[SYDNEY] Moody's warned on Friday it may cut mining giant BHP Billiton's credit rating due to the precipitous decline in iron ore and commodity prices.
The warning puts pressure on BHP's policy of progressive dividends, under which the company promises never to cut dividends, with investors fearing it will have to borrow heavily to fund the payout as the commodity downturn slashes earnings. "The review for downgrade reflects Moody's expectation that weak commodity prices will persist for the next several years, significantly reducing BHP Billiton's earnings and cash flow generation," Matthew Moore, a Moody's Vice President and Senior Credit Officer, said in a note. The rating review will last between 60 to 90 days. "Specifically Moody's will be reviewing the company's ability to further reduce operating costs and capital expenditures, as well as its ability and willingness to reduce its ongoing dividends," Moore added.
Last week, iron ore for delivery to China touched $37 a tonne, the weakest since The Steel Index began compiling data in 2008.
Moody's said it expects BHP Billiton's key credit metric ratio of adjusted debt to EBITDA would increase to around 2.0-2.5 times over the next 18 months and is unlikely to return to a "more appropriate level" over the next several years.
To retain its existing A1 rating, Moody's expects BHP to maintain its adjusted debt to EBITDA ratio at below 1.5 times.
Moody's did say any potential downgrade would likely be limited to one notch to A2 from A1. It also noted BHP could"generate stronger margins" than other mining companies because it operates more cost-effectively than its peers.
Last month, BHP said it would update the market on its future dividend policy in February as it battles falling prices for everything from iron ore to copper.