July 28, 2016 / 7:57 PM / a year ago

Gold miners keep chipping at costs, debt even as profits climb

TORONTO/VANCOUVER July 28 (Reuters) - Gold bullion prices have increased 26 percent this year and profits have risen, but the world’s biggest gold miners are still paring costs and selling assets to chip away at debt rather than boosting spending.

Some investors had expected mining companies to lift spending on exploration, expansion or dividends during a largely upbeat financial reporting season, rather than keep shaving costs.

“They’re still, by and large, in cost-cutting mode and hunkering down, even though conditions have improved over the last five or six months,” said Jeremy Sussman, global mining analyst at Clarksons Platou Securities in New York.

Sussman attributed the caution to a need to see a sustained rally in gold prices at above $1,300 an ounce. Spot gold was at $1,335.01 on Thursday, but just six months earlier prices were below $1,100 an ounce.

Net debt among the big North American gold producers is down 30 percent from a peak in late 2014, according to a July 20 RBC Capital Markets note, and is expected to fall 4 percent to $19.8 billion in the second quarter.

“We’re going to continue to drive hard on debt,” Barrick Gold President Kelvin Dushnisky said on a conference call, when asked if the company would boost its dividend in the next six to 12 months.

“In the immediate term, our investors have encouraged us to stay focused on debt reduction, which we’ll do.”

Barrick put its half of the Kalgoorlie Superpit gold mine in Australia up for sale as it works to cut debt by $2 billion this year. In the ‘medium term’ it wants to reduce its $9 billion debt to $5 billion.

The Toronto-based miner is also making further cuts to production costs and trimming capital spending.

Newmont Mining will not expand its exploration budget, which was scaled back in 2013, despite bigger-than-expected second-quarter profits. The company, the world’s No. 2 gold miner, says new technology and lower fuel prices have made its exploration more efficient and it is focusing on areas where it expects to find high-margin discoveries.

“It’s part of the overall change of culture ... focusing people on the value, rather than the volumes,” Chief Executive Gary Goldberg told Reuters.

The Colorado-based miner, which has nearly halved its net debt since 2013, plans to pare its $2.7 billion net debt by as much as $1.3 billion over the next three years.

Newmont, which kicked off the reporting season last week for large North American gold miners, hinted it may increase its gold price-linked dividend later this year, but it said it must weigh that against further debt reductions and other spending plans.

At least one gold miner, however, is letting shareholders enjoy the spoils of gold’s recent rally.

Agnico Eagle Mines, a mid-sized Canadian gold miner, raised its quarterly dividend by 25 percent to 10 cents a share - the first time in three years it has raised its payout. Most other gold producers have been cutting dividends in recent years. (Editing by Steve Orlofsky)

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