Rio Tinto faces balancing act between expansion and returns

Rio Tinto chairman Jan du Plessis seemed more shocked than anyone that the band of retail shareholders at the company's annual meeting on Thursday were such a placid lot. Barely a peep about Rio's $3 billion statutory loss, no angry questions about the former (now sacked) chief executive and scant reference to the fact that plenty of the board members that presided over the decisions responsible for that loss were still on the podium.

Rio Tinto chairman Jan du Plessis seemed more shocked than anyone that the band of retail shareholders at the company's annual meeting on Thursday were such a placid lot. Barely a peep about Rio's $3 billion statutory loss, no angry questions about the former (now sacked) chief executive and scant reference to the fact that plenty of the board members that presided over the decisions responsible for that loss were still on the podium.

The real action between the Rio board and management and its shareholders is being played out with the big shareholders - whose clout gets them a closer audience with management. These institutional investors are far more concerned with Rio's future strategy than laying blame for mistakes.

They want to know whether Rio is still looking to approve the $5 billion capital expenditure on its iron ore operations in the Pilbara. While not all these shareholders are in agreement the general sentiment is it should be put on hold. Chief among those that will be voicing this view is Rio Tinto plc's second-largest investor, BlackRock, and its high-profile chief, Evy Hambro.

A number of large shareholders have already made their views clear to Rio boss Sam Walsh that the additional capacity the investment in iron ore would produce would be detrimental for the supply demand dynamics of the industry. From the investors' perspective the choice is pretty black and white. If Rio spends the money it won't be given back to the shareholders in increased returns.

Additionally, for those such as BlackRock that invest in a number of resource companies the increased capacity will put pressure on the price of iron ore. All the experts are predicting the price is on its way down and the companies like Rio and BHP Billiton agree. Rio is scheduled to make a decision on increasing its capacity to 360 million tonnes a year - an extra 70 million tonnes - by the end of the year.

A decision by Rio to proceed with this expansion might benefit the company (rather than the industry) because it is a particularly low-cost producer. It can still make good returns when the iron ore price is significantly lower than it is today.

Other producers low on the cost curve think the same way. The rationale is that the extra production will take higher-cost producers out of the market.

Rio's responsibility is to enhance its returns rather than worry about the market as a whole. But it is a balancing act. If prices fall too far even the low-cost producers' returns could be compromised.

Walsh has been given the role of responsibility for financial rationality. His remit is not about buying growth but reducing costs from head office to the mine site. It's all about discipline and shareholder returns. And this is just what these institutional investors will be reminding him about in their meetings.

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