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Wheeling and Dealing the Debt Away

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Place your bets, Fools! Surviving this credit crunch and global recession can be something of a crapshoot even for well-funded companies, while for the debt-laden it's pure Russian roulette.

One week after mapping out a general strategy to pay back a crippling $9.8 billion debt, Canadian miner Teck Cominco (NYSE: TCK  ) executed a sweeping set of changes in what it calls a "first step" in its bid to survive the untimely acquisition of Fording Canadian Coal Trust.

Compared to dry bulk carrier Diana Shipping (NYSE: DSX  ) , which recently suspended its dividend to take advantage of asset sales by distressed competitors, Teck finds itself on the opposite end of the barrel. In addition to redirecting $486 million in annual dividend payments to satisfy debt, the company divested some choice mineral properties, reduced its capital expenditure budget by $730 million, and announced a 20% reduction of refined zinc production from the world-class Trail Complex in British Columbia. All told, these efforts will raise $2.4 billion in liquidity destined for debt reduction, and comprise the company's first wager in this high-stakes game of Russian roulette.

Unfortunately for Teck shareholders, survival may ultimately cost a bundle, as prized assets like Petaquilla in Panama and the Lobo-Marte gold prospect in northern Chile have been abruptly torn from the project pipeline.

Kinross Gold (NYSE: KGC  ) conducted some wheeling and dealing of its own to pick up Lobo-Marte from joint venture partners Teck Cominco and Anglo American (Nasdaq: AAUK  ) for just $250 million ... or $42 per ounce of gold in the ground. Teck's end of the bargain has its silver lining, though, collecting $40 million in cash, $70 million worth of Kinross shares, and a 1.75% royalty on 60% of production from the mine while gold trades above $760 per ounce.

Tragically, Teck also ceded control of the Petaquilla Project to Canada's Inmet Mining for just $30 million in cash. Thought to contain 9.4 billion pounds of copper -- plus gold, silver, and molybdenum -- Petaquilla represents about one-fourth the copper content of Freeport-McMoRan's (NYSE: FCX  ) Grassberg Mine in Indonesia.

Fortunately, Petro-Canada's (NYSE: PCZ  ) decision to delay the Fort Hills oil sands project will provide some much needed cost savings. Reporting increasing deterioration of the metallurgical coal demand on which the costly Fording deal was based, though, Teck continues to stare down the barrel of a menacing gun called unmanageable debt.

Further Foolishness:

Over at CAPS, 758 members have rated four-star pick Teck Cominco an outperform. Whether you think Teck will succeed or fail at repaying its debt, please come share your thoughts and counsel with our community of investors. CAPS is free and fun!

Fool contributor Christopher Barker is the commodore of copper, and the Colonel Klink of zinc. He can be found blogging actively and acting Foolishly within the CAPS community under the username TMFSinchiruna. He owns shares of Anglo-American, Diana Shipping, Freeport-McMoRan, Kinross Gold, and Teck Cominco. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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