James Moore: Bank tax is toothless, say number-crunchers

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The Independent Online

Outlook Of course, while most businesses are cheering, someone had to be seen to suffer along with the rest of us. So what better target than the banks? And just to prove that he is tough on banking and tough on the causes of banking, Mr Osborne has delivered with the announcement of a levy. Well, he had to do something because otherwise his poodle in the business department might have got cross.

That wouldn't do, so there will be an extra £2bn a year channelled into Treasury coffers from those nasty banks and building societies, which is really not that much, given how much taxpayers' cash has gone into keeping the sector afloat.

Eeven £2bn may prove to be an optimistic assessment of how much is ultimately raised. The number-crunchers in the investment banks worked that one out before lunch on Tuesday. They found, for example, that HSBC could substantially cut its levy bill with a few relatively simple adjustments.

Britain has traditionally been one of the group's major trading counterparties. But, as analysts at UBS have pointed out, there is no reason why the vast majority of those trades could not be booked on the balance sheet of the bank's Hong Kong division (where, funnily enough, the company's chief executive has recently relocated).

Such a move ought to lower HSBC's tax bill. As such it would be in shareholders' interests. In fact the bank's directors could actually be under a fiduciary duty to make the move. That's always the trouble with trying to impose taxes on transnational businesses. This little wheeze won't be available to the others, whose businesses don't have HSBC's eastern focus, not least because the French, Germans and Americans have all said that they are planning levies of their own.

But, again, other business-friendly measures in the Budget will cushion the blow. Lloyds Banking Group, for example, could see its post-tax profits rising by a more than healthy 2 per cent. Something for the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills to think about there. Over to you, Dr Cable.