BHP Billiton’s long-held title of world’s biggest miner is under threat from rival Rio Tinto as sliding oil prices, BHP’s South32 spin-off and the tailings dam disaster at BHP’s half-owned Samarco operations in Brazil have ensured the gap in market value between the pair has closed to its narrowest since before the China boom.
At the end of last week, Bloomberg data showed that BHP’s market capitalisation of $92 billion (including Australian and London-listed shares) was just $13bn higher than Rio’s $79bn, with the gap as close as $10bn during the week.
This is the closest the pair have been since 2003 and a sharp tightening since the middle of last year, when BHP was worth about $200bn and Rio was worth $110bn.
BHP has held the position of the world’s biggest miner since it merged with Billiton in 2001.
During the China boom, it extended its lead to seemingly unassailable levels, helped by its big petroleum and coking coal businesses.
The clear lead was strengthened by value destruction at Rio brought on by the $US37bn debt-fuelled cash takeover of Alcan, which was completed just before the global financial crisis hit.
But this year, the gap between the pair has quickly closed amid sliding oil and coking coal prices, BHP’s spin-off of South 32, which is now worth $6bn, last month’s Samarco dam disaster and growing signs that BHP will not be able to maintain its dividend.
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