Rio Tinto Group is delivering on a promise to reward investors as it emerges from an industry-wide downturn by paying out a bigger-than-expected dividend and announcing a surprise $500 million share buyback.
Last yearâ€™s 81 percent surge in iron ore prices helped the worldâ€™s second-biggest mining company report its first gain in annual profit since 2013, exceeding analystsâ€™ expectations. The company is focusing on generating cash for investors, helped by recent asset sales, Chief Financial Officer Chris Lynch said in an interview from London. The shares climbed. â€œWhat a difference a year makes,â€ Peter Oâ€™Connor, an analyst at Shaw & Partners Ltd. in Sydney, said in a note. â€œItâ€™s been a long grind back from the global financial abyss that Rio slumped into. But it certainly looks and feels like the â€˜old schoolâ€™ Rio swagger is back.â€
The global mining industry is rebounding from a downturn that forced some of the top producers to sell assets, cut costs and rein in spending after years of over-investment bloated balance sheets and left markets oversupplied. Iron ore, Rioâ€™s main profit driver, jumped last year as Chinese stimulus supported local steel output, leading to better demand for overseas ore. â€œThe buyback is a statement of intent,â€ Lynch said. â€œWeâ€™ve said we would return cash to shareholders. Weâ€™ve done that to the top of the dividend range and we had some spare capacity. Iâ€™m quite comfortable about that.â€
Underlying full-year profit rose 12 percent to $5.1 billion in 2016, London-based Rio said in a statement Wednesday. That beat the $4.75 billion average estimate of analysts compiled by Bloomberg. While the full-year dividend fell 21 percent to 170 cents a share, it was at the top of Rioâ€™s payout range of 40 to 60 percent of earnings under a new policy introduced last year. That also exceeded the average estimate of 136 cents in the Bloomberg survey.
â€œUnder almost any situation, theyâ€™re going to generate a significant amount of cash again this year and so thereâ€™s going to be increased pressure on them to do something with that cashflow,â€ Richard Knights, a mining analyst at Liberum Capital Ltd. in London, said by phone. â€œTheyâ€™ve got the best balance sheet in the sector.â€
Rioâ€™s net debt fell 30 percent to $9.6 billion at the end of last year. Lynch said Wednesday the company is aiming to further cut borrowings this year.
â€œRio is in good shape today,â€ Chief Executive Officer Jean Sebastien Jacques said on a call with reporters. â€œWe have kept our promises. We have delivered cost savings. We have strengthened the quality of our portfolio. We are investing for the long term and at the same time we have strengthened our balance sheet.â€
The company is in a â€œstrong position to deliver superior shareholder returns,â€ he added. Rio said it will purchase $500 million of UK-listed shares throughout this year. The stock rebounded from a seven-year low to rally 60 percent in London in 2016. It rose 1.9 percent to 3,501.50 pence by 9:11 a.m. in London, taking this yearâ€™s gain to 11 percent. The shares reached an almost four-year high in late January. Prices for iron ore delivered to China are near a two-year high. The main question for Rio and competitors including BHP Billiton Ltd. and Vale SA is whether the rally can be sustained.
â€œThe government has implemented stimulus packages for some time now and we believe they will continue, especially in the context of the leadership conference scheduled for the fourth quarter in Beijing,â€ Jacques told reporters. â€œThe property and construction market is doing pretty well. As far as China is concerned, we do not have a big issue today.â€ Banks including JPMorgan Chase & Co., Goldman Sachs Group Inc. and Citigroup Inc. are seeking to gauge how easily new low-cost supply will be absorbed and if higher prices will prompt additional output. There are signs that Chinese customers are well stocked. Inventories at Chinese ports reached a record last week and shipments from Australiaâ€™s Port Hedland hit an all-time high for the month of January.
Shortly before taking over the CEO role from Sam Walsh in July, Jacques outlined his vision to grow the company through investing in existing projects and expanding profitable operations, rather than focusing on deals. Speaking on Wednesday he said his approach to M&A was unchanged, adding that the projects they are interested in buying are not for sale.