Indonesia's miners face an uncertain future

An evolving regulatory framework for the country's minerals industry could threaten its profitability and stifle investment.

The five-year surge in commodity prices has been kind to Indonesia. Certainly, there were shocks to both prices and volumes in late 2008, but the wealth created by the country's primary exports during that period has been sufficient to sustain its economic growth and underpin domestic consumption.

It has also given support to a resurgence of nationalist sentiment, reflected in legislation and the formation and implementation of new regulations. Understandably for a country that is growing more affluent and catching up with its regional neighbours, Indonesia no longer intends to be simply a repository for other countries' raw materials inputs. Instead, it plans to exploit its resources for its own burgeoning industrial and manufacturing base.

Also, as Indonesia's energy policy moves toward greater domestic coal usage, producers will be forced to negotiate new contracts at official prices with local buyers.

Earlier this year, the government said that it will ban exports of raw commodities by 2014. Miners would need to build smelters to add value to exports. For instance, ferronickel rather than the raw metal would be exported and coal would have to be blended to reach 5,600 kilo calories before it could be sold abroad.

The catalyst for the shift was the 2009 Mining Law which replaced the "Contract of Work" and "Coal Contract of Work" system in use since 1967. The aim is to stimulate the development of the country's mineral resources and help support broader-based economic growth. The 2009 act provides a basic framework, but government regulations from later that year, and in 2010, provided some clarity and are now expected to gather pace.

However, there are worries that the law will backfire and that these regulations will stifle future investment and damage the existing operations of Indonesia's miners.

"Indonesia's mining industry is undergoing a regulatory overhaul that is likely to weaken the operating and financial performance of domestic mining companies," warned Standard and Poor's Xavier Jean.

Standard & Poor’s argued in a report issued this summer that besides increasing operating uncertainty for Indonesian mining companies, the new regulations may also make the industry less attractive to foreign investors.

For instance, the mining law states that several government and ministerial regulations will need to be issued before its impact can be understood. There are also conflicts between mining operations and forestry regulations, overlapping authority between central and local governments and contradictory tax rules. Indeed, "a more clear legal framework would give investors more assurance about the predictability of policies," agreed Wellian Wiranto, Asia economist at HSBC, in a July research report. But he said he hoped that the evolving regulations "will only be implemented after intense feedback from industry players".

Domestic market obligations
It is likely some of the feedback will be about who bears an inordinate share of the burden. Some market participants note, for example, that the provisions on domestic market obligation (DMO) and reference pricing, where miners must sell a portion of the production domestically at a minimum reference price before exporting, will affect coal producers more than metals producers because the domestic demand for coal is higher than for metal ore. Given current and expected domestic coal consumption trends, Standard & Poor's estimated that the DMO could average 20% to 25% of the industry's annual coal production during the next five years, although this proportion could increase above 30% as Indonesia shifts its domestic energy mix from oil to coal during the next decade.

DMO and minimum reference price regulations could increase uncertainty about revenues and cash flows. If reference prices are set too low, it could lower the revenues for producers (given the lack of a domestic competitive market), reduce margins, and increase opportunity costs. If they are too high, they could hurt the government-owned electricity generator Perusahaan Listrik Negara (PLN), the largest domestic coal buyer, and hence make coal producers vulnerable to customer concentration risk.

Worst affected among coal miners will be those with small domestic sales because they will need to negotiate local contracts from scratch and rapidly increase local sales to meet regulatory requirements. Bayan Resources, with 2% of domestic sales last year, could fall into this category, and even Bumi Resources, whose domestic sales have been historically around 10%, might be exposed.

Meanwhile, miners now negotiating off-take contracts with PLN will be vulnerable to price risk. For example, Bukit Asam generated 64% of its revenues domestically in 2010 and is currently in negotiation for an off-take contract with PLN for 265 million tonnes of coal during the next 20 years.

Although the mining law grandfathers existing coal contracts of work, these new regulations will apply to both existing contracts and prospective mining investments. As S&P's Jean pointed out: "the provisions on DMO and reference pricing [and] domestic market processing...are likely to have the greatest impact on the Indonesian mining sector."

But, Standard & Poor's expects the government will take a few years "to calibrate the pricing system and balance producers' and consumers' interests", based on the experience from the implementation of oil and gas DMO in Indonesia. The regulatory environment is still evolving, after all, so when rules are ultimately enforced they tend to look different from their original forms.

A salutary warning
The allusion to Indonesia's oil industry is pertinent, however. The country was a substantial oil exporter until turning into an importer in 2004, and then finally leaving Opec in 2009.

Analysts blame a lack of investment in oil exploration. In the 1990s, Indonesia pumped out more than 1.5 million barrels a day; this year the average daily output is 916,000, well below the government's target of 970,000, according to HSBC's Wiranto. The World Bank calculated that investment in oil exploration is now less than half the $1 billion spent each year before the Asian financial crisis in the late 1990s.

Wiranto pointed out that Indonesia's resource riches are simply not matched by investment conditions in the commodity sector. He referred to a survey of international mining companies by the Fraser Institute that found that the "perceived lack of transparency in the legal process and the risk of regulatory duplication and inconsistencies continue to act as deterrents to more substantial investment".

Indonesia's production-to-reserves ratio for coal and copper is half that of its competitors (Australia, Chile and China), according to the World Bank. A poor investment environment could mean that the country's proven mineral resources are actually vastly underestimated.

So, it would be a pity if regulatory uncertainty and onerous obligations again prevent Indonesia from fully exploiting the benefits of its natural riches. Especially, given the laws were introduced to spur growth not cripple an industry.

This story was first published in the September 2011 issue of FinanceAsia magazine.

¬ Haymarket Media Limited. All rights reserved.
Share our publication on social media
Share our publication on social media