UPDATE 3-Barrick CEO Bristow rules out hostile approach for Freeport, eyes Grasberg mine

Jeff Lewis

Grasberg mine@ (Recasts with Barrick CEO comments)

TORONTO, Feb 12 (Reuters) - Barrick Gold Corp Chief Executive Mark Bristow on Wednesday ruled out making a hostile approach for copper miner Freeport-McMoRan Inc but said the Canadian gold miner remains keen on Freeport's Grasberg copper-gold mine in Indonesia.

"It's reckless to go and do a hostile in a complicated jurisdiction or a complex, old corporation, because the embedded liabilities are significant," Bristow told Reuters at Barrick's Toronto headquarters after the company reported a better-than-expected quarterly profit.

"So it's got to be something that works out for the best interests of everyone."

A Freeport representative did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Bristow has fanned speculation that the world's No. 2 gold miner is poised to deepen its exposure to copper and last week expressed interest in acquiring Freeport's flagship Grasberg mine.

Grasberg ranks as the world's second-largest copper mine and largest gold mine and would enable Barrick to take advantage of rising demand for copper in the electric vehicle industry.

Bristow said there is no deal on the table at this stage but said his comments were aimed at sending a message to the market.

"And there's no competition for Grasberg," he said. "It's held in a U.S. company so no Chinese company can access it. Secondly Rio Tinto sold out of it."

Rio Tinto Plc sold out its Grasberg stake in 2018.

Barrick boosted its dividend by 40%, benefiting from higher gold output and improved prices for the precious metal. Gold prices had gained about 18% in 2019, as investors sought safe-haven assets on the back of global recessionary fears triggered by the long-drawn out trade spat between the United States and China.

Barrick said gold production rose 14% to 1.44 million ounces in the fourth quarter from a year earlier, boosted by higher yield at its Nevada Gold Mines joint venture with Newmont Corporation.

Average realized gold prices rose to $1,483 per ounce from $1,223.

Barrick declared a fourth-quarter dividend of 7 cents per share payable on March 16, as the company cleaned up its balance sheet and slashed debt, net of cash, by almost half to $2.22 billion at the end of 2019 compared with 2018.

Net income was $1.39 billion in the quarter ended Dec. 31. The company posted a loss of $1.20 billion in the year-ago period because of impairments.

Excluding items, Barrick earned 17 cents per share, beating the average analyst estimate of 14 cents, according to IBES data from Refinitiv.

(Reporting by Jeff Lewis in Toronto; Additional reporting by Shariq Khan in Bengaluru; Editing by Maju Samuel and Lisa Shumkaer)