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Dividends key 'battleground' for major miners amid rebounding global growth

In another week dominated by earnings, mining majors BHP Billiton Group, Glencore Plc and Anglo American Plc reported massive profits as rebounding global growth pushed commodity prices to multiyear highs in 2017.

Accordingly, the three companies promised higher dividends, a reward for shareholders who stuck around during the commodities crisis of 2015.

"Dividends have clearly become a key 'battleground' for the major miners, with investors now refocused on returns to shareholders," Bernstein Research wrote in a Feb. 20 report.

BHP hiked its interim dividend to 55 U.S. cents per share for the first six months of its fiscal 2018, compared to 40 cents per share the year before, despite a 37% drop in net profit, which totaled US$2.02 billion after taking a US$1.83 billion hit related to recent U.S. tax reforms.

"Following others in the space, BHP have declared returns to shareholders above their stated minimum policy of 50% of earnings, with the 55 cents per share total representing 72% of underlying earnings," the Bernstein team said.

However, BHP's overall performance fell below expectations.

Deutsche Bank cut its ratings on BHP's London-listed stock to "hold" from "buy" and reduced its target price to £17 per share from £19 per share. "The value and returns strategy remains compelling but appears priced in," the team wrote.

The analyst pointed out that the mining giant's half-year underlying earnings were 2% below the bank's estimates and 5% below consensus, as a result of higher costs for metallurgical coal, copper and iron ore, while also noting that both fiscal 2018 and medium-term unit cost targets now appear challenging.

Deutsche Bank also cut its EPS forecasts for BHP by 11% to 12% for the 2019-2020 fiscal year after increasing costs estimates, which resulted in decreases in the price target and rating.

Paul Young, an analyst at the bank, set a A$31.50 price target on BHP's Australia-listed stock, compared to the Feb. 22 closing price of A$30.20 per share.

Citigroup analysts downgraded BHP's London stock to "neutral" from "buy" while maintaining a target price of £15.50 per share, citing weaker-than-expected results and net debt still lagging the targeted range.

"Productivity gains were always going to be a challenge due to the major shutdown of Olympic Dam, but were made worse by the Queensland Coal issues to drive a negative US$500 million impact," Citigroup analysts said. "With Olympic Dam back up and three Escondida concentrators running BHP should get back close to square by the end of fiscal 2018, which will require the US$2 billion productivity gains targeted to be all delivered in fiscal 2019."

Glencore also boosted its 2017 dividend, to 20 U.S. cents per share from 7 cents the year before, after net income for the year surged 319% to US$5.78 billion. CEO Ivan Glasenberg called the annual results the company's "strongest on record, driven by our leading Marketing and Industrial asset businesses."

Commenting on the results, Bernstein said it is a "mission accomplished," as the Swiss commodities trader was able to bring its net debt down to the lower end of its target at US$10.6 billion, representing US$5 billion of deleveraging during 2017.

The US$2.9 billion dividend represents a variable component of US$1.9 billion, or 36% of industrial free cash flow, well above the 25% minimum of the dividend policy.

"We believe that perhaps one of the key things holding Glencore back in investors' minds is the fact that the dividend policy currently on offer is not as attractive as those of the other major miners: US$1 billion fixed underpinned by the marketing business plus 25% of industrial (mining) free cash flow," the Bernstein team wrote.

Despite deleveraging bringing its net debt down to US$4.5 billion, significantly below Bernstein's expectations, Anglo American declared a "robust" dividend of 54 U.S. cents per share for the second half of 2017.

The company increased the dividend from 48 cents in the first half, for a total dividend of US$1.02 per share for 2017, in line with its dividend policy of 40% of underlying earnings, which the company introduced in the first half. It did not pay a dividend in 2016.

"Anglo American released another good set of financial results this morning," Bernstein said Feb. 22. "Clearly the focus has been on the impressive deleveraging, but the dividend, which was resumed earlier than expected at first-half results, is still robust."

Anglo American unit Anglo American Platinum Ltd. recently reinstated its dividend after six years, announcing a payout of 3.49 South African rand per share for 2017 following a surge of over three times in net profit.

Similarly, Newmont Mining Corp. on Feb. 21 declared a fourth-quarter 2017 dividend of 14 U.S. cents per share, nearly three times higher than the dividend of 5 cents per share announced the year before.

In line with a new capital management policy, Northern Star Resources Ltd. lifted its interim dividend by 50% to 4.5 Australian cents per share fully franked.

The dividend boost came amid the company's net profit sliding 7% year over year to A$79.1 million in the first half of its fiscal 2018. The company attributed the decline to reduced activity at its Paulsens gold mine in Western Australia.

Pan American Silver Corp. increased its quarterly cash dividend 40% to 3.5 U.S. cents per share, after net earnings in the fourth quarter of 2017 more than doubled year over year.

The company posted quarterly net earnings of US$49.7 million, or 32 cents per share, which included a US$60.2 million reversal of a 2015 impairment on the Morococha mine in Peru, up from net earnings of US$22.3 million, or 14 cents per share, the previous year.

ASX-listed Alumina Ltd. boosted its final dividend for 2017 by 200% year over year to 9.3 U.S. cents per share, after swinging to a net profit of US$339.8 million in 2017 from a net loss of US$30.2 million in 2016.

This brings the company's total 2017 dividend to 13.5 cents, up 125% year over year.

London-listed gold miner Hochschild Mining Plc increased its dividend by 42% year over year to 1.965 cents from 1.38 cents per share, despite its 2017 profit attributable to shareholders declining to US$41.6 million from US$45.6 million in 2016.

Elsewhere, Argonaut's James Wilson initiated coverage on ASX-listed Explaurum Ltd. with a "speculative buy" rating and a target price of 21 Australian cents per share, compared to the Feb. 22 closing price of 12 cents per share.

The company aims to start construction at its flagship Tampia gold project in Western Australia in the third quarter, targeting first production by mid-2019.

A November 2017 scoping study on Tampia outlined production averaging 84,000 ounces of gold per year over the life of the mine with all-in sustaining costs of A$888/oz and initial CapEx pegged at A$105 million.

According to the research report, Explaurum trades on undemanding metrics with a fully funded equity value/production forecast of A$1,650/oz compared to emerging producers such as Dacian Gold Ltd. at A$2,900/oz and Gold Road Resources Ltd. at A$2,700/oz.

"We argue that further exploration success and a push forward with development options will see this discount unwind," Wilson said.