Citizen-led initiatives scored big wins in the midterms. But now this form of direct democracy is under attack.
Photo: Getty Images. Disclaimer: This blog is not really about Beyonce.
Internet bots immediately snapped up Beyonce’s presale tickets last year. And when the resale price rose above $1,000, the Beyhive was mighty peeved.
Ticket scalpers are indeed frustrating. But their Wall Street cousins — what UMass-Amherst professor Douglas Cliggott calls the “stock scalpers” — are far more dangerous.
Like online ticket scalpers, these financial predators use advanced technology to cheat the rest of us. For huge sums, they buy the privilege of locating their computer servers as close as possible to market exchanges. This allows them to get trading information a split-second faster than traditional investors.
So when a mutual or pension fund makes a trade, the stock scalpers see that trade on its way to the market. “They hop in front of it, buy it, and bid up what we want to buy and sell it back to us at a higher price,” explains Cliggott, a former JPMorgan Chase managing director.
The scalpers do this thousands of times a day, using computers programmed with algorithms that have no connection to the real economy. This “high frequency” trading makes up the majority of today’s market activity.
Many financial experts, including a former CFTC chief economist, have warned that high speed trading siphons profits from traditional investors. For the minority of U.S. workers who have any money at all in a retirement fund, that’s a bigger problem than missing out on a Beyonce concert.
Even more disturbing is the risk the high-speed traders pose for the global financial system. John Fullerton, another former JPMorgan Managing Director, points out that high frequency traders vanish from the market in a flash in times of crisis. “This can trigger a cascading effect as real money investors pull back in self-defense and at times flee in panic,” explains Fullerton, who currently leads the Capital Institute.
Jean-Philippe Serbera, a financial markets expert at Sheffield Hallam University, views the threat of a major “flash crash” as more likely today than during the relatively calm bull market of the past several years. “In a more depressed market, where there’s inevitably more volatility and traders are more downbeat,” Serbera says, “the worry is that flash crashes are more likely to get out of hand — possibly causing contagion around the world.”
There’s an easy solution to these problems: tax the stock scalpers.
Even a tiny levy on each trade of stocks, bonds, and derivatives would deliver a heavy blow to high frequency traders, which make huge profits, but on slim margins per trade. For ordinary investors whose portfolios have low turnover rates, the cost would be negligible — like a tiny insurance fee against future crises.
Since the 2008 financial crisis, support for such proposals has been growing. In 2016, Senator Bernie Sanders (D-Vermont) pushed the issue into the center of the presidential primary debates, making the point that such taxes would both curb dangerous Wall Street speculation and generate significant revenue for important initiatives, like free higher education.
Even though Hillary Clinton never publicly supported the idea, progressive Democrats, along with strong support from labor unions and other movement groups, secured favorable language about it in the 2016 DNC platform.
This week, House and Senate Democrats are injecting fresh energy into these efforts with a new bill that would impose a 0.1% tax on financial market trades. This model has received the largest official revenue estimate of any such Wall Street tax bill to date. According to the Congressional Budget Office, the new bill would generate $777 billion over 10 years.
On the senate side, the bill signals that this is no longer a “Bernie-only” issue. The lead champion is Senator Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), with Senators Chris Van Hollen, Jeff Merkley, and Kirsten Gillibrand as initial co-sponsors.
And while she’s declined so far to put her name on this bill, senator and presidential contender Kamala Harris (D-CA) expressed support in the last congressional session for a Sanders bill that includes a financial transaction tax. The Vermont senator has not yet reintroduced his model, which would tax some financial instruments at a higher rate and others at a lower rate than the Schatz proposal. His bill has not received an official revenue estimate.
On the House side, long-time supporter Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-OR) is the lead sponsor, with initial endorsements from about a dozen members, including Congressional Progressive Caucus co-chairs Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-WA) and Mark Pocan (D-WI) and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY).
In a rational political world, Congress would’ve adopted this type of tax immediately after the 2008 crash, while the wounds of a financial system run amok were fresher and deeper than today. But in the current moment of surging support for taxing the wealthy, this sensible Wall Street tax may have a good shot. Scalpers may still cheat us out of the chance to see our favorite musicians, but they would no longer have the power they wield today to rig our financial system.
Note: This post was updated at 11:30 am on March 5 to reflect Senator Gillibrand joining as an initial cosponsor of the just-introduced bill.
Professor and former Wall Street insider Douglas Cliggott: "Three Reasons Why a Tax on Stock Market Trades Would be the Perfect Tax"