Rio Tinto cost-cutting boosts profits especially at aluminum division

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MONTREAL – Rio Tinto is raising its annual dividend by 15 per cent after adjusted profits increased last year to US$10.2 billion on a strong turnaround in its Canadian-based aluminum division.

The world’s second-largest miner said Thursday that its underlying earnings increased 10 per cent to US$5.53 cents per share on record production in some metals as well as cost reductions and layoffs across its operations.

“These strong results reflect the progress we are making to transform our business and demonstrate how we are fulfilling our commitments to improve performance, strengthen the balance sheet and deliver greater value for shareholders,” said CEO Sam Walsh.

The US$1.92 per share dividend reflects the company’s “confidence in the business and its attractive prospects,” Walsh added.

Net profits, including one-time items, swung to US$3.66 billion from a US$3 billion loss in 2012.

Total revenues were US$51.2 billion, up from US$50.9 billion in 2012, with 35 per cent of sales going to China.

The bulk of Rio Tinto’s profits were generated from its iron ore operations in Australia. The Iron Ore Company of Canada contributed US$305 million on US$2.26 billion of revenues, up from US$230 million on US$1.97 billion of revenues in 2012.

The Montreal-headquartered aluminum division’s earnings increased nearly 10-fold to US$557 million despite a nine per cent decrease in aluminum prices to US$1,845 per tonne. Revenues increased to US$12.46 billion.

The dramatic improvement in the aluminum operations comes a year after an US$11-billion writedown and weak performance caused Rio Tinto (NYSE:RIO) to report its first annual loss. In 2011, the aluminum division earned US$439 million.

Rio attributed the improvement in aluminum to cost cutting, increased volumes and higher market premiums. In 2013, it closed, curtailed or sold six aluminum assets, including the suspension of production at the Gove alumina refinery in Australia to focus on bauxite operations.

Global aluminum production increased seven per cent in 2013, partly as a result of a ramp up of its AP60 smelter in Quebec as well as the fact that production was hampered in 2012 by lockout of workers at its operations in Alma, Que., in the first half of the year.

North American aluminum production in Quebec and British Columbia earned $161 million, up from $43 million in 2012. The Pacific assets swung to a $126-million profit after losing $92 million a year ago.

Capital expenditures in the aluminum division decreased 19 per cent last year to US$2.23 billion and included money earmarked for the modernization of a smelter in Kitimat, B.C.

Overall, capital expenditures were reduced by 26 per cent to US$12.9 billion and are expected to fall to US$11 billion this year and to around US$8 billion in 2015.

The results beat analyst forecasts by 3.5 per cent primarily due to the performance of iron ore, aluminum, energy, diamond and mineral units.

Peter Mallin-Jones of Canaccord Genuity called the results “solid.”

“Operationally, they were broadly in line with our estimates, with the aluminium unit in particular performing ahead of our expectations, reflecting the cost-cutting efforts undertaken in that unit in recent years,” he wrote in a report.

Net debt was cut to US$18.1 billion, US$1.1 billion lower than a year ago.

Rio Tinto’s global workforce was cut by 4,000 while another 3,300 positions left the company with the sale of businesses.

Its diamonds business earned US$53 million, up from a loss of US$25 million in 2012 as production in at Diavik in the Northwest Territories and in Australia increased 22 per cent to 16 million carats.

On the New York Stock Exchange, Rio Tinto’s shares closed up 18 cents at $58.17 in Thursday trading.

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