Capital levies for debt redemption

Stefan Bach, Gert Wagner, 15 August 2012

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Neither Germany’s chancellor Angela Merkel nor the Social Democrat opposition leaders are likely to agree to further bailouts for the countries in crisis. They fear a storm of popular outrage using national tax funds for European 'debt collectivisation' (Birchler and Bütler 2012). The governments of other solvent countries such as the Netherlands, Austria, and Finland are under similar pressures. This is also why Germany and company oppose further bailouts by the ECB.

But all this naysaying does not bring the sovereign debt problems in some Eurozone nations any closer to an end. The crisis rolls on. If it lasts long enough, the problems may drag the Eurozone into a negative spiral of recession and debt that risks exacerbating the crisis and a possibly leading to the collapse of the Eurozone.

In the face of these multiple dilemmas, governments should consider imposing one-off capital levies on the rich in order to refinance and bring down national debt (Bach 2012, Bach et al. 2011).

One-off capital levies

The idea behind this is straightforward enough.

  • Increased levels of public debt are accompanied by mounting private wealth, which is increasingly concentrated on the wealthy elite.

In Germany, for example, two thirds of the national wealth belongs to the richest 10% of the adult population.

  • According to our analysis, a one-time capital levy of 10% on personal net wealth exceeding 250,000 euros per taxpayer (€500,000 for couples) could raise revenue of just over 9% of GDP.

The wealthiest 8% of the adult population would be liable to the levy. Even with higher allowances of, for instance, €500,000 and €1 million, the levy could raise revenue of about 6.8% and 5.6% of GDP respectively. The number of taxpayers would sink to 2.3% and 0.6% of the adult population.

  • In the other Eurozone crisis countries, it would presumably be possible to generate considerable amounts of money in the same way.

For these countries, forced loans could be an additional source to secure public debt refinancing, without having to rely on external aid (see, e.g. Feldstein 2012). This would also be a signal to donor countries and international community funds that every effort is being made to regain fiscal stability.

The main benefits of such one-off levies are that they induce no immediate adjustment of economic behaviour. There is only little risk of tax avoidance as long as the fiscal authorities are able to capture taxable assets. Insofar there are no 'excess burdens' in economic terms, unlike with an increase in conventional recurrent taxes, in particular those on higher income and wealth. This is a major concern with tax proposals such as the 50p income tax surcharge in the UK as of 2010, the hike in top income tax rates and wealth taxation recently announced by French president Hollande, similar proposals in Germany, or the ongoing struggle in the USA to continue the tax breaks to the rich.

Many countries in crisis have raised VAT or consumption taxes. In the longer run, this might be not a bad policy for the countries in crisis with respect to “fiscal devaluation” (Keen and de Mooij 2012). Yet, in the short term, this pushes these economies into a deeper recession. The same applies to frantic expenditure cuts on social programmes, which, similar to indirect taxation hikes, most affect the poorer strata of the population. 

The downside of exceptional wealth taxation is that prosperous people might feel they are being trapped by the government. However, the wealthy elite have been released from taxation over the past few decades in almost all countries in the developed world, and, at the same time, it is only the top incomes that have risen markedly. Moreover, national bankruptcies in the Mediterranean and a collapse of the Eurozone would cause much more harm to the rich in northern Europe, not to mention the impact on the ordinary people. The same is true of financial repression as a result of creeping inflation and low interest rates, which seems to have become the favourable remedy in the UK or the US for fighting the debt crisis.

Finally, a sweeping deleverage of private and public debt overhangs is the prerequisite for a return to order in the capital markets and in public budgets, for which someone has to pay sooner or later. Not least, such levies are likely to increase the acceptance of labour market and social reforms or spending cuts in the crisis countries that mostly affect poorer people, leading to social tensions.

Imposing such levies is complex, however, since it involves valuation of assets and preventing tax evasion. If the wealthy elite expect such levies to be repeated, this could discourage investment and encourage capital flight (see the discussion in Eichengreen 1989). Therefore, it is essential to prevent future debt overhangs in the private, financial, and public sectors. The financial industry requires proper regulation. Governments should commit themselves to balanced budgets, which should be bound by constitutional rules as proposed by the European Fiscal Union. Thus, a capital levy would be a feasible instrument for financing debt redemption, in particular, in connection with a 'European Redemption Pact', endorsed by the German Council of Economic Experts (2012).

References

Bach, Stefan (2012), “Capital Levies: A Step Towards Improving Public Finances in Europe”, DIW Economic Bulletin, 8.2012.

Bach, Stefan, Martin Beznoska, and Viktor Steiner (2011), “A Wealth Tax on the Rich to Bring Down Public Debt? Revenue and Distributional Effects of a Capital Levy”, DIW Berlin Discussion Paper 1137.

Birchler, Urs and Monika Bütler (2012), “EU banking union disunites German economists”, VoxEU.org, 10 July.

Eichengreen, Barry (1989), “The Capital Levy in Theory and Practice”, NBER Working Paper No. 3096.

Feldstein, Martin (2012), “Time for householders to buy bonds and save Spain”, Financial Times, 30 April.

German Council of Economic Experts (2012), After the Euro Area Summit: Time to Implement Long-term Solutions, Special Report, 30 July. See also Bofinger et al. 2011 and 2012 on this site.

Keen, Michael and Ruud de Mooij (2012), “Fiscal devaluation as a cure for Eurozone ills – Could it work?”, VoxEU.org, 6 April.

Topics: Europe's nations and regions, Macroeconomic policy, Poverty and income inequality, Taxation
Tags: capital levies, Eurozone crisis, taxes

Stefan Bach
Deputy Head, Public Finance Department, DIW Berlin; and Lecturer, University of Potsdam
Chairman of the Executive Board, DIW Berlin