Resource Super Profit Tax Everything Correctly Explained (R.S.P.T.E.C.E.)

by zebra on 25 May 2010 · 62 comments

This guest post from Mule Stable regular Zebra (James Glover) delves into the details of the proposed Resources Super Profits Tax.

The Australian Government (hereby known as the Govt) has proposed a Resources Super Profits Tax (RSPT) for mining companies. Superficially it appears to be a 40% tax on all profits (measured by Return On Investment or ROI) in excess of the Govt Bond Rate (or GBR, the interest rate at which the Govt borrows money, over the long-term).

The key points of this article are:

1. The GBR is the correct threshold level for RSPT,

2. If the Govt increases the threshold above GBR this will represent a subsidy of miners by taxpayers,

3. The RSPT will benefit small and marginal mining projects to get finance through partial Govt backing of risks.

So for example suppose miner Mineral Wealth of Australia (MWA) invests $1bn in the Mt Koalaroo Iron-Ore mine. MWA is a wholly owned subsidiary of Silver Back Mining (SBM). In the year following they make $200m profit or a return on investment (ROI) of 20%. If the GBR = 5.5% then the 40% RSPT means a tax revenue to the Govt of Tax = 40% x (20%-5.5%) x $1000m = $58m.

This seems very straight forward. It appears that the Govt is saying that GBR represents some “fair” level of return and anything in excess of this is a “super profit” to be taxed accordingly. Not at the normal company tax rate of 30% but a “super tax” rate of 40%. This is how it has been presented by both sides in the media. Arguments against the RSPT have focused on whether the GBR as a “risk-free” rate is the appropriate benchmark for a risky profit stream. Indeed it is not but in fact this isn’t what the RSPT is about. For example normally taxes on profits have no negative impact on the Govt if the company loses money. In the case of the RSPT though the Govt has stated that 40% of any losses can either be claimed back from the Govt (as a refund) or carried over to other projects.

So what is the RSPT? A good way to consider it is if the Govt took a 40% stake in MWA as a “silent partner”,  leaving SBM with a 60% stake. In this case we would expect the Govt to contribute $400m of the investment costs (raised presumably through issuing bonds at the GBR or equivalent). In return it would get 40% of the profit. The Govt return would therefore be 40% of the profit less the cost of funding its 40% investment ie Tax = ROI x 40% x I – GBR x 40% x I = 40% x (ROI – GBR) x I.

This appears to be the formula that the Govt has presented to calculate the RSPT and in this derivation it is quite straightforward. However the Govt appears to be getting something for nothing since it isn’t actually stumping up the $400m in investment capital. So what’s going on? A clever piece of financial engineering that’s what. The Govt avoids raising the capital itself (and hence have it be counted as Govt debt) by getting the project to raise it on the Govt’s behalf.

(You can easily skip the next paragraph if you aren’t interested in the details of mine financing costs)

Whilst MWA raises 100% of the $1bn in capital the Govt appears to get the upside (and potential downside) as if it has contributed $400m without doing so. Money for old rope you say. However consider MWA not to be the stand-alone mining company SBM, but the joint venture beween the Govt and SBM. Suppose MWA borrows $1bn in capital at its Project Funding Cost (or PFC). This PFC will be lower than the SBM’s Miner’s Funding Cost (or MFC) as the Govt is now backing 40% of all liabilities. In fact in an efficient market we deduce PFC = 60% x MFC + 40% x GBR. If MWA then allocated these funding costs accordingly it would charge the Govt its share, risk-weighted, not PFC, but GBR. If the GBR = 5% and MFC = 8% then we expect PFC = 6.8% not the 8% if SBM was the sole investor. Under this arrangment SBM’s cost of funding (in % terms) its effective 60% share of the joint project is the same as its stand alone cost of funds, as it should be.

An argument against raising the threshold above GBR is that this will effectively lower the miners’ cost of funds, the difference being borne by the Govt and hence us taxpayers. No wonder miners are arguing so vehemently for the threshold to be raised. In fact it can be shown that raising the threshold to 11%, as some propose, and using a GBR of 5.5% would effectively reduce the miners’ cost of funds by a whopping 3.67%! If you want a formula for the Miners’ Taxpayer Subsidy(MTS) it is: MTS = 2/3 x (Threshold – GBR) in terms of the miners’ funding cost discount (paid for by the taxpayers remember); or MTS = 40% x I x (Threshold – GBR) in $ terms. For the Koalaroo mine this would represent $22m of funding cost transferred from the mining company SBM to the taxpayer. That’s you and me. You don’t see that in their ads.

From the Govts perspective the advantage to them is that the investment does not sit on their balance sheet but the project company MWA’s and in effect SBM’s balance sheet. From a financial engineering point of view all this makes perfect sense. Having said that, it was precisely this sort of clever off-balance sheet flim-flammary that got Greece (and Lehman’s et al) in trouble. We need to make absolutely sure it is properly accounted for.

Update: Several commenters have pointed out the effect on mine financing of the RSPT. Specifically with the Govt backing 40% of any losses smaller stand-alone projects will find it easier to get project finance. As discussed above the funding cost will be lower with the Govt’s partial backing. The operating profit (so called EBITDA) of the project is unchanged so this makes them more, not less, viable. This is at odds with what the miners have been saying. Even existing projects with refinancing clauses in their loans should find it easy to convince their lenders to reduce their interest payments. For large global miners such as BHP-Billiton, who issue bonds, it will be harder to disentangle the Australian RSPT benefit to their overall cost of funds and hence spreads. But the market should over time price this in with lower spreads on their bonds. With a reduced cost of funds miners will be able to leverage their existing equity across more projects and make up for the 40% the Govt now takes out of individual profits (and losses) through the RSPT.

Update: Tom Albanese, CEO of Rio Tinto was on Inside Business on ABC on Sunday May 30. It is interesting that in arguing against the RSPT he referred to the unfairness of the Govt coming in as a 40% “silent partner”, and not about the GBR threshold. He clearly understands the true nature of the RSPT. While it was self-serving he emphasised (in my terminology) the determination of Investment or “I” for existing projects. Depreciation comes into it but some of these projects are decades old and it would an accountant’s dream/nightmare to work out the correct value of I to base the Govt’s GBR deduction on. He also questioned the “principle” (his word) of the Govt forcibly coming in as a “silent partner” on projects which are clearly profitable going forward, having survived to this point. After all they are not compensating mining companies for mining projects that failed in the past. I’m afraid I have to agree with this point, though I think it is more complex than I currently comprehend. It is good to see the RSPT being debated for once without the disinformation we have seen from less eloquent opponents. After all the Govt did say at the beginning that it was these sort of aspects of the RSPT they were prepared to negotiate on, not the 40% and not the GBR threshold.

UPDATE: Zebra looks at a fair value approach to the RSPT.

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