Friday, November 27, 2009

Trading Tax Stiffs the Little Guy

By Eric Jackson, Senior Contributor

11/27/09 - 11:15 AM EST

Jim Cramer came out earlier this week with the view that he could live with a trading tax that imposed a 0.25% surcharge on any trade made in America. The main reason he cited for being willing to go along with the tax was that he thought it would help the government create jobs.

He said,

"If we do not create jobs in this country we will fall horribly behind all others in the world. I think we will be doomed to permanently low growth, if no growth at all. I believe that it is incumbent upon everyone to sacrifice at this time."

Cramer also said that if sacrifice is needed, people trading stocks can afford to pay such a tax.

While I support Cramer's interest in seeing job creation flourish in America, I completely disagree that the "trader tax" will accomplish this aim. To the contrary, I think allowing such a tax to take root here would accomplish just the opposite. In my view, such a tax would encourage large amounts of capital to relocate outside of America, jobs would be lost (not gained) and total government tax revenue would likely go down.

For a preview of what could happen in the U.S. if this trader tax was imposed, look at Britain. At the moment, the U.K. is in even worse fiscal shape than the United States. Because of that, its Labour government recently introduced additional taxes that specifically target hedge funds' trading profits. Government bureaucrats assumed this was an easy way of generating tax revenue. What they failed to appreciate is that capital has never been more fungible than in today's global market.

London-based hedge funds immediately announced they were relocating to Switzerland in droves, where they would face none of the new taxes levied in the U.K. With those funds go certain administrative and back-office jobs. But more important, ask London bankers how they feel about losing the many profitable revenue streams attributable to doing business with hedge funds that will now be sent to Swiss banks.

The U.K. banks also will likely lose jobs tied to serving those hedge funds. And the U.K. government, in one fell swoop, just lost a host of capital gains, personal income and payroll taxes. Congratulations. An article in a London hedge fund industry newsletter from earlier this week had the headline: "Will the last hedge fund manager leaving to leave London please turn out the lights?"

Should the U.S. impose a trader tax, we'll see a similar exodus of U.S.-based investment firms and hedge funds to locales that don't require such a tax. And, believe me, many jurisdictions will be competing for the tax revenue those firms bring with them.

But this trader tax also will weigh heavily on smaller traders, as well as the big hedge funds. It's not fair that this tax will stick it to the little guy while the big banks got to run themselves like badly managed hedge funds, taking in mom-and-pop deposits and then leveraging up those assets 32-to-1 so they could trade and then lose billions of dollars on bad bets. If these big banks had actually been hedge funds, or smaller traders trading their personal accounts, they'd be gone right now. They wouldn't have been shown any sympathy. They'd be toast. Instead, they get bailed out, made whole, lent money at zero interest indefinitely, and now they get to report record profits for the year. Their taxes aren't raised, but small-time traders have to pay for their mistakes? Come on. The fairness of that escapes me.

Can you imagine if someone like Rupert Murdoch, chairman of News Corp.(NWS Quote), had been running the Federal Reserve or acting as Treasury secretary when the financial meltdown occurred last year? When the banks came running for a bailout, Murdoch (or any business executive) overseeing the taxpayers' money would have said, "Sure, we can arrange for a loan, but I want equity and warrants, I want control over management, and before you guys pay any bonuses to yourselves for the next 10 years, you're going to pay out a special dividend to me first. If you don't like my offer, try to find another U.S. federal government to help you."

I saw a story the other day that FDIC chief Sheila Bair was urging banks to start lending to create jobs. Urging. I thought of Murdoch again. Do you think if he had control of any bank he would "urge" management to take certain actions? No, he'd tell them what he wanted. And at the moment, he'd be telling the banks to lend money instead of stockpiling cash.

Finally, as much as I want to see job creation (as Cramer does), I don't see how paying any more taxes to the government is going to directly lead to creating more jobs. Look at the track record so far. After Congress approved $800 billion in stimulus last year, only 24% of that amount has been spent to date. We have no new jobs -- just slowing job losses. The administration keeps telling us about jobs saved. I can't recall ever hearing that statistic quoted before this year. Wouldn't it be quicker and more immediate if the Fed told the banks -- which they control -- to start lending out money to small businesses again, instead of stockpiling cash and cutting their credit lines?

There is a problem looming on the horizon for the U.S. and all Western countries. Debt as a percentage of gross domestic product is on the rise, big time. The current spending trends, combined with expected lower tax revenue, cannot continue indefinitely. The time to pay the piper will come. As a society, we are going to need to sacrifice in the years ahead. This sacrifice will come through lower benefits due to lower government spending on programs, or it will come from higher taxes.

Personally, I'd rather see less government spending, which would allow taxes to stay lower to spur business investment. This will require politically unpopular decisions, however, and it's not clear that short-term-thinking politicians will have the stomach for that.

If higher taxes are needed, we should all pay up -- not just traders. But the banks who got us in this mess -- and who are still on the government dole while paying themselves record bonuses -- should pay more.

At the time of publication, Jackson had no positions in any stocks mentioned.

Eric Jackson is founder and president of Ironfire Capital and the general partner and investment manager of Ironfire Capital US Fund LP and Ironfire Capital International Fund, Ltd.

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