Barrick Gold Corporation (USA) (ABX), BHP Billiton Limited (ADR) (BHP), Rio Tinto plc (ADR) (RIO): Mining’s Mixed Signals

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There’s something of a schizophrenic nature to how the mining industry is handling its overloaded condition. While there have been steep cuts in workers, sales of assets, and a sharp curtailment in capital spending, it’s not uniform or across the board. Instead of thinking of the “mining sector” as shrinking, investors may want to view it as one strategically realigning its priorities.

After a decade of expansion, it seemed the industry had heeded the need to retrench. It’s not just gold miners like Barrick Gold Corporation (USA) (NYSE:ABX) and Newmont Mining that were cutting jobs, but iron ore miner Cliffs Natural Resources and Uranium One were letting people go, too.

Barrick Gold Corporation (USA) (NYSE:ABX)

Similarly, projects not considered essential to core operations got the axe, with BHP Billiton Limited (ADR) (NYSE:BHP)Rio Tinto plc (ADR) (NYSE:RIO), and Vale SA (ADR) (NYSE:VALE) all selling off operations, from potash projects to coal (and we don’t even need to touch on the closures that industry’s faced), and mining’s capex plans were also shelved. Barrick Gold Corporation (USA) (NYSE:ABX) said its Pascua-Lama gold mine would receive $1.5 billion to $1.8 billion less spending this year, while analysts at PricewaterhouseCoopers find the top 40 miners anticipating a 21% spending reduction in 2013, to $110 billion.

In general, it seemed like miners were hunkering down, and waiting for the storm to pass, but that might not be the case at all. Despite a call by Glencore Xstrata for a new “age of austerity for miners,” as a Bank of America analyst put it, the industry’s top miners seem determined to continue expanding production, at least in targeted instances.

Billiton is still weighing the potential of building out its Canadian potash mine despite the collapse of the fertilizer cartel that propped up prices. The estimated $14 billion cost of developing its Jansen mine in Saskatchewan has already had $1 billion worth of prepatory work done on it, and the miner’s CEO says Billiton needs to look out tens of years into the future at potential demand to determine whether it will be moving forward, and that looks encouraging. It subsequently committed to spending another $2.6 billion over the next four years to install the essential infrastructure and utilities for the site.

For its part, after putting a “for sale” sign on just about everything, Rio Tinto plc (ADR) (NYSE:RIO) continues to set the bar higher for its Australian iron ore output, noting earlier this year it had planned to invest an additional $5 billion into expansion of its Pilbara iron ore mine, even in the face of a likely supply glut that will last through 2018.  Vale SA (ADR) (NYSE:VALE), while cutting back output slightly this year to 320 million tonnes, will be expanding capacity by nearly a third by building out its Carajas iron ore project in Brazil’s Amazon, with capex spending to hit almost $20 billion by 2018.

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