Another Iron Ore Venture in the Works?

If you're looking for a quiet, sedentary sector, you'll want to steer clear of the metals industry. A combination of renewed demand and concerns about locking in supply has commodity prices bouncing strongly off last year's lows, which may be why the world's biggest steelmaker and the world's largest miner may be negotiating toward a cooperative venture.

Let's make a deal
Arcelor Mittal (NYSE: MT  ) and BHPBilliton (NYSE: BHP  ) are reportedly in talks to combine their iron ore assets in Liberia and Guinea. Government approval would be required, but a completed venture would involve BHP's interest in Guinea's Euronimba, including leases at Dieke and Nimba North. Also in the package would be Arcelor's 70% interest in five Liberian leases, and the rights to upgrade a railway and a port in Liberia.

The talks are nothing new for BHP. The company is already involved in multiple joint ventures or potential joint ventures, and it's looking to ride a wave of higher iron ore prices this year to greater profits.

The company certainly hasn't been doing badly, posting record operating cash flow of $18.9 billion in the year ending June 30, 2009. It also had strong margins and return on capital, maintained a relatively clean balance sheet, and increased its dividend -- all in a year in which it faced collapsing demand owing partly to the recession. Yet as the company has observed, demand from China and India has come back faster than many expected.

At the same time, BHP continues to push forward toward an iron ore joint venture with Rio Tinto (NYSE: RTP  ) that would unite the two companies' ore operations in Western Australia. The companies are awaiting regulatory approval in Europe, and they're attempting to fend off opposition from many of their customers, several of whom are convinced that the venture could lead to excessive control over the global iron ore supply by BHP, Rio, and Brazil's Vale (NYSE: VALE  ) .

Locking it in
Concurrently, Arcelor Mittal appears to be growing dismayed by the necessity of buying iron ore and other related products from the three. A deal with BHP could make it a lot simpler for Arcelor Mittal to get the raw materials it needs going forward.

The discussions would likely take months, and they could have an impact on world iron ore prices, including those paid by the likes of Pittsburgh-based U.S. Steel (NYSE: X  ) . In the meantime, my belief is that BHP is a solid company that merits careful attention from Foolish investors.

BHP Billiton has been granted four stars by Motley Fool's CAPS players. I suggest you look up the company's CAPS page and add your opinion.

Fool contributor David Lee Smith doesn't own shares of the companies listed above. He does welcome your questions or comments. The Motley Fool has an ironclad disclosure policy.


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