Tax on Commodity Profits Could Postpone Scarcity

With the Great Recession, the red-hot commodities market has cooled, but that may not last long as the era of scarcity nips at the heels.

One of the world's top mineral holders – Australia – is proposing a tax on "super profits" of mining companies, or profits beyond what's needed for reinvestment.

The proposal signals a new backdrop for commodities, with far-reaching consequences for resource use, foreign trade and investment, and the global power balance. Irrespective of all arguments, such a tax would change relative prices in favor of commodities and against manufactured goods.

Norway already has such a tax, it's been on the agenda in Canada and some states of the US, and China contemplates testing the water as the era of scarcities takes over from the era of plenty. However, Australia is among the top 10 countries worldwide in production of 13 minerals –ranging from common iron ore to niobium, a superconductor when lowered to cryogenic temperatures and relied on for scientific breakthroughs such as the Large Hadron Collider. In the oligopolistic market for minerals, Australia is potential price setter, market leader and trendsetter.

The tax triggers political and economic arguments about tax policies, tax reform, income distribution and effects on how mining companies may reallocate activities to avoid paying the tax.

Resource-rich countries would benefit and worldwide efforts to conserve resources would be more profitable. Both effects are a turnaround from more than 200 years of downward pressure on commodity prices relatively to manufactured goods that benefited manufacturing countries and encouraged waste of resources to save the more – relatively – costly manpower.

The emergence of China and India as manufacturing countries increases demand, changing the established supply-demand equation in favor of supply. Even with more efficient technology, the pendulum swings in favor of higher prices thus for the first time auguring steadily better terms of trade for commodity-exporting countries.

For the long term, this might be exactly what the world needs. Higher commodity prices would spur an intensified, maybe even frantic development of production methods that reduce use of commodities. Hitherto we have measured productivity as production per man hour because manpower was scarce. In the future, we may measure productivity as the ability to squeeze more output out of one unit of input conserving as much as possible of what will be regarded as the scarce production factor – resources.

With luck, rising commodity prices would work their way through the system and through the pricing mechanism, reduce deterioration of the environment and boost efforts to slow climate changes. Global negotiations have not been up to the task, tabling not-so-workable administrative, even bureaucratic schemes based upon country quotas.

To ensure conservation, countries should put the burden – and true costs – on the ultimate consumer, regardless of where consumption takes place. And a tax on mining would help to accomplish this.

In the industrial era, the era of plenty, the game was about customs duties, and negotiators exchanged gifts called concessions – "You lower your customs duty, and I'll lower mine."

In the era of scarcities, distribution of benefits will be replaced by burden sharing.

To reduce pollution and stop climate change, to conserve oil/gas and water, to use commodities more efficiently and sparingly, the challenge becomes how to make cuts in resources and distribute these cuts without disrupting fundamental competitive patterns driving the global distribution of labor. This augurs a new way of conducting business that most politicians have not fully grasped, as many still hope for a return to the more attractive system of distribution of benefits.

Two groups of countries will emerge as winners:

First, those that realize what is happening and consequently switch to a new economic model and production methods focusing upon the idea of how to squeeze more output out of one unit of input. This is not only a question of economic policies and energy conservation, but requires a total restructuring of how a country or a society operates with repercussions on all societal sectors The educational system will be in the forefront as teaching needs to tune into this phenomenon and make sure students understand and can apply new principles as they enter economic life.

Second, the countries exporting commodities, raw materials and energy that recognize they must husband these resources carefully over the coming decades. Under the current economic model – no longer sustainable – the industrial countries set a price for manufacturers looking for optimal economic gain, and the commodity-exporting countries look for the optimal commodity price. The difference, however, is that manufacturing countries wanted to sell to create jobs, and a low price to stimulate consumption was the answer.

Commodity-exporting countries are aware that they sit on top of a resource base that ultimately will be depleted, which explains why their optimal price will be high instead of low. A super tax is attractive, providing these nations with a tool to step in and influence price in an upwards direction.

Manufacturing countries will try to resist this tidal change. The first battlefield will be found inside the global trading system. They will try to enact rules – postulating that free trade is at stake – giving them influence over the behavior of commodity-exporting countries. They may go so far as to try to outlaw resource taxes. In the same vein, they will try to get or keep ownership of mining companies and licenses to exploit resources, even buy geographical areas having resources to channel the windfall back to their own coffers.

They may succeed for a while, but not for long as realities win over formalities. Then they will work in earnest to introduce technology-saving commodities – the new concept of productivity – and adjust their domestic economy by tax systems and other instruments available to rush new production methods into use.

The losers will be those countries not having commodities or late in understanding what's going on.

Interestingly, China is trying – at least for the moment – to play both cards. The Chinese government is looking at a resource tax for the north-western part of the country while at the same time launching an almost gigantic financial effort to step up use of sustainable energy. It's doubtful whether China will win this race against time in a short-term scenario, but the prospect for a new Chinese economic model taking the changed environment into account offers potential for the long term, not the least because nobody else has started. Also giving China a good start is its share of world savings and funds to invest in the competition that this new economic model will entail.

Several global heavyweights like China and the US are both manufacturing and mineral-producing countries, with an interest in securing a permanent supply of minerals at reasonable stable prices, which could help move the tax forward. China's exposure to environmental degradation pushes policymakers in that direction. The US, accustomed to ample resources and having implemented the economic model and transportation infrastructure based on old premises, may be less ready. To a certain extent, Europeans may for a variety of reasons – tighter space, fewer resources – be ready for a tax.

Regardless, times have changed. As the global population grows and demands more comforts, as resources decline, new economic patterns are thrust upon the world. Those nations that come to grips with this stark realization early could fare best.

Joergen Oerstroem Moeller is a visiting senior research fellow, Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore, and adjunct professor with Singapore Management University and the Copenhagen Business School. This is reprinted with the permission of YaleGlobal, the magazine of the Yale Center for the Study of Globalization.