* First-half underlying profit up 18% to $280 million
* Higher gold prices, weaker AUD helps results
* Rain forecast eases concerns drought will impact Cadia output (Recasts throughout, adds executive comment)
By Melanie Burton
MELBOURNE, Feb 13 (Reuters) - Australia’s Newcrest Mining Ltd on Thursday reported an 18% rise in first-half underlying profit, beating estimates on the back of higher gold prices, and welcomed wetter weather ahead after drought had threatened output at its flagship mine.
Last month, Newcrest had warned production at the Cadia mine could be hit at the end of this year due to a lack of water for processing that could impact output if a drought continued in New South Wales.
Australia’s largest listed gold miner said underlying profit for the half ended Dec. 31 was $280 million, up from $237 million in the same half a year earlier and about 8.5% ahead of an estimate by RBC. Higher gold prices offset an 11.7% drop in production to about 1.1 million ounces.
Looking ahead, Chief Executive Sandeep Biswas said that while bushfires have given way to heavy rain this month, Cadia’s water cachement had not yet seen substantial inflow. But prospects were better, he said, after Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology (BOM) forecast “just below” average rainfall for the next four to five months.
“There has been some inflow which we have noticed in the last 24 hours ... We only need the rainfall to be above the bottom 10% of average to make sure that we get through without any issues,” Biswas told a media briefing after the results were released.
In its earnings statement, Newcrest said realised gold prices for the half were $1,446 per ounce, higher than $1,228 in the same period a year ago.
On production, Newcrest expects a $685 million expansion at Cadia, which received board approval last October, to boost volume from the 2023 financial year.
Elsewhere, the miner continues negotiations to get its Wafi Golpu gold-copper project in Papua New Guinea (PNG) up and running after a court there dismissed a stay order on work, allowing talks to continue.
The co-owners of the project - Newcrest Mining and Harmony Gold - had been hoping to secure a mining lease over the major gold and copper deposit early last year, before a change in PNG leadership and a shift in minerals policy led to delays.
The country’s largest listed gold miner also recorded a marginal drop in net profit for the first half, hurt by a $44 million writedown following the sale of its entire stake in Gosowong.
The company also declared an unchanged interim dividend of 7.5 cents per share, in line with its goal to pay out 10-30% of free cash flow, at the bottom end of its forecast full-year range of no less than 15 cents per share.
Newcrest also logged $729 million in negative free cash flow for the half after its acquisition of Red Chris in Canada last year, and additional investment in Lundin Gold. Before the acquisitions, free cash flow was $106 million, it said.
Shares in Newcrest fell 2.4% to $A28.83, their lowest in five sessions. (Reporting by Melanie Burton; Additional reporting by Shreya Mariam Job in Bengaluru; Editing by Bernard Orr and Kenneth Maxwell)