[continued from Part I]
Is Canada really an inspiration for the world’s troubled banks?
A great deal of Canada’s authority on these bank tax issues is based on the perception that the country’s traditional banking sector was able to withstand the financial crisis. The historical record is murkier – there is much more to the story than mainstream media accolades of bank prudence and wise Conservative government policy.
In the late 1990s (and again in the early part of the new millennium) the five Canadian banks aimed to merge into three institutions to obtain the capital base to compete internationally with banks such as Citigroup, UBS, and Royal Bank of Scotland. They hoped to enter the “major leagues” of investment banking and non-traditional speculative banking: the very markets that were at the heart of the crash. The banks were unsuccessful in their quest, as the Canadian government blocked the mergers.
Many critics have argued (here and here, for example) that it was not a prudent fear of systemic risk, or the Liberal government’s foresight that stopped the mergers. Rather, it was news of the banks’ ambitions and public outcry about branch layoffs and closures and increased service charges that forced the Canadian government’s hand, pushing it to block the banks from joining together. Canadian financial elites and the business class harshly criticized the government.
Yet it may have been fortunate for bankers, and the current government, that the Canadian public was not swayed. Otherwise, Canadian banks likely would have needed a US or UK style bailout in the 2008 crisis.
According to political commentator Murray Dobbin, the current Conservative government actually has offered a great deal of money to banks in the past two years, and he questions whether this was a form of bailout in itself. The Canadian government spent $70 billion to buy up risky mortgages from the big five banks (Dobbin wonders, if Canadian banks are so wonderful, why does the government need to buy these mortgages?), created a $200 billion fund called the Emergency Finance Framework to insure banks when they need it, and currently ensures 100% of all mortgages through the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation – eliminating risk for banks.
The fiscally sound Canadian bank appears to be more fable than fact.
US position key
Unsurprisingly, the US position leading up to the June G20 meetings is likely to be a major determinant of the success or failure of the G20 bank tax talks. The enormous US bank bailouts have made it difficult for the US government to point to their strong financial sector as a reason to oppose bank taxes. Nevertheless, the US, ever averse to taxation of any kind, has also come out strongly against the Tobin tax and has reacted ambiguously to the idea of an international bank levy.
On the other hand, the Obama administration has made public statements over the last few months about a domestic bank levy proposal. This may lead the US to be more open to an international levy given that it would shield them from capital flight if all nations bought in.
Conclusion: is consensus on a bank tax possible at the G20?
Because consensus is required for G20 policy decisions, the growing Atlantic divide leaves any tax or levy plans up in the air. Meanwhile, the positions of the other 15 G20 countries are still being developed and do not seem to be getting much attention from the major players.
Though tax watching might seem like a dull sport, it is worth observing the developments both during Harper’s trip to Europe this week and this June at the G20 summit. The European powers backing these taxes have been shaken by the crisis and pressured by their electorate to do something about the banks. The taxes are not radical solutions to more fundamental systemic problems, but at least they point in the right direction: towards the banks.
Darren Puscas is the editor of the G20 newsblog www.g20breakdown.com. He is currently a researcher on a multi-country project on women and unionization at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario. He lives in downtown Toronto, not far from the summit fence.
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