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Glencore pivots from disposals to dividends as stock rallies

The Viterra Inc. Cascadia terminal, owned by Glencore PLC, stands on Burrard Inlet in Vancouver, on Tuesday, Sept. 29, 2015.

Ben Nelms/Bloomberg

What a difference a year makes.

Glencore Plc fended off questions in 2015 about its survival as commodity prices hit new lows, and now there's talk that the company's turnaround plan has gone so well that it could be months away from paying dividends again. Surging coal and zinc prices, a rebounding stock price and shrinking debt pile made Glencore one of mining's biggest success stories this year.

Chief Executive Officer Ivan Glasenberg, who will provide an update on corporate strategy on Thursday, spent the past year ticking off items outlined in a crisis-induced debt reduction plan, including a goal to sell $4-billion to $5-billion in assets. The market rewarded him for it, with the stock tripling in 2016 and clawing back almost all of last year's losses.

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Now, backed by a strong rebound in profits from its coal and zinc divisions, Glasenberg is in a position to pay back shareholders for supporting him through Glencore's darkest days as a publicly traded company. None more so than Harris Associates' David Herro, who placed the biggest wager on a Glencore recovery. The firm invested more than $2 billion at a time when others like Lansdowne Partners, one of Europe's largest hedge funds, were betting big on further declines.

"Job one is to continue to make sure that the balance sheet is strong and could withstand any kind of aggressive falls in commodity prices," Mr. Herro, a portfolio manager at Chicago-based Harris, which is Glencore's fourth-biggest shareholder with about a 5 percent stake, said in an interview with Bloomberg Television in London this month.

"Then, selectively look at opportunities on how to use that free cash," he added. "If there's something that could be bought at a discount, at a good price, by all means look at it. But if not, there's dividends, there's share buybacks, there's all kinds of other things."

Mr. Glasenberg and Chief Financial Officer Steve Kalmin may outline 2017 forecasts for spending, costs and production at Glencore's investor day on Thursday, according to Credit Suisse Group AG. The company may also reveal a new dividend policy after skipping the last two payments to pay down debt, which stood at $30-billion last year.

Booming prices for thermal coal and zinc, both up about 80 per cent this year, are bolstering profits and provide a path for the return of dividends as early as March, according to UBS Group AG, which predicts it may pay 5 cents a share in March.

Glencore may resume payments after the first half and start a new policy of returning 40 per cent of net profits after tax to shareholders, said Alon Olsha, a mining analyst at Macquarie Group Ltd. in London.

"Glencore is now able to talk about restarting the dividend ahead of expectations," Clive Burstow, who helps manage about $475 million of natural-resource assets at Baring Asset Management Ltd. in London, including Glencore shares, said in an interview. "It's because suddenly their cash-flow generation has been a lot stronger. We've arguably moved through the trough of the cycle."

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Glencore hit a 16-month high on Nov. 11 of 292 pence in London, more than double the price from last year's share sale. The company has also been buying back bonds, widening a program to $1.5-billion last month. The stock fell 1.1 per cent to 281.6 pence at 9:42 a.m. local time, valuing the company at $500billion.

Investors are also looking for guidance on whether Glencore will restore production at mines, especially in zinc, according to Olsha. Credit Suisse estimates that about 100,000 to 150,000 tons of the 500,000 tons of annual zinc output suspended will be brought back next year.

Another potential use of surplus cash is acquisitions, though it would be premature to expect any big deals, said Burstow of Baring Asset Management.

"I'd like to see another six to nine months of them carrying down the path that they are on," he said. "Let's get the dividend restarted, let's see that the balance sheet is firmly in a much healthier place."

Mr. Glasenberg built Glencore through a series of acquisitions since taking on the CEO role in 2002. He led the strategy of twinning mining assets with the trading business, steering Glencore through a $10-billion initial public offering in 2011 and $29-billion takeover of Xstrata Plc a year later to add mines and smelters.

The last major deal undertaken by Glencore was the $1.4-billion takeover of Caracal Energy in Chad in 2014 that gave the company control of oil fields. The company has since written off most of the value of the business after energy prices slumped.

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