Monday, July 21, 2014

Mining boom our gift to rich foreigners

The mining tax - whose last-minute reprieve may well prove temporary - is the greatest weakness in the argument that we gained a lot from the resources boom. The blame for this failure should be spread widely, with economists taking a fair share.

Late last week a majority of senators passed the bill repealing the minerals resource rent tax, but not before knocking out its provisions cancelling various programs the tax was supposed to be paying for.

The government is refusing to accept the amended version of the bill, arguing that "by voting to keep many of the associated spending measures [naughty - most are actually tax expenditures], senators have effectively voted to keep the mining tax".

We'll see how long that lasts. But if you're thinking the tax raises so little it hardly matters whether it stays or goes, you're forgetting something. When Labor allowed BHP Billiton's Marius Kloppers and his mates from Rio Tinto and Xstrata (now Glencore) to redesign the tax, they predictably opted to take their depreciation deductions upfront. Once they're used up, however, receipts from the tax will be a lot healthier - provided it survives that long.

You can blame Kevin Rudd, Wayne Swan and Julia Gillard for their hopeless handling of the tax. But don't forget to copy in Tony Abbott who, faced with a choice between the interests of Australian taxpayers and the interests of three foreign mining giants, sided with the latter in the hope they'd fund his 2010 election campaign.

You can also blame Treasury for originally proposing an incomprehensible, textbook-pure version of the tax which couldn't survive, and so getting us lumbered with a fourth-best version. It also did a bad job of quietly test-marketing the tax with its banking contacts and of estimating the likely receipts.

But where were all the economists - including academics - explaining to the public why the tax wouldn't discourage mining activity or otherwise damage the economy, as it suited the big miners to claim?

Where were the economists explaining the special need for a resources rent tax in the case of the exploitation of mineral deposits, particularly when the miners were so largely foreign-owned?

As usual, they were keeping their mouths shut. Contribute their expertise to the public debate? Why? Better just to criticise from the sidelines.

Part of the problem is an ethic among economists that regards it as bad form to distinguish between local and foreign investors for fear of inciting "economic nationalism" - a form of xenophobia. If an investment generates jobs and income, why does it matter whether the firms involved are local or foreign?

It's no doubt thanks to this ethic that we do such a bad job of measuring foreign ownership (and so deny ourselves the ability to use hard facts to fight xenophobic impressions that foreigners now own everything). But the best guess is that mining is about 80 per cent foreign-owned.

Trouble is, mining is an obvious exception to this generally sensible aversion to economic nationalism, for two reasons: because our abundant natural endowment makes minerals and energy such a huge source of economic rent and because mining is so extraordinarily capital-intensive.

Added to that, as Dr Stephen Grenville (a former senior econocrat who does make a useful contribution to the public debate, via the Lowy Institute) has written, "mining royalties, a state government domain, fall victim to special relationships and inter-state competition to attract projects".

Put all that together and you see why having an effective resource rent tax is so essential to ensuring Australians get a fair reward for the exploitation of their birthright. High economic rents, few jobs created and the lion's share of profits going to foreigners mean unless especially high rates of profitability are adequately taxed we don't have a lot to show for the resources boom.

Saying that isn't anti-foreigner, it's simple self-interest, the driving force of market economies. Foreigners are welcome, provided we get a fair share of the benefits. Foreign investment isn't meant to be a form of aid to rich foreigners.

It's true our rate of national saving increased during the boom. But a lot of this was foreign-owned mining firms reinvesting their profits in local expansion rather than repatriating them, thereby increasing their share of our productive assets.

Now the construction phase is ending, more of the (undertaxed) profits will be sent back home. And the capital-intensive production and export phase will mean each $1 billion of growth in GDP now creates fewer jobs than it used to. Thank you Labor, thank you Coalition, thank you economists.