Winners and losers of the Resource Profit Tax

Paul Frijters analyses the topical economic issue facing Australia’s resource industry and the public: the Federal Government’s proposed Resource Super Profits Tax. He identifies all the key stakeholders and how the proposed legislation change will affect them.

The recently announced Resource Profit Tax is in principle a profit grab, taking from those who owns large mines, and handing this out to those that dont. Obviously this makes mining executives angry and the noise they are creating at the moment is deafening, with all sorts of nonsense bandied about in the media about how this tax will mean the end of the world as we know it. Leaving the noise from a few super-rich to one side, it is useful to think of who belongs to the winners and the losers of the proposed tax.

A difficulty in making that assessment is that no-one yet knows how this tax will be carried out. Part of the difficulty is that the tax is meant to replace the existing royalty system in individual states, but these individual states are unlikely to simply agree to such changes in their tax raising activities. Also, definitions of ‘costs’, ‘rents’, and just exactly what constitutes a ‘mining project’ are yet to be worked out, so we can at the moment do no more than give a best guess. Let’s presume that the tax gets implemented in the way it designed, meaning that the profits of all current and future mining projects will be taxed at 40%, whereby the initial costs and losses count as a kind of tax-offset.

At the moment, the government’s plan includes the possibility that mining firms that made a loss on a project get part of that loss reimbursed, but exactly how that will work out is not clear (what happens in the case of bankruptcy?), so let’s presume that costs and initial losses will be treated as tax off-sets, which is what they will be for most of the big mining companies.

Since a profitable project now remains a profitable project in the future, the long-run effect of this tax is that at least as many projects will go ahead as without this tax. Indeed, more will go ahead because the tax replaces existing royalty taxes which tax all mining activity and do discourage all mining activity. Hence, in the long-run more mining will take place under this new tax, implying higher levels of investments. The beauty of the tax is that the underlying assets (minerals in the ground) cannot run away and hence the tax cannot be avoided by mining somewhere else. It is just not credible for any company to pretend they will refuse to make money and not dig up and sell the minerals that are there. All talk of capital flight, sovereign risk, and other forms of saber rattling are just not credible.

Another clear effect of this tax is that it will give mining companies (like Xstrata and BHP Billiton) an incentive to increase the costs, just like any tax-offset increases people’s incentive to use those offsets. This means that one should see increased job security, higher wages, and increases in other cost factors like transport. Indeed, the tax office will have a tricky time in deciding whether all the costs mining companies will start putting on their books are really costs associated with mining activities. Mining companies can for instance try to hide profits by paying excessive amounts to transport companies for transporting the minerals if these transport companies are owned by the same parent companies. All kinds of tax-avoidance games can be played. However, let’s presume the tax office will do a reasonable job and manage to keep the increase in ‘fake costs’ to acceptable levels. Even then, anything that is essentially a cost to mining (like employment, wages, and inputs) should get an easier time in negotiations with mining bosses because the government now effectively pays some of those costs.

Who, then, are the winners of this tax? Continue reading “Winners and losers of the Resource Profit Tax”