Is Anglo Finally Getting Ready to Join Mining's Buyback Club?

(Bloomberg) -- Anglo American Plc remains the only giant miner not buying back shares, but that doesn’t mean it’s not thinking about it.

The world’s biggest producers, shunning growth and reluctant to launch a major new deal spree, have been handing record amounts of money back to shareholders in the recent years. Even Glencore Plc, once the most deal-hungry of the large miners, has decided that shareholder returns are the best use of its cash, announcing plans yesterday to repurchase at least $3 billion in stock this year.

So far, Anglo has focused instead on repairing its bruised balance sheet and investing in growth. Now, after a dramatic reduction in the company’s borrowings -- net debt dropped 37 percent last year alone -- returns have become a hot topic at the company.

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“It’s obviously a very active conversation and all options are open,” Chief Executive Officer Mark Cutifani said in an interview with Bloomberg TV. “They are active conversations, as you’d expect them to be at this stage in the cycle.”

Anglo was among the worst hit by the collapse in commodity prices in 2015 and some investors feared for the future of the century-old miner. Since then, the company has dramatically improved its business, helped in part by resurgent commodity prices, and cut borrowings by more than $10 billion in just three years.

Yet while Anglo has reinstated its dividend, it’s so far shied away from delivering the sort of blockbuster returns seen from larger rivals Rio Tinto Group and BHP Group. Part of the reason was a more distressed balance sheet, but it’s also been more willing to spend on growth. The company last year approved a $5 billion copper mine in Peru, albeit with a Japanese partner to cut the cost and risk.

Even with the Peruvian project, Anglo has got room to increase returns to shareholders. The company reported adjusted profit of $3.24 billion on Thursday, beating the average analyst estimate of $3.06 billion. Its $2.8 billion of net debt was lower than expected.

“Anglo American’s progression back into a world-class miner continues,” said Tyler Broda, an analyst at RBC Capital Markets. “The potential for incremental cash returns at Anglo is also becoming a reality and should be in greater focus over the coming 12 months.”

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