Trading in the shadow of commodities giants
Those who control commodity trades seems to be doing better out of the worldwide mining boom than those who own the resources. There is a need to address injustices in commodities trading.
When it comes to the mining boom, Australia and Switzerland appear to be at opposite ends of the spectrum. While Australians may own the territory where resources are found and mined, exploitation of these resources, especially by resource trading companies, is happening in Switzerland and few would or could dispute the fact that the real riches stemming from this exploitation have lately gone to the latter rather than the former.
Ramming home this point was an ad I found on the web for Swiss wealth management company Alpenrose, which offers lines of credit secured against shares held by Glencore employees.
Glencore controls about a quarter of the world's commodity flows, according to figures cited by Stephen Grenville, but there is a lack of transparency around some of its trading activity, which falls outside US and European Union regulations for the disclosure of trading data.
An editorial in the Financial Times, 'Follow the Money', called for more transparency in commodity trading and the European Commission has proposed adding a 'publish what you buy/sell' to the 'publish what you pay' rule.
This, among other measures, would help stop the rampant corruption often found in the trading of commodities, especially from emerging markets.
It is clear that individual countries and 'the market' do not, and will not, do the job of regulating mining and resource flows. Note how both failed over the past five years in regard to banks and money flows. There is a glaring need to compel owners and those exploiting the mines, both state controlled and private, to agree to basic international rules. A sort of Basel I and II style regulatory framework for mining and trading, if you will.
I know how explosive the subject of control can be in Australia. Treasurer Wayne Swan's line about a 'handful of vested interests (and) their own self-interest' certainly did not endear him to some of Australia's mining magnates. My own contribution to the debate, 'Australia, the global commodities cop?', drew only two comments, but muscular ones, 'typical European socialist thinking' being among the nicer criticisms thrown my way.
Despite this, let me wade in a little deeper. My own experience in Australia is that a large mining company such as Xstrata has a pretty solid record as a locally anchored 'good corporate citizen'. Some might question this, pointing to disputes with unions at Hunter Valley coal mines or court cases in Queensland regarding emissions from a lead mine. But by and large, I got the impression that Xstrata executives mean what they say when speaking about complementing their local business contract with a social contract.
However, at a recent Australian-Swiss gathering in Zug, the world HQ of Xstrata, the company's chief executive, in an otherwise solid if predictable presentation, showed a graph that purportedly showed Australia was taxing mining companies at a much higher rate than China.
Come on! First, Xstrata does not, as far as I know, do any mining in China, so how would he know the size of the levies, official and unofficial, due to authorities and interests there? Second, such a graph leaves aside the political risk factors, evidently more present in emerging countries than in established democracies like Australia, such as the threat of expropriation faced by Glencore (Xstrata's future spouse) in Bolivia.
Not a lot of countries have major interests on all sides of the thorny but ever-more urgent question of how commodity riches should be distributed for the best of mankind, but on this Australia and Switzerland are not on opposite ends the spectrum.
Dr Daniel Woker is the former Swiss Ambassador to Australia, Singapore and Kuwait and now a senior lecturer at Switzerland's University of St Gallen.
Originally published by The Lowy Institute publication The Interpreter. Reproduced with permission.