A Tobin tax, suggested by Nobel Laureate economist James Tobin, was originally defined as a tax on all spot conversions of one currency into another. The tax is intended to put a penalty on short-term financial round-trip excursions into another currency.
Tobin suggested his currency transaction tax in 1972 in his Janeway Lectures at Princeton, shortly after the Bretton Woods system of monetary management ended in 1971. Prior to 1971, one of the chief features of the Bretton Woods system was an obligation for each country to adopt a monetary policy that maintained the exchange rate of its currency within a fixed value—plus or minus one percent—in terms of gold. Then, on August 15, 1971, United States President Richard Nixon announced that the United States dollar would no longer be convertible to gold, effectively ending the system. This action created the situation whereby the U.S. dollar became the sole backing of currencies and a reserve currency for the member states of the Bretton Woods system, leading the system to collapse in the face of increasing financial strain in that same year. In that context, Tobin suggested a new system for international currency stability, and proposed that such a system include an international charge on foreign-exchange transactions.
In 2001, in another context, just after "the nineties' crises in Mexico, Southeast Asia and Russia," which included the 1994 economic crisis in Mexico, the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis, and the 1998 Russian financial crisis, Tobin summarized his idea:
The tax on foreign exchange transactions was devised to cushion exchange rate fluctuations. The idea is very simple: at each exchange of a currency into another a small tax would be levied - let's say, 0.5% of the volume of the transaction. This dissuades speculators as many investors invest their money in foreign exchange on a very short-term basis. If this money is suddenly withdrawn, countries have to drastically increase interest rates for their currency to still be attractive. But high interest is often disastrous for a national economy, as the nineties' crises in Mexico, Southeast Asia and Russia have proven. My tax would return some margin of manoeuvre to issuing banks in small countries and would be a measure of opposition to the dictate of the financial markets.
Though James Tobin suggested the rate as "let's say 0.5%", in that interview setting, others have tried to be more precise in their search for the optimum rate.
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