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Issue #1616      October 30, 2013

They’re coming for your savings

Another of history’s many lessons is that governments under pressure become thieves. And today’s governments are under a lot of pressure.

Before we look at the coming wave of asset confiscations, let’s stroll through some notable episodes of the past, just to make the point that government theft of private wealth is actually pretty common.

• Ancient Rome had a rule called “proscription” that allowed the government to execute and then confiscate the assets of anyone found guilty of “crimes against the state.” After the death of Julius Caesar in 44 BC, three men, Mark Anthony, Lepidus, and Caesar’s adopted son Octavian, formed a group they called the Second Triumvirate and divided the Empire between them. But two rivals, Brutus and Cassius, formed an army with which they planned to take the Empire for themselves.

The Triumvirate needed money to fund an army of its own, and decided the best way to raise it was by kicking the proscription process into overdrive. They drew up a list of several hundred wealthy Romans, accused them of crimes, executed them and took their property.

• In the mid-1530s, English king Henry VIII was short of funds, so he seized the country’s monasteries and claimed their property and income for the Crown. As historian GJ Meyer tells it in The Tudors: The Complete Story of England’s Most Notorious Dynasty:

“By April fat trunks were being hauled into London filled with gold and silver plate, jewellery, and other treasures accumulated by the monasteries over the centuries. With them came money from the sale of church bells, lead stripped from the roofs of monastic buildings, and livestock, furnishings, and equipment. Some of the confiscated land was sold – enough to bring in £30,000 – and what was not sold generated tens of thousands of pounds in annual rents.

“The longer the confiscations continued, the smaller the possibility of their ever being reversed or even stopped from going further. The money was spent almost as quickly as it flooded in – so quickly that any attempt to restore the monasteries to what they had been before the suppression would have meant financial ruin for the Crown. Nor would those involved in the work of the suppression … ever be willing to part with what they were skimming off for themselves.”

• Soon after the French Revolution in 1789, the new government confiscated lands and other property of the Catholic Church and used the proceeds to back a new form of paper currency called assignats. The resulting money printing binge quickly spun out of control, resulting in hyperinflation and the rise of Napoleon.

• During the US Civil War, Congress passed laws confiscating property used for “insurrectionary purposes” and of citizens generally engaged in rebellion.

• In 1933, in the depths of the Great Depression, president Franklin Roosevelt banned the private ownership of gold and ordered US citizens to turn in their gold. Those who did were paid in paper dollars at the then current rate of $20.67 per ounce. Once the confiscation was complete, the dollar was devalued to $35 per ounce of gold, effectively stealing 70 percent of the wealth of those who surrendered their gold.

• In 1942, after entering World War II, the US moved all Japanese citizens within its borders to concentration camps and sold off their property. The detainees were released in 1945, given $25 and a train ticket home – without being reimbursed for their losses.

Since the 2008 financial crisis, various kinds of capital controls and asset confiscations have become common. A few examples:

• Iceland required that firms seeking to invest abroad get permission from the central bank and that individual Icelanders get government authorisation to buy foreign currency or travel overseas.

• Greece pulled funds directly from bank and brokerage accounts of suspected tax evaders, without prior notice or judicial due process.

• Argentina banned the purchase of US dollars for personal savings and required banks to make loans in pesos at rates considerably below the true inflation rate.

• The US Fed proposed that money market funds be allowed to limit withdrawals of customer cash in times of market stress.

• Cyprus, a eurozone country, responded to a series of bank failures by confiscating 47.5 percent of domestic bank accounts over €100,000.

• Poland in September responded to a budgetary shortfall by confiscating the assets of the country’s private pension funds without offering any compensation.

• Spain was recently revealed to have looted its largest public pension fund, the Social Security Reserve Fund, by ordering it to use its cash to buy Spanish government bonds. Currently 90 percent of the €65 billion fund had been invested in Spanish sovereign paper, leaving the fund’s beneficiaries dependent on future governments’ ability to manage their finances.

Now for the big one, reported by Automatic Earth on Saturday October 12:

This is a story that should raise an eyebrow or two on every single face in Europe, and beyond. I saw the first bits of it on a Belgian site named Express.be, whose writers in turn had stumbled upon an article in French newspaper Le Figaro, whose writer Jean-Pierre Robin had leafed through a brand new IMF report (yes, there are certain linguistic advantages in being Dutch, Canadian AND Québecois). In the report, the IMF talks about a proposal to tax everybody’s savings, in the Eurozone. Looks like they just need to figure out by how much.

The IMF, I’m following Mr Robin here, addresses the issue of the sustainability of the debt levels of developed nations, Europe, US, Japan, which today are on average 110% of GDP, or 35% more than in 2007. Such debt levels are unprecedented, other than right after the world wars. So, the Fund reasons, it’s time for radical solutions.

The IMF refers to a few studies, like one from 1990 by Barry Eichengreen on historical precedents, one from April 2013 by Saxo Bank chief economist Steen Jakobsen, who saw a 10% general asset tax as needed to repair government debt levels, and one by German economist Stefan Bach, who concluded that if all Germans owning more than €250,000, representing €2.95 trillion in wealth, were “supertaxed” on their assets at a 3.4% rate, the government could collect €100 billion, or 4% of GDP.

French investor site monfinancier.com talks about people close to the Elysée government discussing how a 17 percent supertax on all French savings over €100,000 would clear all government debt. The site is not the only voice to mention that raising “normal” taxes on either individuals or corporations is no longer viable, since it would risk plunging various economies into recession or depression.

Here’s what the October 2013 IMF report, entitled “Fiscal Monitor: Taxing Times”, literally says on the topic:

“The sharp deterioration of the public finances in many countries has revived interest in a capital levy, a one-off tax on private wealth, as an exceptional measure to restore debt sustainability. The appeal is that such a tax, if it is implemented before avoidance is possible, and there is a belief that it will never be repeated, does not distort behaviour (and may be seen by some as fair).”

There have been illustrious supporters, including Pigou, Ricardo, Schumpeter, and, until he changed his mind, Keynes. The conditions for success are strong, but also need to be weighed against the risks of the alternatives, which include repudiating public debt or inflating it away (these, in turn, are a particular form of wealth tax on bondholders that also falls on non-residents).

It should probably be obvious that there is one key sentence here, one which explains why the IMF is seriously considering the capital levy (supertax) option, even if it’s presented as hypothetical:

“The appeal is that such a tax, if it is implemented before avoidance is possible, and there is a belief that it will never be repeated, does not distort behaviour (and may be seen by some as fair).”

It all hangs on the IMF’s notion – or hope – that it can be implemented by stealth, before people have the chance to put their money somewhere else (and let’s assume they’re not thinking of digging in backyards, and leave tax havens alone for now). Also, that after the initial blow, people will accept the tax because they are confident it’s a one-time only thing. And finally, that a sense of justice will prevail among a population, a substantial part of whom will have little, if anything, left to tax.

Information Clearing House

Next article – Dominican court strips Haitian migrants of citizenship

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