Markets soared worldwide following the announcement of the decision by the G20 finance leaders to maintain stimulus measures as long as U.S. employment figures remained weak. They agreed the stimulus is needed until the recovery is assured.
But G20 members were split on how to assure that there will never again be a need for a similar bailout. U.K. Prime Minister Gordon Brown (pictured) shocked many attendees when he announced support for a tax on financial transactions. This tax would be used to pay for future bailouts. Germany and France have been pushing the idea, but this is the first time the U.K. had come out in favor of it.
U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner said the U.S. would not support a bank-transaction tax. Canada and Russia also are opposed to a transaction tax, so it's unlikely there will be a global consensus.
If some countries decide to impose the tax while others don't, that could change how money moves around the world. Companies would prefer to handle transactions with countries that don't impose the tax. So unless the G20 comes to some agreement, I doubt we'll see a financial transaction tax any time soon.
But the fact that the U.K. is now on board could help to add to the momentum for a financial transactions tax. Dominique Strauss-Kahn, managing director of the International Monetary Fund, told the G20 ministers that the IMF is also studying the idea of some kind of tax. The IMF wants to determine whether a tax could be an incentive for financial institutions to take fewer risks. The big benefit of such a tax would be to create an insurance fund to be used in case of a future crisis.
A Drastic Change to Bankruptcy Law
Right now, Geithner believes in a different plan for avoiding future bailouts. Congress and the Treasury Department have developed draft legislation that they say will make sure that "the taxpayers are never again called upon to take responsibility for Wall Street's business decisions."
We can only believe those words when we see the final version of the bill that passes Congress. The bill as currently proposed does give the federal government the right to seize control of troubled financial institutions that are deemed "too big to fail," fire their top executives, wipe out shareholders and rewrite the institution's loan agreements, but I suspect that such a broad grant of authority won't last through the legislative process. It's too drastic a change from current bankruptcy law, and you can be certain that bondholders and other interested parties will quickly lobby for it to be toned down. Another key provision to protect taxpayers is the creation of a Resolution Fund to spread the cost of bailing out a large financial institution with assets over $10 billion among a broad range of financial companies, rather than having the taxpayers foot the bill. This fund will be built using assessments on financial companies with assets over $10 billion.
Would the U.S. plan to avoid future bailouts, if passed as now envisioned by Geithner, be workable in other countries? Given the differences in how financial institutions are regulated worldwide, probably not.
Instead, Geithner needs to be concerned about how to develop a global plan to prevent the need for future bailouts. If all other major countries were to finally buy into the idea of a financial transactions tax, would the U.S. be able to maintain a global presence without agreeing to it?
Lita Epstein has written more than 25 books, including Trading for Dummies and The Complete Idiot's Guide to the Federal Reserve.
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