September. Brazil has now imposed what may be the first Tobin Tax on foreign investment inflows. A U.S. bill proposing to tax short-term speculation in certain securities, called "Let Wall Street Pay for Wall Street's Bailout Act of 2009", was introduced by Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-OR) last February. A different bill to regulate derivative trades was approved by the Financial Services Committee in October.

Derivatives are essentially bets on whether the value of currencies, commodities, stocks, government bonds or virtually any other product will go up or down. Derivative bets can cause shifts in overall market size reaching $40 trillion in a single day. Just how destabilizing short-term speculation can be - and just how lucrative a tax on it could be - is evident from the mind-boggling size of the market: $743 trillion globally in 2008. Another arresting fact is that just five super-rich commercial banks control 97% of the U.S. derivatives market: JPMorgan Chase & Co., Goldman Sachs Group Inc., Bank of America Corp., Citigroup Inc. and Wells Fargo & Co.

Pros and Cons

Promoters of international development have suggested that a mere .005% tax could raise between $30 billion and $60 billion per year, enough for the G7 countries to double international aid. But more than raising money, the tax could be an effective tool for slowing harmful speculative practices. According to a number of Nobel Prize economists, a downsized speculative market would go far towards creating a more sturdy financial system, helping to avoid the need for future bailouts. But if the tax is too small, it might not have the desired effect on speculation. The larger 1% tax originally proposed by James Tobin is therefore favored by some proponents. The much-needed income from a U.S. tax could be split between federal and state governments.

Opponents of the Tobin tax, led by the financial sector, argue that it would kill bank jobs, reduce liquidity, and drive business offshore. Supporters respond that Tobin tax profits could be used to create new jobs, and that the small size of the tax would hardly affect cash flows - although certainly the speculative market would shrink. Players in dice-rolling speculative operations have long claimed that their trades "stabilized" the system by enabling investors to hedge risk, but the recent financial crash has exposed that defense as being without clothes. Inflows of "hot money" are not good for a country. They create quick speculative bubbles that can collapse equally quickly when the money flows out again. Better for the country and its economy are the funds of prudent investors who intend to stick around for a while. A modest tax could even encourage these preferred investors, who will be more confident if their investments are not liable to collapse suddenly from hot money outflows.

Besides technical questions about how to implement the tax internationally, the offshore argument probably presents the most serious challenge. Should a Tobin tax pass in the U.S., investors would be likely to move to other markets beyond the reach of taxation. The U.S. could penalize traders for doing business abroad, but governments in major markets like Germany and London would no doubt need to endorse the tax for any meaningful shift to be seen. Some experts have argued that the Tobin tax would be best implemented by an international institution such as the United Nations, which would gain a large source of funding independent of donations from participating states.

That proposition sets off alarm bells for other observers, who see any international tax as a move toward further strengthening the power of the global financial oligarchs. However, the very fact that the United Nations, the G20, and the Bank for International Settlements are discussing this option suggests that we the people need to jump in and stake out our claim for national purposes, before we lose the tax money to international bodies controlled by the global bankers. We need to design the tax the way we want, before they design it the way they want. It needs to be collected by the U.S. Treasury and to go into the Treasury's coffers. It needs to bypass Wall Street and reach Main Street, where it can be used to stimulate local business and investment.

Officials from the International Monetary Fund insist that implementing a Tobin tax would be logistically impossible. But Joseph Stiglitz, a Nobel Prize winning economist and former World Bank leader, disagrees. In Istanbul in early October, he said that a Tobin tax was not only necessary but, thanks to modern technology, would be easier to implement than ever before. "The financial sector polluted the global economy with toxic assets," he said, "and now they ought to clean it out."

While Wall Street's welfare queens have been busy collecting generous government handouts, the 50 states have been left to fend for themselves. Some 48 states have faced budget crises in the past year, forcing them to cut libraries, schools, and police forces, and to raise taxes on income and sales. A sales tax on the exotic financial products responsible for precipitating the economic crisis is long overdue.