Fellow collegiants Jay and the incomparable Cassandra carp in the comments of the previous post about, well, many things, but mainly about Baruch’s distrust of a trading tax. Their key points in favour of the tax are, I think:
- the financial sector is too big and needs to be shrunk and simplified, which is also Krugman’s key idea. A trading tax would be a step in the right direction
- there is a way to distinguish, mostly to do with timeframe, between “speculation” and “investment”. Generally two legs, sorry, speculation is Bad, leveraged speculation in highly liquid markets even worse and responsible for lots of the financial crisis. However, “informed and active” investment is Good; a trading tax would restrain one and leave the other unrestrained.
If I’ve misunderstood something or left something out, let me know.
Firstly, I am very interested as to how we can possibly know how big the financial sector should be. Jay and Cassandra might answer “I don’t know exactly, but I just know it’s too big”. They might argue we expect too much of them; the sizing of any particularly important industry should be above anyone’s pay grade, let alone the responsibility of a couple of commenters on an obscure 3rd rate econo-blog.
Yes, well but that’s the point. We’ve largely done away with the type of industrial planning that pulled western economies out of the devastation of WW2, the period of MITI in Italy, the Marshall Plan, the last time we had an economic regime where people actually decided how big certain industrial sectors should be. That type of dirigisme worked in conditions of relative simplicity, where there were fewer moving parts to an economy, trade was restricted to controllable flows between large trading blocs, and exchange rates were stable. For most of the postwar period the financial sector of most economies was small, and mainly boring. In the UK, for example, it was the preserve of a class of people drawn from the chinless children of an addled aristocracy. They really did wear bowler hats. Their tasks were simple enough for them to perform even after polishing off a litre of claret every lunchtime and leaving the office at 4pm.
I would argue the explosion in financial innovation and the size of the financial sector coincided with the increase in the overall complexity of the global economy from the early1980s on. Bretton Woods had broken down; there were extreme fluctuations in interest rates and costs of capital; the rise of Japan and other emerging markets were destabilising settled industries in Europe and the US; new technologies were creating new working practices and business models. I am not saying a supersized financial system was the cause of this increase in dynamism and complexity. But what if it was a response?
Looking at where we are since 2000, we have a global economy which has made a step change again in complexity and dynamism. Things have globalised to the extent that concepts of imports and exports have lost their meaning. Our economic system is optimised, primed to work at an extremely high level of just-in-time delivery. New business models pop into existence overnight, and destroy old ones — they demand and create capital and wealth at an unprecedented rate. And it’s largely great for everyone; most of us are richer. Literally billions of people have seen their living standards improve this decade. It’s been an exciting time to be alive.
This is an unpopular thought, but here goes: what if the current financial system is actually rightsized for our economy? Sized specifically to provide the greater degree of economic dynamism we have come to expect, and on a much more massive geographic scale? Might there not be a price to pay in shrinking it?
Now let’s try look at the second debating point of my commenters and distinguish between “speculation” and “investment.” I still don’t understand the difference. But I don’t think anyone does; I am not sure there is a qualitative difference. Cassandra introduces the concept of (allocative) “efficiency” in the sense (correct me if I am wrong) that the hardworking “investor” with his longer-term timeframe performs a useful societal function in allocating capital to where it is needed. Short term specs, on this reading, do not.
I think this is wrong; speculative traders probably have as much or more allocative efficiency as the investment-minded ones. They have more money, for one thing, but more importantly even the highest frequency High Frequency Trader is actually tracking the portfolio decisions made by actual investors. Even Raj, at the height of his powers, was effectively allocating capital to companies which were showing better earnings. He just had the earnings release a bit before everyone else. Most short term specs, whether technical, quant or flow-driven, are really piggy-backing on investors; they basically buy the same stocks and amplify their decisions. Qualitatively, as I say, there’s no real difference, except they are either lazier or smarter than fundamentalists like me. Probably both; I bet they get home before 7pm. Is there a difference in holding period? Generally yes. But today I entered and exited a position in a tech stock in the space of 40 minutes. In fact it was a mistake. But I don’t feel bad about it. Do you think I should?
Cassie thinks it was the leveraged specs who blew us up in the crisis. No way. It was the leveraged investors. Those guys buying subprime weren’t in it for the quick buck; they were going to hold them for as long as they could borrow overnight at 5% and earn 7% on the bonds, ie as long as the then-current interest rate regime was going to last. Holding periods were measured in years. In the end were barely able to trade the stuff. That was the problem. As Jay puts it, “in less liquid markets, shareholders act more like owners” — they acted like owners, all right, and look where it got them, and us.
Look, a smallish trading tax may not make all that much of a difference, really. Financial markets will survive, and a tax will likely end up making a good few investment bankers richer than they would have been, when they come up with a way of avoiding it. There’s actually a trading tax in place in the UK already. It’s called Stamp Duty. I don’t know how much it is because I have never paid it on any of my UK trades, we use something called CFDs to avoid it. Everyone does this except low volume retail investors: Stamp Duty has thus merely become another way the little guy gets screwed. I am not sure this was the intention of its inventors.
But if you think discouraging speculation in liquid equity or forex markets is going to somehow prevent another crisis, think again. The root causes of our difficulties lay in a combination of too much easy money feeding a boom in illiquid debt securities, held for investment. A trading tax would do, and would have done, nothing to prevent any of those conditions from prevailing again.