Amplats announces first dividend in 7 years, plans no big projects this year

JOHANNESBURG, Feb 19 (Reuters) – Anglo American Platinum (Amplats), the world's top platinum producer, announced its first dividend in seven years on Monday as full-year headline earnings more than doubled and said it was not committing capital to major projects in 2018.

Amplats' investment stance highlights the fragile state of platinum mining in South Africa, home to around two-thirds of known reserves, where for years the industry has battled soaring costs, depressed prices, policy uncertainty and bouts of violent labour and social unrest.

South Africa's Chamber of Mines said on Sunday it had agreed to postpone a court challenge against a new version of an industry charter, which among other things raises targets for black ownership, to allow for talks with newly sworn-in South African President Cyril Ramaphosa.

"It is an extremely good sign that the president has personally taken an interest in the mining industry and acknowledges the huge contribution that mining can make to the country," Amplats Chief Executive Chris Griffith told Reuters in an interview.

"And then saying that there is this huge impasse between the mining industry and the government and I want to fix that. So the presidency reached out to us over the weekend," he said.

But Griffith said the euphoria over Ramaphosa replacing the scandal-plagued Jacob Zuma was a double-edged sword for the mining industry as a rally in the rand currency to three-year highs has eroded export profits.

"The rand is certainly putting pressure on prices so we are not really seeing the benefit of higher PGM (platinum group metal) prices," he said.

Dividend

Amplats share price rose over 3 percent in morning trade, underscoring investor appetite for the return of a dividend.

The company announced a cash dividend of 900 million rand or 3.49 rand per share for the second half of 2017 and said it planned to maintain a dividend policy that will see 30 percent of its headline earnings paid out.

Amplats has been moving from the labour-intensive methods that have defined South Africa platinum mining to more mechanised mining – a change that appears to be paying off.

The company, a unit of Anglo American, said headline earnings more than doubled to 3.9 billion rand ($335 million) in 2017, in line with what it had flagged to the market, lifted by cost cutting and a higher dollar basket price for platinum group metals.

"No major project capital will be committed in 2018," the company said.

However, Amplats said it was looking at possible future expansion projects at Mogalakwena, a mechanised open-pit operation that is its main cash-spinner and where it recently reached a deal with local communities and tribal authorities.

That deal was seen as crucial to addressing social unrest in the area. Violent community protests have closed the mine in the past.

Mogalakwena produced a record of almost 1.1 million platinum group metal ounces, up 12 percent. Platinum production rose 13 percent to 463,800 ounces while palladium output was up 13 percent to 508,900 ounces.

The mine recorded free cash flow of 4 billion rand, up from 3.2 billion rand in 2016.

Overall, Amplats said it had reduced its net debt to 1.8 billion rand from 7.3 billion rand.

($1 = 11.6550 rand)

(Written by Ed Stoddard; Editing by Gopakumar Warrier and Jason Neely)