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'We spent money on stupid things': Anglo American eyes era of ‘capital discipline’

Mark Cutifani, Chief Executive of Anglo American PLC, speaks on the first day of the Mining Indaba 2016 Conference on Feb. 8, 2016.

RODGER BOSCH/AFP/Getty Images

As he unveiled a staggering loss of $5.6-billion (U.S.) in his company's latest results, Anglo American PLC chief executive officer Mark Cutifani couldn't resist a few bitter potshots at the grandiose expansion dreams of the global mining industry.

"This industry has destroyed value again and again," he told his audience of investment analysts in a blunt and scathing commentary on Tuesday. "We spent money on stupid things."

Minutes earlier, Mr. Cutifani and his executives had been forced to defend Anglo American from questions about its latest credit downgrade. Embarrassingly, the company's credit rating was pushed into "junk" status in a new assessment by Moody's Investor Service Inc. this week, and the analysts wanted to know why.

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Huge losses, a credit rating in junk territory and a denunciation of the habits of its own industry: The barrage of bad news was a new low in the 99-year history of a business empire that was once the world's dominant mining company.

Mr. Cutifani is convinced he can turn around Anglo American by getting rid of two-thirds of its assets and exiting its less essential businesses in countries such as South Africa and Brazil, especially in the coal and iron ore sectors.

In his answers to the analysts on Tuesday, he insisted that Anglo is entering a new era of "capital discipline" with a focus on a core business of its most promising assets: diamonds, platinum and copper. This will include its De Beers diamond assets in Canada, primarily the Victor mine in Northern Ontario and the Gahcho Kué mine in the Northwest Territories. (The company made no mention of its money-losing Snap Lake diamond mine in the NWT.)

Anglo plans to sell $3-billion to $4-billion in assets this year as it aims to reduce its net debt below $10-billion by the end of the year, compared with $12.9-billion at the end of December. It will also scrap its dividend this year.

In the long term, Anglo aims to keep just 16 mining assets, down from 55 in 2014. These cuts are even deeper than it had announced in December when it introduced the plan.

"We are building a new Anglo American," Mr. Cutifani said. "We've got world-class assets … We've got the best assets in the industry. If our approach doesn't work, there's no industry."

His comments were an implicit critique of the Anglo American of the past. In its glory years in the 1980s, the conglomerate held more than 650 companies within its empire, dominating the South African economy and expanding globally.

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Founded in 1917 by South African industrialist Ernest Oppenheimer with capital from British and American financiers (explaining its name), Anglo grew rapidly on the back of its South African gold mines, then expanded into diamonds and platinum; it went global in 1961 by buying Hudson Bay Mining, the Canadian company. It added assets in steel-making, timber, Australian coal and South American copper and iron ore. In 1999, it moved its head office to London from Johannesburg to accelerate its globalization.

But as the commodities boom began to decline, Anglo spent too much and failed to control costs. Its losses have been worse than its rivals in the Big Five mining giants, and it ended up as the smallest of the five. In 2015, according to the results released on Tuesday, the company was badly hurt by slumping commodity prices, pushing its losses to record highs.

One of its costliest ventures in recent years has been the Minas Rio iron ore mine in Brazil. The company spent $5.1-billion to acquire the mine and a further $9-billion to develop it. Now it admits it will consider "options" for the mine, including a possible sale, within the next several years.

South Africa will suffer some of the worst collateral damage as Anglo drastically cuts its money-losing assets. The company plans to get rid of many of its mines in South Africa's platinum, coal and iron ore sectors, where labour relations are poor and electricity shortages have been burdensome.

Africa's biggest iron ore mine, Kumba Iron Ore in South Africa, is one of the mines that is due to be sold or spun off. Kumba employs more than 11,000 workers and contractors, but it has already announced a restructuring that could eliminate a third of those jobs.

In total, Anglo plans to cut its work force to about 50,000 from its current level of 128,000. Most of these reductions will be a result of selling or spinning off its assets, but about 10,000 of the job cuts will be a result of restructuring and efficiencies, Mr. Cutifani said.

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Many of those 10,000 job losses are likely to be in South Africa, inflicting further damage to the the country's battered economy.

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