Germany’s Merkel Is Key to Currency-Trading Levy

Photographer: Krisztian Bocsi/Bloomberg
Merkel, who last year backed a European Commission plan for a broad-based tax on trades in stocks, bonds, derivatives and other assets, is due to start talks on forming a government with the opposition Social Democrats today.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s choice of coalition partner will play a key role in deciding how far the foreign-exchange market is burdened by a proposed financial-transactions tax in 11 European Union states.

Merkel, who last year backed a European Commission plan for a broad-based tax on trades in stocks, bonds, derivatives and other assets, is due to start talks on forming a government with the opposition Social Democrats today. The SPD has pledged to make the delayed levy a high priority if a coalition with Merkel’s Christian Democratic bloc emerges. Currency traders are seeking an exemption from the tax, saying it would reduce liquidity and push up costs for companies and pension funds.

“Merkel is the key player and I think we’ll see Germany pushing their agenda and the other countries probably following suit,” Mark Persoff, a financial services tax partner at Ernst & Young LLP, said at the Bloomberg FX13 summit in London two days ago. “The impact on the foreign-exchange markets will obviously depend very closely on the political agreement on what the shape and scope of the FTT will be.”

The tax may increase some trading costs by as much as 4,700 percent, according to the London-based currency unit of the Global Financial Markets Association, which represents 22 firms responsible for 90 percent of the turnover in the $5.3 trillion-a-day foreign-exchange market.

Staggering, Terrifying

“The numbers are staggering,” Mark Johnson, global head of foreign-exchange cash trading at HSBC Holdings Plc, said at the event. Were the tax applied to currency derivatives called swaps, “the prospect of what it would do to people’s ability to fund is terrifying,” he said.

Under the proposals, a levy of 10 basis points would be applied to stock and bond trades and 1 basis point on derivative transactions, with some exemptions for primary-market sales and trades with the European Central Bank.

While foreign-exchange trading for immediate delivery, so-called spot transactions, would be excluded from the levy to avoid restricting the movement of capital, the commission has not extended this exemption to other forms of currency trade. The tax, which is still under development, may be applied to forwards, swaps, non-deliverable forward contracts and options that make up two-thirds of the market.

The tax would typically increase transaction costs for currency-market participants by between 300 percent and 700 percent for corporates, and 700 percent to 1,500 percent for pension fund managers, the GFMA said. It based its estimates on a simulation of the proposed tax using last year’s currency activity by 15 end users, both within and outside the tax zone, and with annual transaction values varying between $4 billion and $400 billion. It assumed currency transaction costs to be the difference between an offer to buy a currency and an offer to sell it.

‘What Benefit?’

“It’s another piece of regulation that throws sand into a very efficient, well-oiled process,” said Edward Davey, managing director for strategic planning and development at CLS Bank, the operator of the world’s largest currency-trading settlement system. “You introduce new risks as well as incremental costs, and to what benefit?”

The EU Commission, the architect of the levy, says it may generate as much as 35 billion euros ($47 billion) annually. Implementing the tax was delayed six months to mid-2014 after its EU proponents failed to agree on which products to exclude.

Merkel’s Christian Democratic bloc needs a coalition partner to govern in Germany after falling short of an absolute majority as it won Sept. 22 elections with the highest share of the vote since 1990. Initial talks on a possible union with the Greens will be held on Oct. 10, Merkel’s party spokesman said on Oct. 2.

‘Rational Action’

“Politics rather than rational action is crucial in this and one has to follow the politics extremely closely over the next few months,” said Oliver Harvey, a strategist at Deutsche Bank AG (DBK) in London. “The comments that come out from the next German government and the French government will begin to give us a very good idea of what sort of products will be covered.”

The proposals are a threat to the euro-area recovery because they may cramp businesses’ ability to hedge currency-market positions and act as a levy on trade into and out of the euro area, the GFMA says. Deutsche Bank estimates a direct cost of as much as 2.4 billion euros per year to importers and exporters in Germany, the region’s largest economy.

Lawyers for the Council of the European Union, which represents the executives of EU member states, say the tax plan goes too far and would discriminate against countries that don’t participate, according to an EU document. The legal service of the European Commission, which proposed the levy, stands by the plan and will offer a rebuttal, Emer Traynor, a spokeswoman for EU Tax Commissioner Algirdas Semeta, said on Sept. 10.

Revenue Generation

The 11 nations planning to apply a common FTT are: Austria, Belgium, Estonia, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Portugal, Slovenia and Slovakia and Spain, according to the commission’s website. The U.K, Denmark and Luxembourg and Sweden rejected the plan.

The FTT may not generate any revenue for the EU because of the damage to financial markets, ECB Governing Council member Christian Noyer said in May.

“The politicians, with the greatest of respect, need a little more education,” said Gavin Wells, chief executive officer of LCH.Clearnet Group Ltd.’s ForexClear service. “They’ve tried to raise money in a way that they don’t see the repercussions of.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Lucy Meakin in London at lmeakin1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Paul Dobson at pdobson2@bloomberg.net

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