Rio's share price has jumped since Sam Walsh took over. Photo: Jim Rice
Mining powerhouse Rio Tinto has reported a net loss of $US2.99 billion ($2.9 billion) - the first in its history - dragged down by well-flagged impairments against its aluminium and Mozambique coal assets.
After one-offs, Rio’s operating profit exceeded expectations, reporting underlying earnings of $US9.3 billion ($9 billion) in 2012, above the consensus of analyst estimates of $US9.1 billion.
We see the positive momentum in the fourth quarter of last year being sustained into 2013 with Chinese GDP growth returning to above 8 per cent.
Rio lifted its annual dividend to $US1.67 a share, up 15 per cent on the previous year, including a 94.5 cent final dividend, up from 91 cents a year earlier.
The miner said the 2012 underlying financial results, down significantly on the $US15.5 billion reported in 2011, reflected record iron ore production and shipments and a second half recovery in copper volumes.
Iron ore dominated the results delivering $US9.2 billion in net earnings, down from $US13.3 billion a year ago. Copper delivered $US1.1 billion in net earnings followed by energy ($US283 million), diamonds and other minerals ($119 million) and aluminium ($3 million).
One lead broking analyst speaking off the record said at first blush Rio's results were "a good set of numbers, across the board."
The higher dividend, he said, was "a nice surprise. It's good to see them returning cash. It's what the market wants".
Chinese growth above 8% tipped
Chairman Jan du Plessis said the increase in the dividend reflected the improvement in Rio's existing businesses.
In a statement, Rio chief executive Sam Walsh said his immediate priority was to "build more focus, discipline and accountability throughout the organisation".
“In 2012 we generated strong margins in copper, iron ore and minerals," Mr Walsh said. "But our aluminium and energy businesses faced a deterioration in market conditions coupled with rising costs which we are addressing through our cost saving and value enhancement programs.
“Looking ahead, we see the positive momentum in the fourth quarter of last year being sustained into 2013 with Chinese GDP growth returning to above 8 per cent in 2013," he said. "We expect market uncertainty and price volatility to persist as long as the structural issues in Europe and the United States remain unresolved.
Rio also announced the appointment of Andrew Harding as the new chief executive of its iron ore division. Mr Harding, a 21-year veteran at Rio, was previously head of copper.
His successor as copper chief executive is Jean-Sebastien Jacques, formerly president of Rio's international copper operations. Both men will join Rio's executive committee.
No mining tax paid
Mr Walsh commented on the mining tax, which so far has delivered just $126 million in its first two quarters, saying the MRRT was designed as a tax on super profits, not normal profits, and was "actually operating as it was physically designed" given commodity prices in 2012 were lower than 2011, and mining profits had dropped.
He said that Rio Tinto so far has not paid any MRRT.
Mr Walsh said there was "a feeling out there we're not paying our way in relation to tax".
"People need to understand Rio Tinto is one of the highest tax payers in Australia. We are paying our way," Mr Walsh said.
"Businesses like ours are investing billions, we're taking the risk of commodity cycle, we need a return on these investments
Mr Walsh said mining companies needed a steady tax regime to continue to invest, "not chopping and changing and moving the hurdles at every opportunity".
Impairments hit $US14.4 billion
The miner's net loss follows the shock ‘'dismiss-ignation'’ of former chief executive Tom Albanese in mid-January, and his replacement by Australian Mr Walsh, the long-serving iron ore chief executive.
Rio announced the surprise departure of Mr Albanese and energy chief Doug Ritchie on January 17, along with impairments of $US14.4 billion including about $US2.9 billion against the Mozambique coal assets acquired in the 2011 takeover of Riversdale Mining, and a further $US11 billion against its aluminium assets.
Rio has been plagued by the debt-fuelled acquisition of Alcan for $US38 billion in July 2007, which almost destroyed the company during the financial crisis.
Rio has since decided to sell or spin-off Pacific Aluminium and its prospects improved on Wednesday after the Northern Territory government offered to make cheap gas available to keep its struggling Gove alumina refinery at Nhulunbuy up and running. Rio is also trying to exit diamonds.
The elevation of Mr Walsh, formerly responsible for the Pilbara operations that deliver approximately 85 per cent of Rio’s earnings, was welcomed by investors as heralding a return to more disciplined capital management.
Rio’s ASX-listed shares have risen 11.6 per cent from $64.60 at the time of the appointment, to close at $72.07 today, up 2.3 per cent on the day.
In a profit preview this week, Deutsche Bank analysts said the 2012 results would signal ‘‘the return of the Rio of old; focused on productivity, costs, and maximising project returns’’.
Focus on cost cutting
Mr Walsh said in his statement that this year and 2014 will attempt to lift margins at existing businesses "by unlocking substantial productivity improvements, aggressively reducing costs and better managing our sustaining capital".
"We are targeting cumulative cash cost savings of more than $US5 billion to be achieved over the next two years, equivalent to an annual run rate of $US3 billion by 2014, assuming stable market and operating conditions, with significant additional cash savings in sustaining capital expenditure and exploration and evaluation spend."
more to come