MELBOURNE (Reuters) - BHP Billiton (BHP.AX), the world’s biggest miner, has turned more wary on the outlook for commodity markets as some players face tighter access to credit, but said conditions are not as bad as during the global financial crisis.
BHP and rivals such as Rio Tinto (RIO.AX) (RIO.L) and Anglo American (AAL.L) have warned that markets are likely to remain volatile in the near term, but BHP is the first to highlight that customers are starting to face tougher credit conditions.
“The heightened volatility and uncertain economic outlook are expected to continue to weigh on sentiment in the markets for our commodities,” Chief Executive Marius Kloppers told shareholders at the group’s annual meeting in Australia.
However, in comments later to reporters he was at pains to stress that BHP is big and diversified enough to be trading profitably despite the headwinds. He said its iron ore, copper, coal, oil and gas businesses were holding up well, while conditions were tough in nickel, aluminum and manganese.
He also played down concerns about tighter credit conditions, saying they were affecting mainly smaller companies, not BHP’s major customers.
“No, we don’t have the blind panic of people not trusting each other,” Kloppers told reporters. “We don’t have the conditions we had in 2008.”
The company’s outlook was more cautious than at its annual meeting in London a month ago, largely due to the sudden turn in Italy’s debt crisis.
Kloppers said while Chinese steel mills had been rattled by Italy’s credit crisis, he remained confident that the Chinese government would continue to target 8 percent economic growth.
Investors were unperturbed about the less upbeat outlook, pushing BHP’s shares up 1.1 percent in a broader market that closed 0.3 percent higher, as the challenging outlook is already baked into its share price.
“It’s there for everyone to see, the world’s a much more uncertain place at this juncture than what it has been over the last couple of years,” said Tim Schroeders, a portfolio manager at Pengana Capital.
“It’s prudent for BHP to bring that to everyone’s attention and highlight that the world has changed and that it is a difficult operating environment.”
BHP’s Australian shares have fallen around 25 percent since hitting their high for the year in April as the outlook for the global economy has darkened, broadly mirroring the performance of Rio over the same period but underperforming a decline of around 15 percent in the wider market .
Kloppers reiterated that customers had turned cautious in managing their stocks and some had cut production.
“We are also aware that for some of the people we do business with, there has been tightening in both the availability of trade finance and the terms on which it can be accessed,” he said.
In contrast to some of its customers facing tougher credit conditions, BHP itself had no difficulty raising $3 billion overnight in the bond market at what bankers considered a good price.
Kloppers said that despite challenging conditions, the company was still able to sell everything it was producing and its customers were continuing to buy all their contracted volumes.
“There’s nothing that we’ve seen with regard to the large consumer nations and China and Asia in general that gives us cause for concern,” said James Bruce, portfolio manager at Perpetual Investments, which owns BHP shares.
After delivering a record $21.7 billion profit in the last financial year, the Australian Shareholders Association pressed BHP to hand back more cash to shareholders, following a $10 billion share buyback completed earlier this year, rather than chasing more acquisitions.
Chairman Jacques Nasser stuck to the company’s line that it would always consider buybacks alongside potential acquisitions and its plans to spend $80 billion in the five years to 2015 to expand iron ore, coal, copper, uranium and natural gas production.
“We’ll continue to pursue acquisitions where we believe they represent value for shareholders,” Nasser told shareholders.
Known as “The Big Australian,” BHP has run into repeated regulatory hurdles with deals to expand its iron ore operations. Regulators also stymied its attempt last year to diversify into agricultural minerals with a $39 billion hostile bid for Canada’s Potash Corp.
Despite shaky global markets, analysts are still expecting the company to post 7 percent profit growth this year to another record around $23.2 billion.
Iron ore miners, led by Brazil’s Vale VALE5.SA and Rio Tinto, have also said they expect the recent slump in iron ore prices to be temporary, with prices already recovering.
Additional Reporting by Rebekah Kebede in PERTH; Editing by Ed Davies and Alex Richardson