Mining stocks have had a rough time in recent years with commodity prices plummeting as a result of weaker global demand, particularly from China. This is just one of the many risks facing investors as mining shares can be highly geared to the price of the metals they mine. In other words, a well-run and well-diversified global mining business can sometimes fall foul of a collapse in the price of any particular metal or mineral leading to a crash in the share price. Unfortunately looking for advice can sometimes lead to further confusion as experts often have widely opposing views as to where prices could be heading.

No-one can predict to any degree of certainty what’s going to happen over the short, medium or long term. Nevertheless, many investors will have noted the strong gains made by FTSE 100 miners this year, and may be itching to get in on the action, wondering what to buy, and when. So for keen investors wishing to position themselves for a long-term recovery I would say Rio Tinto and BHP Billiton have traditionally been the mining stalwarts of the FTSE 100, and have been less volatile and risky than their smaller counterparts due to their size and diversification. So which one should you pick for the long term?

Record breaker

In 2011 Anglo-Australian giant BHP Billiton (LSE: BLT) was riding high and enjoying the commodities boom with investors happy to pay more than £26 per share for the privilege of owning a tiny slice of the business. But fast forward five years and by January 2016 investors weren’t even prepared to pay just £6 for the shares. Bearing in mind that BHP Billiton is one of the world’s largest and most diversified miners, would-be investors can begin to appreciate the volatility that can affect the sector.

Earlier this year the Melbourne-based firm announced it had posted a record loss for the financial year ended June thanks to weaker commodity prices and the fatal dam disaster in Brazil. BHP posted a record-breaking US$6.4bn loss for FY2016, compared to the US$1.91bn profit reported a year earlier, forcing the company to cuts its full-year dividend payout by a massive 76%. Furthermore, there still remains a great deal of uncertainty regarding compensation claims relating to the Brazil dam disaster, and with a fairly steep valuation at 21 times forward earnings, BHP is a risk too far for me.

Low cost producer

Meanwhile BHP’s great rival Rio Tinto (LSE: RIO) is in the midst of a major cost-cutting exercise with further cuts planned for this year and next, while also cutting back on its expansion projects after previously being criticised for being too aggressive. The London-headquartered group trades at a more modest earnings multiple of 16 compared to BHP, and also benefits from being one of the lowest-cost producers compared to its peers. For this reason, Rio gets my vote over its Anglo-Aussie rival BHP. However, I would suggest investors drip feed into the stock over a longer period, rather than try to time the market.

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Bilaal Mohamed has no position in any shares mentioned. The Motley Fool UK has recommended Rio Tinto. We Fools don't all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors.