Sunday, 20 December 2009

Taxing Problems

While it may help soothe internal feeling about bankers by taxing them heavily for a short period, the reality is that the problem of banks running extreme risks in their business is not solved and we run the risks of other problems.

John Varley, CEO of Barclays, who did not use taxpayers' money to prop up their company in the Crunch, has said that using tax as a stick short and long term is not a solution. His argument is that it drives 'talent' away from Britain. Personally, I really don't care if unaccountable people who thrive on big bucks set up their own island somewhere in the Pacific to go race their fast cars and talk about the size of their wallets or purses. But I do care that if we do not fix the fundamental problems in the financial system, it makes not a jot of difference to the banks where they locate their staff just as long as they can earn big money - and so driving people away from the UK doesn't actually help us.

If the Taliban all dropped their weapons tomorrow, turned themselves in and embraced Christianity without a further shot being fired we might think this a victory but it isn't going to happen on the current tactics employed. Likewise, banking will find a way to continue what it does unless we tackle the underlying problems - it will also find a way to continue doing what they do to earn billions in scam profits and reward a thin wedge of staff beyond all sense of reality in some way or another. They can afford to as there are huge profits at stake and, frankly, we have shown that we cannot do without the banks. A compromise will be found or loopholes used - either way, banking will get what it wants in some place or another.

The UK Government's headline-grabbing move to tax bankers and high earners generally will not have the desired effect. Firstly, only £550m is expected to be raised on the windfall tax and secondly, high earners will find loopholes in the 50% tax on £150k or above - accountants and lawyers are hard at it as we speak, communicating openly on how to 'mitigate tax' on websites as legitimate as the IOD's.

Tax is a useless and archaic system in driving behaviour. As with speed cameras, it is a way to make money out of transgressions but it does not stop dangerous driving which can be done even at low speeds. So too, heavy tax on bankers merely makes a few bob to assuage public opinion but it does not stop the banks trading products that will cause the next bank meltdowns and even harder economic times while staff cream off ridiculous profits. In fact, unless we fundamentally reform what banks do, before we have paid off the bills for this time around, the next bill will be on us. You see, taxing them this way ultimately will get transferred to us anyway by the fact that they will continue to do what they do to cause financial meltdowns.

If the tax burden gets too high, ultimately it will drive people out of the country. The most able to pay will leave, transferring the burden back onto the people who did not cause the problem. The non-domicile rules will ring fence high earners at one end of the spectrum and banking havens will arise nearby fairly soon.

Fundamental reform of banks is what is needed. I applaud the splitting of investment and retail banking as a start - too often staff in retail banking pay with their jobs for the idiots in the investment banking side and the cash is used to hide the activities of the investment arms. But trading debt should be rigidly reformed so that complex, structured products cannot be used to hide poor asset valuations and debt management, creating a convoluted web that no one, even in the banks, understands. Wholesale money markets should not be used to prop up banks' activities, it is not a question of ratios it is far more fundamental than that.

Until we get some people with real sense and courage into the banking industry, regulators and Government who aren't so rich that their views are biased then we will always have this stupid attitude of tax being the tool to solve any problem.

The problem is that taxpayers have to pay for the mistakes. If we, the taxpayers, held people accountable for the money they use from our personal wealth pots, then people like Andy Hornby, Fred Goodwin, Alistair Darling, Gordon Brown and Hector Sants would be flipping burgers at McDonalds learning the basics of business by now - paying tax like the rest of us and ranting at the their former colleagues in the banks.

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