Rio declares record dividend

RIO Tinto has reported full-year underlying earnings of US$10.37 billion, slightly ahead of consensus.
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The figure was 18% higher than 2018.

Net earnings fell 41% to $8 billion, reflecting impairments on Oyu Tolgoi in Mongolia and the Yarwun alumina refinery.

EBITDA of $21.2 billion was ahead of the consensus forecast of $20.86 billion.

The dominant iron ore division accounted for $16.1 billion of EBITDA and $9.6 billion of underlying earnings.

The company declared a record dividend of $3.82 per share, or $6.2 billion, 24% higher than 2018.

The payout comprised a record final dividend of $2.31 per share.

Rio CEO J-S Jacques said the company had delivered a strong performance.

"This performance allows us to return a record final ordinary dividend of $3.7 billion, resulting in a full-year ordinary dividend of $6.2 billion and total cash returns of $7.2 billion," he said.

Rio's net debt at December 31 stood at $3.6 billion, lower than forecasts of $4.21 billion, but up $3.9 billion due to $11.9 billion of shareholder returns.

"In line with our disciplined approach to capital allocation, we invested $2.6 billion in development projects, including high-return iron ore and copper. Longer term, our $624 million exploration and evaluation expenditure in 2019 adds to our pipeline of attractive options," Jacques said.

"Our world-class portfolio and strong balance sheet serve us well in all market conditions, and are particularly valuable in the current volatile environment."

Jacques said Rio was closely monitoring the impacts of the COVID-19 outbreak, including supply chain issues, but said products were currently reaching customers.

He told reporters the virus would impact mining's two big growth drivers, global GDP and trade.

"Today we face a very uncertain world on both drivers," Jacques said.

Chief commercial officer Simon Trott said the company had spoken to about 200 customers in the past week and was pleased to report an increasing number of Chinese returning to work.

"Uptake rates in the past few days have been substantially normalised," he said.

Jacques didn't rule out delays to projects under construction, such as Koodaideri in the Pilbara.

"We could see an impact, but it's not a Rio impact, it's across all industries," he said.

Jacques said it would be weeks before there was a better picture of the impact of the virus, but there could be a positive impact later in the year due to Chinese government stimulus.

"The next six months could bring some challenges but the long-term outlook for mining and Rio Tinto is positive," he said.

"Rio Tinto does well in tough times."