IT is the twelve billion dollar question: how do you spend your massive cash pile when every bid you make goes wrong? BHP Billiton blew $350m (£218m) of fees on its failed pursuit of Potash, having already spent some $75m on its aborted iron ore joint venture with Rio Tinto. Once bitten but twice shy, the mining giant has now decided to restart its $4.2bn share buyback programme.
Some investors will be relieved that the miner walked away from the Potash deal: many were concerned that Marius Kloppers would sweeten his offer too much, kicking earnings accretion well into the future. Canada and Potash had extracted so many concessions and guarantees – on jobs, domicile, and investment – that BHP had little room for manoeuvre on cost cuts.
BHP has to do something with the cash that is burning a hole in its balance sheet, but the $4.2bn buyback is comparatively small beer: at the end of June, BHP had a cash pile of $12.5bn.
Analysts expect further buybacks in the future, but we hope this isn’t a long-term strategy. Buying back shares or debt suggests that management has lost its appetite for big deals – which add more value in the long run – or at least that acquisitions have been put on the backburner. Here’s hoping it’s the latter.