(Reuters) - BHP Billiton , the world's biggest mining company, said on Wednesday it wasnecessary to maintain investment in new projects even duringdownturns in commodities prices. BHP last month scrapped a five-year, $80 billion capital spendingplan, citing uncertain global economic conditions. That includedChina, where it supplies millions of tonnes of iron ore, copper,and other industrial raw materials. BHP Chief Executive Marius Kloppers singled out gas - currently ata low ebb - as a commodity that should grow in demand over themedium term due to a worldwide "shale, hydrocarbon revolution". An oversupply in the United States has led to the price of gasplunging from around $13 to around $2 for each 1000 cubic feetsince BHP acquired Petrohawk Energy and other shale interests for$17 billion last year. |
"It is quite often the case that an investment decision in aparticular commodity will be made in a part of the business cyclethat results in a low price environment for that particularcommodity, but the investment is made nevertheless in recognitionof the expected future demand and prices," Kloppers said incomments to a business forum in Perth, Australia. Slumping commodity prices in general and escalating costs havesqueezed cash flows, pushing BHP to join rival Rio Tinto in reconsidering the pace of their long-term expansion incountries such as Australia and Canada. The miner was planning to finance the expansion with its cashflows, which analysts forecast may fall 20 percent to around $24billion in the year ending June 30. BHP has long maintained that it is committed to keeping itssingle-A credit rating, another constraint on spending. As ofDecember, the company had net debt of $21.5 billion.
BHP shares have been on a near-uninterrupted decline this year,losing 20 percent in value since early February. Three major BHP projects are seen by analysts as vulnerable tosetbacks as markets soften: an outer harbour development at PortHedland in Western Australia crucial to its iron ore growth, theexpansion of its Olympic Dam copper and uranium mine in SouthAustralia, and its Jansen potash project in Canada. In Australia, where the company employs more than 35,000 people,Kloppers said labour allocation and rising costs associated with astrong Australian dollar were dulling the competitive edge of someprojects. Australia had turned from a low-cost to a high-cost operatingenvironment, he said.
Despite criticism from some shareholders, including its singlebiggest, BlackRock, over spending, BHP has given little hope toinvestors expecting that more discipline on major projects couldmean a fresh share buyback. "We share those concerns which have been widely voiced, that wewould certainly welcome a greater focus on capital managementinitiatives and a more circumspect approach to some of the items inthe capital pipeline," said Ben Lyons, who helps manage A$500million in funds at ATI Asset Management. BHP's challenge is to balance the long-term demand outlook withshort-term economic developments, Kloppers said. "Our ability to deliver robust financial performance is achievedthrough the consistent application of our strategy - by developingour high-quality diversified portfolio and maintaining ourcommitment to invest through the cycle," he said.
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