Chinalco, Rio, BHP, Ford, company tax and foreign investment

Crikey! rang today wanting to publish something developed from yesterday’s post Costello 1, Keating 0. I obliged. Readers of the first may find it a bit repetitive, but I reproduce it below as a matter of record and also because it has a few additional thoughts on foreign investment after discussing Chinalco and Rio.  In addition to supplying the headline, Crikey! corrected my punctuation in the last sentence (re-corrected in this organ of record) and has been duly reported to the RSPCA (Royal Society for the Protection of Cruelty to Ambiguity).

Costello trumps Keating in Rio stoush

Should we allow Chinalco to buy Rios resources assets? Peter Costello made some telling points in yesterdays SMH comparing his own insistence on keeping BHPs headquarters in Australia with Paul Keatings preparedness to let Britains Rio effectively take over Australias CRA in 1995.

Its easy for non-economists to object to foreign takeovers. Who’d want “our” assets owned by foreigners? But economists have a tougher time of it. Our discipline says that everything comes at a price — in this case less call on foreign resources and usually less investment in the activity at hand.

Trouble is, in order to try to compare both costs and benefits, economists leave so much out of the picture that we rarely get beyond general principles. As Costello implied in his column, Treasury doesnt advise Treasurers to block foreign takeovers. Ever.

In a world in which (as is becoming increasingly evident) we are painfully ignorant about how the economy really works and how to manage it, the Treasury approach is at least clear and it may be the best we can manage. But I think Costello’s call was the right one in the circumstances.

The most important question is “how much did Australian BHP shareholders give up — in terms of a lower takeover price — in order to keep BHP’s headquarters here?” Who knows? Not me. Not Treasury or the Treasurer of the time. But . . . Id guess “not much” if anything.

And the gains? Well I wouldn’t want to prevent all takeovers that would end up seeing a headquarters relocate offshore. Indeed one might want to prevent very few. But if one were going to prevent any, it’s hard to think of a stronger case than one where we’ll have one of the largest firms in the relevant industry where we have a long established, resource rent backed, comparative and competitive advantage. Ditto for two of the largest companies in the same industry. But as Costello pointed out, his predecessor kissed CRA goodbye.

But most of my other guesses strongly favour foreign investment. I can’t see the harm in letting Rio’s Australian resources assets pass to the Chinese (though the fact that Chinalco is state owned gives me pause) and its hard to think of a better time to allow foreigners more access to our (inflated?) real estate market.

If we want more investment, any general favours we do investors should be for foreign rather than domestic investors (there are so many more of them so our favours will buy more investment). So we should ditch dividend imputation favours to domestic shareholders and use the $20 billion it costs to cut company tax to 19% putting some desperately needed upward pressure on share prices.

And we’ve had some lousy foreign owners of assets. Im thinking particularly of Ford Motor Company — going nowhere here or back home in Dearborn, Michigan — focused like Mitsubishi was, on minimising risk and investment all the while panhandling for government handouts until the inevitable day of departure.

Yet their assets — the know-how to design, build and export a complete large, rear wheel drive car — could be seriously valuable to some aspiring, entrepreneurial, investment ready Chinese firm already scoping out its small and medium car offerings to the rest of the world and able to re-badge a large car off the shelf. Assets ready to Cherry pick.

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John Passant
12 years ago

Nicholas

I think Ken Henry is a fan of national neutrality (ie encouraging investment for example in Australian enterprises) and so will want to keep dividend imputation. Maybe he will recommend in his “root and branch” origami tax review some variant of the Board of Tax recommendation in the Review of International Tax Arrangements to give a fixed credit (20 per cent of foreign income?) to companies earning foreign income and paying it to Australian shareholders. (I don’t remember the exact details, I’m sorry.) The cost them from memory was going to eb over $600 million. I assume now it might be close to $1 bn.

Cutting the company tax rate and abolishing dividend imputation won’t encourage super funds or mum and dad investors (much overrated in my view in economic, but not political terms.) Unless of course we further reduce the tax rate on Super funds’ earnings,so super funds will argue,t o compensate them for the loss of excess credits and to maintain ‘relativities’.