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Reinvigorated BHP set to burst out of the pits

The end of the mining boom is still a fresh concept for many Australians but, at BHP Billiton, it is yesterday's news.

The end of the mining boom is still a fresh concept for many Australians but, at BHP Billiton, it is yesterday's news.

While the glory days of 2010 and 2011 are not coming back, there are signs that BHP is re-emerging as a growth story.

The year-long pit stop that included a moratorium on big new projects, a change of chief executive and the re-setting of strategy is over and the mining company is now returning to the track with a fresh set of tyres and its eye on profit growth for the first time in several years.

BHP is widely expected to record an underlying profit - that is the profit from normal operations, excluding things such as impairments - of just more than $US12 billion ($13 billion) for the year to June 30.

For those looking through the rear-vision mirror, that is about 30 per cent lower than last year and a massive 44 per cent lower than the record-setting results announced in August 2011. But, after a humbling couple of years, most investment banks believe BHP is set to snap its losing streak and increase profits in this financial year.

The likes of UBS, JPMorgan, Macquarie, Citi, Morgan Stanley, Goldman Sachs and Commonwealth Bank are all tipping an underlying profit of between $US12.8 billion and $US15.3 billion this time next year.

It is not expected to be dead cat bounce, either, with most of those analysts predicting BHP's profits will rise higher again in the following year.

The improved outlook is coming from low-cost productivity gains, asset sales and easing currencies and, while it is small, it is momentum nonetheless.

Pengana capital fund manager Tim Schroeders said the recent perfect storm of sliding commodity prices, soaring costs and high currencies appeared to be stabilising or receding, giving BHP reason for cautious optimism.

"The downgrade cycle appears to have stopped here - the missing part of the puzzle will come with the August financial results in terms of how they're going on their costs," he said. "There is still work to do. You can talk about asset sales but you've still got to execute in a really tough environment.

"But if they can show the cost-out story is gathering momentum, it's probably at a point where people have to reconsider the stock despite ongoing concerns about China."

Profits are not the only area where BHP seems to have turned a corner. The self-imposed ban on approving big capital projects expired on June 30 and the company is expected to make an announcement about the Jansen potash project in August. Jansen, in western Canada, would be the world's biggest potash mine if BHP chooses to develop it to its full potential.

Through conversion to fertiliser, potash is an investment in the world's future demand for food, which is tipped to grow exponentially as developing nations adopt the dietary habits of the developed world. Investors see potash as a way of tapping into the looming second phase of Chinese urbanisation, whereas iron ore and coal are seen as belonging to the fading first phase.

BHP's petroleum division should also have a more profitable year in this financial year than last.

The company spent $US800 million more on its US shale business than the market expected during the year to June 30, meaning next year's harvest could be bigger than previously thought. That could be enough to make the petroleum division a contributor to BHP's profits, rather than a drain.

The hardest yards seem to be complete in the coking coal division, too, where production will ramp up next year.

Not everyone believes BHP will increase profits next year; Credit Suisse was the contrarian among the major banks, forecasting a third successive fall in profits to $US11.9 billion after weakening commodity prices.

Mr Schroeders stressed that any improvement in BHP's outlook was fragile and could be forfeited if the Australian dollar returned to levels above parity with the US dollar.

"They are not going to get a lot of help from commodity prices, so the ability to get costs out and volatility in currencies will probably tell the story," he said.

However, the consensus is mostly positive for Australia's biggest company.

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