(Recasts with comments on nickel operations, adds New Caledonia mine, seaborne market)
By Marta Nogueira and Alexandra Alper
RIO DE JANEIRO, Feb 28 (Reuters) - Brazil’s Vale, the world’s no. 1 nickel producer, plans to save well over $150 million by reducing costs across its nickel operations, which have notched positive cash flow for the past two months, company executives said on Wednesday.
As the miner strives to diversify away from its massive iron ore presence, it is aiming for base metals to account for at least 30 percent of its financial results by the end of 2019. Last year, base metals stood at about 14 percent of earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization (EBITDA).
“I hope that the 30 percent estimate turns out to be conservative in terms of the share that base metals have in Vale’s results,” Chief Executive Officer Fabio Schvartsman said in a conference call with analysts, a day after the company reported a 47 percent jump in fourth-quarter earnings.
But the company has struggled over its presence in the nickel segment, where prices have yet to pick up because of oversupply, despite the metal’s key role in lithium-ion batteries that are used in electric cars.
Vale has said it will halt new investment in nickel operations and has been looking for years for an investor for its New Caledonia nickel mine, located on a Pacific Island.
On Wednesday, the company reiterated that a decision about the future of the mine would not come for a while.
“Our decision about (New Caledonia) will occur only at the end of the year and no option is off the table, from finding an investor to care and maintenance,” Schvartsman said.
Over-budget and years late when it started up in 2010, the New Caledonia project accumulated nearly $1.3 billion in losses from 2014 to 2016.
Vale’s top executives also forecast iron ore prices to be sustained by economic growth and growing steel output. Iron ore for prompt delivery at the Qingdao port in China was quoted on Wednesday at $78.61 per tonne. But Vale said it was also happy with prices per tonne in the $60-to-$70 range.
Vale, also the world’s largest iron ore producer, has said its diversification drive means cutting iron ore’s share of results to 70 percent from 90 percent in two years.
But the company will remain a heavy hitter in the sector, accounting for half the 40 million tonnes of new iron ore in the seaborne market that it expects will come online this year. Some 60 million tonnes came online last year, executives said. (Reporting by Marta Nogueira and Alexandra Alper; Editing by Jonathan Oatis and Peter Cooney)