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HOLLYWOOD, Fla., March 1 (Reuters) - For the first time in four years, the world's biggest miners are awash in cash, riding a wave of cost cuts and a recovery in raw material prices from coal to zinc last year.
But instead of using their newfound bounty to unveil lavish growth plans, as they did in 2012 just as metals prices started plummeting, the cash is going to more sober uses this time: paying dividends and slashing debt.
Spending on growth projects ranks third in priority, delegates and companies said at a mining industry conference in Florida this week. That raised the prospect of limited mine production increases that could support commodity prices especially for copper and zinc.
"Companies who said they are going to spend more on capital (projects) or do not have a clear dividend policy, they've all been penalized (in the stock market)," said Charl Malan, senior analyst at New York-based fund management firm Van Eck Associates.
The world's four biggest diversified miners, including BHP Billiton Plc and Rio Tinto Plc, last year raked in more than $20 billion in free cash flow before dividends and share buybacks, said Clarksons Platou analyst Jeremy Sussman. That left them with about $30 billion in cash and cash equivalents.
They were helped by deep cost cuts and a rally in metals such as steelmaking coal that tripled while zinc surged 60 percent.
Those miners were able to reduce gross debt - racked up during the last big cycle of mergers and acquisitions and new mine projects - by more than $20 billion in 2016, Sussman said.
Memories of ill-timed acquisitions and a mine build spending spree just as metal prices peaked in 2011, are still fresh in the minds of miners and their shareholders.
Teck Resources Ltd shares slumped 10 percent on Feb. 15 even as the company reported better-than-expected earnings. Shareholders were disappointed by a lack of clarity on its dividend policy.
Chief Executive Officer Donald Lindsay tried to clear things up this week at the Florida conference, saying that while debt reduction is the top priority, targets will be met soon, likely by the end of June.
"Thereafter the dividend is going to be front and center for the board," he said in a presentation at the conference.
In recent earnings reports, BHP and Rio both rewarded shareholders with bigger-than-expected dividend payouts while Glencore Plc said it was in a good position to pay a special dividend.
For Chilean copper miner, Antofagasta Plc, excess cash will first go to sustain existing operations, then to dividends and lastly to growth, CEO Iván Arriagada told Reuters on the sidelines of the conference. The miner is focused on expanding two of its existing operations rather than big, new projects, he added.
Still, some commodity prices, notably for uranium and fertilizer, remain stubbornly low, forcing some big producers to cut production and dividends.
"Today we're not investing even one dime in any kind of new production," Cameco Corp CEO Tim Gitzel said at the conference. Uranium spot prices touched 13-year lows late last year, and further production cuts even at low-cost mines are possible, he said.
"That's the toboggan ride we've been on," Gitzel said. (Additional reporting by Rod Nickel in Winnipeg; Editing by Denny Thomas and Jeffrey Benkoe)