First Quantum Minerals Ltd. FM-T is nearing an agreement in a protracted and bitter tax dispute with Panama, thanks in part to a new negotiator brought in at the last minute by the big Canadian copper miner.
In the latest round of talks between First Quantum and the government of Panama, a fresh face among the Canadian delegation has made a big difference, said Ebrahim Asvat, a member of the government’s negotiating team. Mr. Asvat said Ryan MacWilliam, the chief financial officer of First Quantum, has taken a direct, getting-down-to-brass-tacks approach, which the Panamanian contingent has warmed to.
“He has been taking control of the negotiations and he has been very practical and very forward-moving in respect of trying to close this matter,” he added.
Mr. Asvat said in an interview that three sticking points remain but all are expected to be resolved within a week or so.
Within the next day or so, legal rights that would protect First Quantum against early termination of the agreement, as well as how much the Canadian miner will pay in taxes for 2022, should be firmed up, he added. The final issue concerns depletion rights, which currently allow First Quantum to receive a tax deduction after it extracts copper from the ground.
Panama is pushing to eliminate the deduction entirely but ultimately may settle for a compromise. Either way, Mr. Asvat said, the months-long tax fracas that has knocked the wind out of First Quantum’s share price is nearing a conclusion.
“Between this week, or next week, we should sort out all the pending issues,” he said.
As part of a tentative agreement reached in 2022, the Canadian copper miner said it was willing to pay a minimum of US$375-million a year in taxes, about eight times what it had been paying. The floor payments were contingent on copper trading at elevated levels and the company hitting certain production metrics.
However, a final agreement proved to be elusive, and late last year Panama ordered the Cobre Panama mine to close after the Vancouver-based miner missed a deadline to sign the new tax pact.
Located 120 kilometres west of Panama City, Cobre Panama is First Quantum’s biggest operation, constructed at a cost in excess of US$6-billion and in production since 2019. The company has so far paid only small amounts of tax to Panama, owing to generous credits that had been negotiated earlier.
The mine has remained open while it appeals the government order, but Panama recently rolled out additional measures that have put severe pressure on First Quantum, such as preventing it from exporting copper. Last week the company indicated it would soon be forced to halt production entirely at the mine.
With an agreement now in sight, it appears the company will be able to avoid that scenario, much to the relief of investors. Shares in First Quantum closed up 3.4 per cent on the Toronto Stock Exchange on Wednesday to close at $30.81 apiece.
Panama has joined scores of other resource-rich countries – including Mexico, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Pakistan, Peru, Bolivia, Chile, Zambia, Tanzania and Australia – in pushing through, or at least pushing for, tax increases and bigger ownership stakes in mines as metals prices have traded near record highs.