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BHP’s New Chairman Heralds Era of Tougher Focus on Spending

BHP’s New Chairman Heralds Era of Tougher Focus on Spending

By  David Stringer

August 22, 2017, 6:02 PM CST August 23, 2017, 2:43 AM CST

Bloomberg

BHP Billiton Ltd.’s moves to ditch its U.S. shale assets and halt a rush into the potash market signal an era of more disciplined spending under the top miner’s incoming chairman.

Montreal-born Kenneth MacKenzie, 53, who takes up the post next month, is viewed by investors and analysts as more likely to focus on investment returns, after influencing BHP’s decisions to exit shale and delay proceeding on the $4.7 billion first phase of the Jansen project in Canada.

“They are talking more now about prioritizing projects based on return on capital,” according to Craig Evans, a Sydney-based portfolio manager at Tribeca Investments Partners Pty., a BHP shareholder and one of the miner’s more vocal critics in recent months. “I’d like to think this is the emergence of a bit more rigor on capex — and that’s coming from the new chairman.”

MacKenzie, appointed to BHP’s board last September and credited for doubling the market value of Australia’s largest packaging company, Amcor Ltd., in a decade-long spell as chief executive officer that ended in 2015, has met in recent weeks with more than 100 investors on a global tour that’s taken in Australia, the U.S. and the U.K.

A willingness to listen to shareholders was again apparent in board changes announced Wednesday. Grant King, the ex-Origin Energy Ltd. CEO appointed as a director in March, decided not to stand for election later this year “owing to concerns expressed by some investors,” according to a BHP statement. Fellow director Malcolm Brinded also opted to step down from October.

The producer’s strategy shift shows “an emergence of the rhetoric we’re going to see from Ken, in terms of where things are going to need to sit on the priority scale to have capital allocated to them,” Tribeca’s Evans said in an interview Tuesday. Melbourne-based BHP declined to comment.

BHP’s shares added 0.2 percent to A$26.04 in Sydney on Wednesday. Its bonds also climbed, with the 750 million euros of hybrid notes rising almost 1 cent on the euro to 119 cents, the highest since they were sold in 2015, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. The company’s 3 percent bonds due in May 2024 climbed almost 1 cent to 116 cents, the biggest gain in more than a year.

BHP’s CEO Andrew Mackenzie set out plans to improve returns and capital allocation in a speech in May 2016 and insisted Tuesday in an interview with Bloomberg Television that the decisions on shale and potash had been under consideration for several years, and weren’t a response to investor activism.

Paul Singer’s Elliott Management Corp., which began a public campaign in April urging BHP to overhaul its portfolio and boost payouts, last week backed MacKenzie as a chairman likely to heed shareholders’ calls for improvements. Elliott didn’t respond to a request for comment.

While BHP forecasts capital expenditure will rise about a third to $6.9 billion in the 12 months through June 2018, it has pledged to hold project spending to less than $8 billion annually through 2020, a fraction of the $23 billion total it deployed at its peak in 2013.

Show Caution

The producer should toughen its spending criteria and only develop projects that will deliver returns above 15 percent, Sydney-based Deutsche Bank AG analyst Paul Young said in a report last week. Aside from mothballing Jansen, BHP should also show caution on a potential $5 billion expansion of the Olympic Dam copper mine in Australia, according to Young.

BHP wants to improve the company’s average return on capital employed to about 20 percent by fiscal 2022 from 10 percent in the year ended in June, Chief Financial Officer Peter Beaven said Tuesday in a presentation. “There is still much more to be done, and this is where we’re focusing our efforts,” he told analysts on a conference call.

 

MacKenzie’s appointment to replace Jacques Nasser, who has led the miner’s board since 2010, shows “a radical shift in strategy,” Sanford C. Bernstein Ltd.’s London-based analyst Paul Gait wrote in a note last month.

“It’s difficult not to see that in some of these changes,” Gait said by phone on Tuesday. “A focus on returns, on better capital allocation and tighter investment criteria are going to play a huge role on his watch.”

“That’s what he is known for — his reputation is predicated on maximizing returns on capital, and holding management teams to account,” said Gait.

Wesfarmers Ltd.’s outgoing finance director Terry Bowen and ex-BP Plc executive John Mogford will be appointed to BHP’s board from October, the producer said in its statement Wednesday. Bowen’s tenure at Wesfarmers has been noted for “a focus on improved cashflow and cost efficiency,” BHP said.

Ex-Royal Dutch Shell Plc exploration chief Brinded, a BHP director since 2014, chose to stand down as a result of “ongoing legal proceedings in Italy relating to his prior employment,” BHP said. Shell and Eni SpA are the subject of scrutiny over the acquisition of an offshore oil field in the Gulf of Guinea.