Roundtable: Is Australia's Super Tax Dead?

Last week, former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd was ousted from office after attempting to implement a 40% tax on the profits of mining companies. Yesterday, I wrote about the fierce opposition he faced from companies like Peabody Energy (NYSE: BTU  ) and Rio Tinto (NYSE: RTP  ) and the ramifications the tax could have on the industry worldwide.

Today, we asked four of our Motley Fool experts what they think about the Resource Super Profit Tax (RSPT) and how it could potentially affect investors.

Here's what they had to say.

David Williamson, Fool Editor
The RSPT is dead. It was a gross political miscalculation by deposed Prime Minister Kevin Rudd. He thought it would be popular measure to bring in extra government revenue and shore up budgets from Australia's booming commodity sector. Oops. A brutal and expensive PR war with the mining industry, one which claimed the tax would cost 100,000 jobs over the next 10 years, upset enough of the population and eroded Mr. Rudd's support base.

The lesson here, as always, is not to take on a powerful industry unless you have nothing to lose. Sure, a 40% tax would have hurt internal rates of return and perhaps made some projects questionable, but let's be honest -- it wouldn't have crippled the industry to the degree that Rio Tinto's and BHP Billiton's (NYSE: BHP  ) bellyaching suggested. China is still growing rapidly, Posco (NYSE: PKX  ) and other Asian steel makers need resources, and Australia's location is ideal.

New Prime Minister Julia Gillard will likely come to an agreement with the mining titans that adjusts what they pay but is nowhere near the RSPT. If the industry beats back this not-too-distant relative of resource nationalism and is allowed to keep their "super profits," then the best chance Australian citizens have of benefiting from their country's abundant commodities is investing in a basket of their favorite domestic mining stocks.

Nate Weisshaar, Analyst, Global Gains
Although with the ousting of Kevin Rudd it appears the mining tax will be watered down or killed altogether, this incident should register with investors. Australia is fiscally one of the fittest developed economies in the world, and its government was willing to threaten the very industry that arguably pulled it through the global downturn.

What does that mean for companies in the U.S., U.K., and Western Europe? None of the countries in this group expects to see a balanced budget for several years, and stimulating their economies has caused debt-to-GDP ratios to swell dangerously.

Similar to the major miners in Australia, Big Oil is a popular scapegoat here in the U.S. Unfortunately, BP's disaster in the Gulf has made the target on Big Oil's back even bigger. On top of tighter regulation, I can envision ExxonMobil (NYSE: XOM  ) and Chevron (NYSE: CVX  ) facing higher permitting fees as well as some sort of disaster prevention tax.

Ivan Martchev, Fool contributor
It is clear now that the new Australian tax proposal has cost Prime Minister Rudd his career, as such an expeditious sacking has never before happened in Australian politics. Politicians are eager to tax a resource industry when it is booming, forgetting that boom times do not last forever. Mongolia tried a much larger 68% windfall profits tax in 2006, which miserably failed as it stopped mining development in the country. The Mongolian government had to remove the tax in 2009 when it became clear that the global mining boom can have crude interruptions.

When you tax something, you have less of it. Australia has a much more developed mining sector than Mongolia, but new taxes curb new development. Capital will flow toward less-taxed jurisdictions. Both Australian megacap miners -- BHP Billiton and Rio Tinto -- have global operations and a pipeline of global projects for development. How hard do you think it is to rearrange the development of those projects according to the most friendly tax jurisdictions?

Christopher Barker, Fool contributor
A politician can walk either of two fine lines: Promote a populist agenda, or safeguard the interests of powerful corporations and lobby groups. Ousted Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd ensured his political demise by blazing a third trail with an egregious tax proposal that alienated both sources of power.

Bowing to both political expediency and economic reality, I fully expect that incoming Prime Minister Julia Gillard will strike a heavily diluted compromise with the mining industry.

As I have said before, I am sympathetic to the notion of securing just compensation for the astounding pace of resource extraction that underpins Australia's relatively strong economy. The endless mounds of coal steaming toward China from key export facilities like Queensland's Dalrymple Bay Coal Terminal -- in which Brookfield Infrastructure Partners holds an attractive stake -- are gone for good.

Although the millions of Australians invested in the nation's mining sector may share in the wealth to some degree, recent takeover target Macarthur Coal exhibits the international character of mining investment in Australia. Steelmaker ArcelorMittal (NYSE: MT  ) holds a 19.9% stake in Macarthur, while China's Citic Resource Holdings maintains 22.4% of the shares. Australian coal magnate Clive Palmer is calling his $60 billion coal project China First, but I submit that a much-reduced version of the proposed tax regime could mean Australia is putting Australia first.

The foolish bottom line
It seems as though our Motley Fool experts anticipate a much different RSPT to emerge from new Prime Minister Julia Gillard -- a lighter, more industry-friendly version than the one proposed by Kevin Rudd. Investors probably won't have to wait too long for a resolution, as Gillard is likely to meet with miners this Friday in hopes of reaching a pre-election resolution.

So be sure to stay tuned as we keep investors up to date on the topic. Have an opinion on Australia's super tax or the future of big-time miners? Sound off in the comments box below!

Jordan DiPietro compiled this roundtable and owns no shares mentioned above. Brookfield Infrastructure Partners P. is a Motley Fool Inside Value pick. Brookfield Infrastructure Partners P. is a Motley Fool Global Gains choice. Brookfield Infrastructure Partners P. is a Motley Fool Hidden Gems selection. Posco is a former Motley Fool Income Investor recommendation. The Fool owns shares of Brookfield Infrastructure Partners P. Try any of our Foolish newsletters today, free for 30 days. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.


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Comments from our Foolish Readers

Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On June 29, 2010, at 7:30 PM, Aveneljp wrote:

    Great commentary.

    The original premise driving the tax was something along the lines of:

    "The country/taxpayer is not getting the most out of its resource (in Australia's case read mineral) boom - let's slap a tax on mining and redistribute the money to better benefit the country."

    As the comments above point out, concerns about distortions, entrenched opposition from the miners and investors to say nothing of the demise of a politician, followed.

    There's an interesting sideline though, to the original concern about maximising benefit to the country from its resources and that's the question of overseas ownership. It's been around for a while in the mining sector but lately the emphasis has shifted to land and its food production capability.

    In both Australia and New Zealand (and probably Africa and South America) there's a huge debate raging about the growing Chinese ownership of land along with its food production capacity. Superficially one might say that ownership of land is immaterial - the benefit to the country occurs from an injection of outside capital and anyway, land cant be shipped offshore. Recently though, there have been reports from Australia that Chinese communities are being established to operate some of the dairy conglomerates that have been put together there.

    So, now we've got the potential for xenophobia thrown into the mix just to further complicate the question of "how should a country make the best use of its natural resources"!

    Pat Garden

  • Report this Comment On July 11, 2010, at 10:02 PM, Chowboy100 wrote:

    As an Australian born and bred Fool and resident financial adviser and by the way thanks Pat for your ignorance in assuming that’s what we are 'really' all about......Hmmmm?! You certainly hold true of the statement "we are all ignorant, just on different subjects"

    Anyway Rudd’s real agenda was a me-too and one-up-manship approach. As the EU and US scrambled to plug their stimulus holes to cover their ever-growing deficits, Rudd started behaving in an authoritarian act-without-consultation manner/panic mode similar to his/our counterparts around the world.

    The tax proposal was not warranted and considering our relatively good position (we didn't go into recession) it was totally unnecessary.

    Its motivation was purely political as if he was saying "well look at what we can do world, your struggling, yet were going to be back in the black well before you are", and to polls suggested we could see right through that, unfortunately PM Gillard was a part of this political agenda all along.

    Hopefully the voting public sees this as well.

    As a swinging voter (yes I helped vote the Labour government in) I've now woke up from the hangover but unfortunately (due to voting being compulsory) I don't believe the apathetic voting Australian public will give it as much credence as I have.

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