July 28, 2016 / 10:47 PM / in a year

UPDATE 1-Gold miners keep chipping at costs, debt even as profits climb

(Adds interviews with Goldcorp, Agnico Eagle CEOs)

By Susan Taylor and Nicole Mordant

TORONTO/VANCOUVER July 28 (Reuters) - Gold bullion prices have increased 26 percent this year, but the world’s biggest gold miners are paring costs and selling assets to lower debt despite the windfall 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 $1,336.19 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.

Barrick as well as rivals Newmont Mining and Agnico Eagle Mines lowered their production cost forecasts for this year.

Even though Goldcorp Inc, the world’s third biggest gold miner by value, has one of the lowest debt levels in the industry it also wants to shrink debt from two recent mine builds.

“Eventually we are going to have to build new mines... So when you’re not in that phase it makes the most sense just to reduce your debt levels to the minimum possible,” Chief Executive David Garofalo said in an interview.

Newmont will not expand its exploration budget despite bigger-than-expected second-quarter profits. 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 plans to pare its $2.7 billion net debt by as much as $1.3 billion over the next three years.

Newmont 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, a mid-sized Canadian gold miner, raised its quarterly dividend by 25 percent to 10 cents a share.

Agnico has been an outlier in the gold industry, increasing exploration spend and production, and hiring employees while the rest of the sector was cutting output, people and spending.

“We have found that it is best to just think in terms of continual investment over time instead of this boom and bust mentality where you are too exuberant when gold is up and you panic when gold is down,” Chief Executive Sean Boyd said in an interview.

Editing by Steve Orlofsky and Tom Brown

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