Funds to Go for BHP's Jugular If Miner Doesn't Deliver Goods

Updated on
  • Market to weigh returns, strategy as company reports Tuesday
  • Challenges remain on board renewal, potash spending: Tribeca

BHP's CEO on U.S. Shale, Earnings, China Outlook

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BHP Billiton Ltd.’s truce with activist investors led by billionaire Paul Singer won’t last long if the world’s biggest mining company doesn’t pump up returns and deliver on strategic reform in the wake of its expected bumper profit report this week.

Ken MacKenzie

Photographer: Brendon Thorne/Bloomberg

The naming in June of BHP’s youngest director Ken MacKenzie, 53, as chairman from next month has helped soothe disgruntled shareholders including Singer’s Elliott Management Corp., while continued demand growth in China for iron ore to coal is boosting prices, swelling earnings’ forecasts and raising expectations for higher payouts.

“They’ve got the most breathing space they’ve had in a long time,” Peter O’Connor, a Sydney-based analyst with Shaw and Partners Ltd., said by phone. “But if they mess up, the activists are going to be back on their jugular.”

After raising its stake in BHP’s London-traded shares to 5 percent, Elliott on Wednesday expressed confidence MacKenzie will heed investors’ calls to exit U.S. shale and tighten the producer’s approach on capital allocation. The increased holding, which under U.K. law allows the fund to call a company meeting, means it can “monitor BHP’s progress and hold it accountable for delivering results,” the fund said.

BHP is forecast to almost triple dividend payments as it reports an expected profit rebound Tuesday, following Rio Tinto Group and Fortescue Metals Group Ltd. in boosting returns. Perth-based Fortescue on Monday boosted dividend payments and said it may raise returns further this year amid higher prices.

Elliott, which manages more than $33 billion of assets, is regarded as one of the world’s most prolific activist investors, and is currently tussling with Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway Inc. over the firm’s offer for Texas’s largest power distributor. The fund has also shown it can be an enduring critic -- battling Argentina for 15 years over its debt default.

MacKenzie met investors globally in recent weeks to listen to concerns over the company’s performance that gathered pace after Elliott launched its campaign in April. Elliott and BHP declined to confirm whether he held talks with Singer’s New York-based fund.

Elliott argues BHP’s leadership has destroyed about $40 billion in value and wants it to enhance returns, refresh the board, simplify its corporate structure and overhaul its oil and gas unit. The company on Thursday approved a $2.5 billion copper mine expansion in Chile and the new chairman will lead deliberations on pending investments in growth projects from potash to oil.

“He’s taken views on board on his listening tour and he’s been well received,” said Andy Forster, senior investment officer at Argo Investments Ltd., which manages more than A$5 billion ($4 billion) and holds BHP’s Sydney-listed shares. “It’s amazing how quickly things can turn around. With a higher iron ore price, the mining company balance sheets are in a much better position.” Argo was represented in a meeting with MacKenzie, he said.

BHP’s underlying earnings in fiscal 2017 are forecast to jump sixfold to $7.3 billion, according to the average of 18 analysts’ forecasts surveyed by Bloomberg, after plunging last year to a 15-year low. The full-year dividend will rise to 88 cents a share, from 30 cents, according to the forecasts. BHP’s consensus estimated payout of about 60 percent of earnings, above its 50 percent minimum threshold, compares with Rio Tinto’s first-half, total returns of 75 percent, according to Macquarie Group Ltd.

To read a preview of BHP’s full-year earnings, click here

The producer could use the profit bonanza to announce a modest buy-back alongside a higher dividend and additional debt repayments, according to UBS Group AG. While BHP may be tempted to follow Rio in boosting returns, it’s unlikely to do so before MacKenzie’s arrival in his post next month, Credit Suisse Group AG said in a note Wednesday.

BHP advanced 1 percent to A$25.63 at 1:43 p.m. in Sydney trading Monday.

Shareholders are looking to MacKenzie to begin to outline plans for improvements when he makes a first scheduled public address at an annual meeting in London in October, according to Tribeca Investments Partners Pty. BHP continues to need to carry out a wider overhaul of its board and should defer plans to enter the potash market, according to the fund, which also met with the incoming chairman.

“We’re pretty bullish on the company, but bullish because of the prospect of change,” said Craig Evans, a Sydney-based portfolio manager at Tribeca, which in May called on BHP to sell the shale assets and overhaul its leadership. “One of the things that worries us is what their intentions are with potash -- we are not of the belief that they should be throwing money at it right now.”

The $12.8 billion Jansen potash project in Canada should be mothballed, according to a Deutsche Bank AG note Thursday. The company also should think twice about approving a $5 billion expansion of its Olympic Dam mine in Australia, Deutsche analysts including Sydney-based Paul Young wrote. The bank endorses BHP’s strategy on conventional oil -- though not shale -- and the longer-dated Resolution and Antamina copper projects in the U.S. and Peru.

“We want to see where the company is headed under the new leadership,” Tribeca’s Evans said. “They have an opportunity now to do a bit of self-help.”

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