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BHP Billiton half-year profit slides, ahead of forecasts

Global miner BHP Billiton posted a 31 percent drop in half-year profit as prices for all its main products collapsed, but beat market forecasts and flagged further belt tightening to withstand the tough conditions.

The company cut its target for capital spending for the year to June 2015 and said it would reap savings of $4 billion in the next two years, shoring up cash flows so it could stick to its policy of not cutting dividends.

"We are confident that we can maintain our progressive dividend policy and continue to selectively invest in projects that offer compelling returns," Chief Executive Andrew Mackenzie said in a statement.

Underlying attributable profit fell to $5.35 billion for the six months to December from $7.76 billion a year earlier, ahead of analysts' forecasts for around $5.1 billion.

The world's biggest miner raised its interim dividend 5 percent to $0.62, also slightly ahead of market forecasts at $0.61.

BHP could not match rival Rio Tinto's recent $2 billion capital return to shareholders as its petroleum arm, the business that sets BHP apart from other miners, has been battered by a 50 percent fall in oil prices since June.

Underlying earnings from iron ore slumped 35 percent, while petroleum earnings dropped 15 percent.

Aluminium, manganese and nickel earnings rose nearly five-fold to $716 million, a promising sign for shareholders as BHP is set to hand them a new company, South32, by June.

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South32 will house BHP's aluminium and manganese units, the Cerro Matoso nickel mine, Cannington silver mine and some coal mines in Australia and South Africa.

"Following the proposed demerger, BHP Billiton will maintain its progressive dividend policy and any dividends from South32 will represent additional cash returns to shareholders," Mackenzie said, highlighting the value of the spin-off.

The miner is sticking to its plan to hold a shareholder vote on the demerger in May and complete the spin-off mid-year.

BHP has trimmed U.S. shale drilling plans for the rest of this financial year, stepping up efforts to conserve cash, while prices for its main earners, iron ore, oil and gas, copper and coal, languish at close to six-year lows.

It cut costs by $1.75 billion in the first-half, taking total savings over the past nearly three years to around $10 billion.

The company said it would target capital expenditure for this year year of $12.6 billion, down from original guidance of $15 billion

As flagged in January, BHP booked pre-tax writedowns of $328 million on some onshore petroleum assets it sold and $409 million on its Australian nickel business.