BHP spin-off South32 sees M&A opportunities

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Newly formed mining and metals group South32 is open to acquisitions once it breaks from BHP Billiton, its CEO-elect Graham Kerr said on Wednesday.

BHP shareholders are expected to approve the spin-off, which includes some of the global miner's smaller assets, at meetings in Perth and London on Wednesday, paving the way toward a listing on May 18.

Named after the 32nd parallel south line of latitude that links its business centres in Perth and Johannesburg, South32 will produce alumina, aluminium, coal, manganese, nickel, silver, lead and zinc from mines and smelters in Australia, Brazil, Colombia, South Africa and Mozambique.

Those assets, long overshadowed by BHP's much larger iron ore, petroleum, copper and coal businesses, generated underlying earnings of $446 million on revenue of $8.3 billion last year.

"If you compare them across to Anglo, Glencore, I think you'd find our assets absolutely stack up beautifully," Kerr said referring to bigger rivals Anglo American and Glencore.

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The new company will have the added advantage of carrying just $674 million in net debt.

"We're not over-geared, we're not over-leveraged. We don't have that problem that a lot of our peers will in the industry," Kerr told reporters ahead of the vote.

He said the company would consider acquisitions of any commodity, other than gold, where South32 could add value.

"If we do go into the M&A space it will be opportunistic and it will be only where we see value, and we'd have to sell that story very strongly to our shareholders."

He played down the prospects of chasing any of the coal assets that companies such as Vale and Anglo American are trying to sell right now.

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"From our perspective, it's not the most value-accretive way we can see ourselves using our people, time or resources at the moment."

Forecasts on how much South32 will be valued at have dropped to between $5 billion and $10 billion since the spin-off was announced last year, as prices for its main products, including aluminium and manganese, have slumped.

South32 will be the world's top manganese producer and Kerr said if the company thought it could boost prices by cutting output it would consider doing so - in contrast to BHP's policy of producing at full tilt as long as it is profitable.