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Investors dig healthy returns despite mining sector losing its boom

Mark Twain famously called a newspaper report of his death an exaggeration, although it did prove correct eventually.

Mark Twain famously called a newspaper report of his death an exaggeration, although it did prove correct eventually.

Could that also be the case with Kevin Rudd's claim the mining boom is over?

His problem - all right, eventually ours since it will mean higher taxes at some point after the election - is that high commodity prices, which generated bumper mining profits, are on the wane. Consequently, so is the government's tax take.

More to the point, the mining investment boom that has been propping up economic growth is coming to a shuddering halt. You don't need me to tell you, especially when Treasurer Chris Bowen can, that lower economic growth drains tax revenues.

But it's quite a different story for investors. Although the investment boom lifted BHP Billiton shares by 50 per cent between mid-2008 and the start of 2011 and Rio Tinto's by 154 per cent, the surge didn't last.

BHP has since lost nearly all of that, while Rio has kept about two-thirds of its gains. The real legacy has been in an unexpected place: dividends. And they can only grow.

It's quite the novelty to even expect a dividend from your average miner, and stocks such as Telstra do it well, if not much else.

If you'd bought a Telstra share five years ago when it was trading about $4.85, the return - or yield - from the dividend would have been 5.8 per cent.

Add in the 30 per cent credit from franking and it was 8.3 per cent before tax (as well as after tax for super funds and many retirees).

Those dividends have totalled $1.54 in the five years since.

Compare that with BHP, a stock not noted for its attention to the cash needs of its shareholders. In early 2008 you could have bought a share for about $36 and the dividend yield would have been a paltry 2.2 per cent, plus franking.

But get this. Since then BHP has paid $547.24 in dividends.

Telstra was the better return - not that either did much to preserve your capital - but today the gap between their annual yields has shrunk from 3.6 per cent to 2.5 per cent and will contract more.

The next two Telstra dividends will each be 14¢ but BHP's will surely jump thanks to the drop in the dollar (it reports in US dollars), its asset sales, cost cutting, cancellation and postponement of projects and halving its spending on exploration.

Between the two of them, Rio and BHP will be digging up half the Pilbara, made possible from all that investment, and packing it off to China.

This unprecedented surge in iron-ore shipments will be the real mining boom for shareholders.

That's why fund managers are warming to the resources sector, especially the erstwhile capital-hungry blue-chip giants.

What they like is no exploration risk, no multibillion-dollar punts - well, for now - on projects that end up costing maybe twice what they were supposed to, less pressure on wage costs and the free kick of a weaker dollar.

All this as the potential competition is weakening. Lower commodity prices will close smaller, marginal mines, or at least prevent their commissioning.

The only threat to iron-ore prices, barring a meltdown in China, is Vale's Carajas project in Brazil, which will lift its production 35 per cent. But it won't be digging full time before 2018 and, hey, a lot can happen in the meantime.

Twitter @moneypotts

Big miners set to soar

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