BHP Billiton hit by disaster in Brazil

Shares in BHP Billiton plunged after a collapse in a mine in Brazil left four dead and 22 missing.


The resulting mudslide caused extensive damage

Shares in Anglo-Australian mining giant BHP Billiton plunged by a tenth to a seven-year low this week. The Samarco project, a tailings dam at a Brazilian mine, which it owns in a joint venture with local iron ore giant Vale, collapsed late last week, causing a mudslide that has left four dead and 22 missing. According to the Sydney Morning Herald, a 2013 report had raised concern over design flaws in the dam. It is unclear whether BHP were aware of this.

What the commentators said

Analysts think the clean-up could set BHP back by $1bn, noted Alistair Osborne in The Times. But "the final cost is anybody's guess". Expect state and federal inquiries; lawsuits; and "a probable bust-up between BHP and Vale" over who was responsible for the disaster. The damage to BHP's reputation will complicate or even thwart applications for future mining permits.

One thing's for sure, though, said Osborne. Part of the share price slide must be due to fears that BHP won't be able to keep financing the dividend increases it has promised shareholders. Early this week the stock was yielding almost 9%.

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The group's projected free cash flow already appeared insufficient "to meet the dividend and ongoing growth capex requirements without increasing borrowings", according to Investec analysts. The dividend policy had been "a straightjacket for management", said the FT, and this disaster may provide an opportunity for BHP "to extricate itself" from it.

Andrew Van Sickle

Andrew is the editor of MoneyWeek magazine. He grew up in Vienna and studied at the University of St Andrews, where he gained a first-class MA in geography & international relations.

After graduating he began to contribute to the foreign page of The Week and soon afterwards joined MoneyWeek at its inception in October 2000. He helped Merryn Somerset Webb establish it as Britain’s best-selling financial magazine, contributing to every section of the publication and specialising in macroeconomics and stockmarkets, before going part-time.

His freelance projects have included a 2009 relaunch of The Pharma Letter, where he covered corporate news and political developments in the German pharmaceuticals market for two years, and a multiyear stint as deputy editor of the Barclays account at Redwood, a marketing agency.

Andrew has been editing MoneyWeek since 2018, and continues to specialise in investment and news in German-speaking countries owing to his fluent command of the language.