Analysis: Global miners to stay in the game despite rule changes
By Euan Rocha and Sonali Paul
TORONTO/MELBOURNE (Reuters) - Indonesia's decision to shut the door on foreign control of its mines has gone down badly with global miners but none are yet threatening to quit the country: the truth is, they no longer have any easy investment destinations to turn to.
After a decade of rapidly growing resource nationalism, from stable emerging markets like Indonesia and South Africa to developed nations such as Australia and Canada, doors everywhere are harder, more expensive or just plain dangerous to open.
Indonesia's sudden announcement this week of a new rule capping foreign mine ownership at 49 percent follows a series of international tax grabs and expropriations that have pinched returns in some of mining's most profitable markets.
It has left mining companies few options other than to venture into ever more politically risky territory, including restive parts of Africa. Countries previously seen as too risky, such as Burkina Faso, Congo and Mauritania, are now firmly on their radar. "This is certainly the mining industry's biggest bugbear at the moment," said Avril Cole, an associate with the law firm Norton Rose in Toronto, who has written about political risk and regulatory changes affecting the mining industry.
Cash-rich mining companies, raking in profits from metal prices that are well above historical levels, have emerged as easy targets for governments. Higher taxes and royalties on big miners are often used by politicians as populist moves to help rally the public and serve as platforms ahead of elections.
In Australia, the government is bringing in a 30 percent tax on profits from coal and iron ore mines. The gold and iron ore rich Canadian province of Quebec moved to raise taxes on miners in 2010, even as the country's federal government blocked global miner BHP Billiton's (BHP.AX: Quote) $39 billion bid for fertilizer giant Potash Corp POT.TO, in a protectionist move that many argue equates to another form of resource nationalism.
"We've seen a sustained period of record prices for certain minerals such as coal, copper, iron ore and gold. And record profits for resource companies, which tend to make governments think that they should be readjusting the deal with resource companies, because the record profits do not reflect record returns to them," Cole said.