Chemical imbalance

It is easy to castigate Israel Chemicals Ltd. as ungrateful, extortionist and greedy. After a series of painful legal and regulatory wallops, ICL threatens to suspend at least a billion dollars of investment in this country.

May 21, 2014 21:21
3 minute read.
The Dead Sea.

Dead Sea 370. (photo credit: REUTERS)

It is easy to castigate Israel Chemicals Ltd. as ungrateful, extortionist and greedy. After a series of painful legal and regulatory wallops, ICL threatens to suspend at least a billion dollars of investment in this country.

It is equally tempting to laud the interministerial committee headed by Prof. Eytan Sheshinski for proposing that ICL’s operating profit be subjected to a 42 percent windfall surcharge. There seems to be inherent fairness in slapping higher taxes and royalties on firms that exploit natural resources that ought to be regarded as belonging to all of us.

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By every yardstick of elementary social justice, the Sheshinski Committee and all regulators with whom ICL clashed of late appear in the right and ICL does not.

But this is where reality rudely barges in. Economics, especially in our globalized marketplace, cannot necessarily nor even most of the time be conducted according to our precepts of probity. Sadly, most experiments to repress market forces and replace them with ostensibly high-minded doctrines have failed.

This, despite the fact that ICL enjoyed truly egregious tax breaks over the decades that left it paying some of the lowest tax rates anywhere. This can be cogently portrayed as enriching the tycoons at the expense of householders.

That said, ICL is big and powerful. It is the source of some 35 percent of the world’s bromine as well as much of its potash and phosphoric acid. And that is hardly all. The conglomerate, now under Israel Corporation (i.e. the Ofer family) control, which started out as state-owned and primarily extracted minerals from the Dead Sea, is a manufacturing and export giant internationally. Though most of its raw materials are excavated and extracted in Israel, it has sizable operations in Spain, Ethiopia, South America, China and the UK.

It is not incapable of directing new investment outside Israel. Its incentives to do just that are cumulative.

Last month, the health minister recommended that all phosphate mining, even on a pilot basis, be banned at ICL’s Sde Brir mining site in the Negev for fear of its affect on residents in nearby Arad. ICL responded by ordering the phased shutdown of its Rotem Amfert unit, a move that might eventually cost 8,200 jobs in the Negev where ICL is the biggest employer.

ICL suffered another blow after the Sheshinski recommendations were published. The state handily won the first round of arbitration on royalties for ICL’s past use of minerals extracted in this country and on derivative products. This could cost ICL heavily but undeniably redresses the balance between what is good for ICL and what is good for the public.

From ICL’s vantage point, this caps its profitability in Israel and thereby pushes it overseas. Things will come to a head in 2030 when ICL’s Dead Sea potash extraction concession expires.

All this plays against a background of an increasingly felt economic slowdown, with its looming dangers of joblessness. ICL has been a huge and stable employer and it would seem counterproductive to tangle with it.

The prospect of collecting increased tax revenue might be dramatically offset by losing investment and triggering mass layoffs when Israel should lure investors rather than drive them away.

To be sure, there are other opinions.

Some analysts are confident that ICL is bluffing, that it would never part from its Dead Sea home base and that it cannot dismiss thousands of employees under the rules of the game in Israel. The Dead Sea operations remain profitable, even if ICL will no longer continue to benefit from excessively valuable distortions under the Law for the Encouragement of Capital Investments. ICL, it is added, has a long history of making threats. It has aggressively used intimidation to get its way.

This may well be so. The question is how far can we afford to go to test this hypothesis. There are no patriotic loyalties or sentiments in big business. It is a delicate balancing act. An excess of caution now is better than much regret later.

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