Resources nationalism on the rampage

JUST what we need with world markets in turmoil and the Greens targeting the gold sector. The Outcrop by Robin Bromby.
Resources nationalism on the rampage Resources nationalism on the rampage Resources nationalism on the rampage Resources nationalism on the rampage Resources nationalism on the rampage

Wall Street falls again, there was another shocker overnight* on the London Metal Exchange, the morning paper reports that Western Australia's coal industry is going to be totally foreign owned, and the day of reckoning for Greece (and the eurozone) has been delayed but not averted. OMG, indeed.

Just look at what is happening in the metals markets: copper finished on the London Metal Exchange last night at $US7251 a tonne after falling another 4.5%, the bounce from Monday's intraday low of $6800/t having proved to be of the dead cat variety.

Tin lost 5.7% last night, all the other base metals followed. Nickel got as low as $18,196/t during the session, something that will cause a little nervousness.

All this economic distress - and now we have resources nationalism as the icing on the cake. (Or, perhaps, the straw that broke the camel's back, if you're in the mood for cliches.)

Two weeks ago I reported from Paris on some developments in the mining sector as seen from a European perspective.

Subsequently, I spotted an item in one of the business newspapers headed "Pakistan copper-gold mine faces delay".

Its content may be of interest locally because, one, former shareholders of Tethyan Copper Co may feel they dodged a bullet and, two, it was symptomatic of the tide of resources nationalism that is sweeping much of the developing world, and has its local (although much paler) version in the former of Australia's proposed mining tax.

You may recall that, back in 2006, local junior Tethyan Copper was taken over by Antofagasta Plc after fighting off a bid from Crosby Capital Partners out of Hong Kong.

It seemed a big loss for Australia. You know, another company-making project gets taken away from us.

Tethyan held the Reko Diq project in Pakistan, located close to the Afghanistan border, which had been drilled by the then BHP (which had clawback rights).

Reko Diq was described back in 2000 as possibly the largest copper-gold ore bodies in the world, containing up to 7 million tonnes of copper and 11 million ounces of gold.

Antofagasta ended up in partnership with Barrick Gold.

The rather benign newspaper headline belied the nature of the story. It appears that the government in Baluchistan province is now threatening not to issue a mining licence unless the mining companies surrender to its new financial terms.

One of the conditions is that the province is able to buy all the concentrate and have it refined in Baluchistan. The government is also indicating it wants to change royalty levels and increase its 25% ownership.

The stakes are big. The mine is expected to have a life of 65 years and annual production of 200,000 tonnes of copper and 250,000oz of gold.

Earlier this month there was a comment in Ernst & Young's annual report that the number one risk facing mining companies was resource nationalism.

With skills shortages pushed into the number two spot on the problem list, E&Y worried about governments trying to secure a bigger piece of the pie.

Over the past year and a half, around 25 countries have hiked or announced plans to increase their tax and royalty regimes for the mining sector. It was interesting to note that the report bundled Australia in with Ghana and South Africa in this regard.

A few weeks ago reported on a presentation at the Africa Downunder conference in which Gilbert and Tobin partner Michael Blakiston said resource nationalism was the top threat facing miners in Africa.

And while most countries there offer tax holidays for an initial period, the situation changes eventually.

In Ivory Coast you pay royalties plus 25% corporate tax, in Mali it goes to 35%. Like Australia's proposed mining tax, these can all be increased at the whim of the government.

The very fact that the ruling African National Congress in South Africa has commissioned a team to research nationalisation and report by next June is, by comparison, an extremely serious matter.

Now we also have Mongolia looking at grabbing a larger share of the Oyu Tolgoi project.

And then, after a couple of weeks away, you step off the plane in Sydney to the news that the Greens want the goldminers to be included in the mining tax.

Sure, the government says this won't happen. It will, but much later - once the mining tax is in place it will be a cinch for future governments to either increase the tax or extend it to more and more sectors of the mining industry.

But have the Greens or Labor flicked through the business pages recently? If they did, they might realise that the golden goose has lost a fair bit of condition.

*First published in yesterday.

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