Rio Tinto (LSE: RIO)(NYSE: RIO.US) has a £65bn market capitalisation, making it the 24th largest UK-listed company.
Rio’s greatest strength is its history and track record. This helps provide considerable assurance to any authority considering appilications for mining licenses.
Rio Tinto is what economists call a ‘price taker’. It has no influence on the price of products that it produces. This brings extra risk to its profits and limits the rating that the market will award the shares.
Last month, Rio sold its stake in the Clermont mine for over $1bn. This was part of a strategy to concentrate its operations on larger mines. The divestment will enable Rio to dedicate more management time to higher margin activities. Further disposals could provide more help to increase profitability.
As a price taker, Rio is vulnerable to changes in the global economy. The shares have fallen back in the last couple of years amid fears for the Chinese economy. If China does stumble, Rio’s profits could fall hard.
BHP Billiton (LSE: BLT)(NYSE: BBL.US) is significantly larger than Rio and is tenth largest company in the FTSE 100.
BHP’s key strength is its diversity. No single commodity is responsible for more than one third of BHP revenues. While iron ore is its biggest product by revenue, a similar contribution is made by coal, copper and petroleum/potash — each is responsible for around one sixth of all sales.
Like Rio, BHP Billiton trades in volatile commodities markets. This makes financial management more difficult as the company has little certainty over its future cashflows.
Although much media attention is dedicated to the troubles of European economies, emerging economies are growing fast. The industry expects that within a decade, African economies could become significant consumers of metals. A new source of demand will be welcomed by an industry that has become dependent on Chinese appetite.
Major miners are all at risk of increased government regulation. A change in the rules can quickly undermine the economic case for extraction. Energy prices can also move fast and have a material impact on margins.
It appears that there is little to choose between the companies. If I wanted to get some mining exposure in my portfolio I would likely buy both.
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> David does not own shares in any of the companies mentioned.