Rio Tinto to pay out record $9bn in dividends for 2020

Mining company shareholders have hit paydirt this year after Rio Tinto became the latest miner to reveal an investor windfall of $6.5bn (£4.7bn) following a boom in commodity prices and soaring company share prices.

Rio Tinto, the world’s second largest mining company, reported a 20% rise in underlying profit to $12.4bn after demand for iron ore climbed as China’s economy bounced back from the coronavirus lockdown last year.

Rio Tinto’s better-than-expected profits followed a sharp increase in global commodity prices like iron ore and copper following interruptions to global supplies that were partly caused by the pandemic.

The miner will pay out a final dividend of $5bn and a special dividend of $1.5bn, bringing its total 2020 payout to $9bn, the biggest in the company’s 148-year history.

The investor windfall follows a record dividend payout from BHP, the world’s biggest mining company, which will hand investors $5.1bn shortly after becoming the most valuable company on the London Stock Exchange. Mining rival Glencore reinstated its dividend – after scrapping payouts last August – at $1.6bn.

Mining company shareholders are in line for the record dividends after many stock market-listed companies in the sector doubled their market valuations in the last year following the steep increase in commodity market prices.

The price of iron ore, which is the most important commodity for Rio Tinto, rose last year to its highest levels since 2011 as China’s economy recovered faster than expected. That recovery led to greater demand for steel at a time when production of iron ore was disrupted in Brazil.

Commodity prices are also being driven up by hopes that governments around the world will invest in building projects to help restart economies after the pandemic.

BHP’s market value has more than doubled from lows in March last year to almost £124bn, beating Royal Dutch Shell and Unilever to the top of the FTSE 100. Glencore’s market capitalisation has climbed from £112.50 a share last March to highs of £289.85 this year. Rio Tinto’s share price has climbed from £29.68 a share to £62.68 a share over the same period.

Rio Tinto’s investor payout was bigger than expected as the group dealt with the fallout from the destruction of 46,000-year-old rock shelters in Australia’s Pilbara region last year.

The anger following the destruction of the sacred site at Juukan Gorge led to Jean-Sébastien Jacques being replaced by Jakob Stausholm as chief executive.

Unveiling his first set of full-year results, Stausholm said: “It has been an extraordinary year – our successful response to the Covid-19 pandemic and strong safety performance were overshadowed by the tragic events at the Juukan Gorge, which should never have happened.

“My new executive team and wider leadership of the company are all committed to unleashing Rio Tinto’s full potential. We will increase our focus on operational excellence and project development and strengthen our [environmental and social] credentials.

“We must earn the right to become a trusted partner for traditional owners, host communities, governments and other stakeholders, but we all recognise that this will require sustained and consistent effort.”