At a time like this, when the world's economies can't figure out whether they're coming or going, investors have to take what lukewarm news they can get.

On Thursday, Rio Tinto (NYSE:RTP) told us about its results for the first half of 2009. You won't be surprised to learn that the company's net earnings for the half year were $2.5 billion, a full 65% below the comparable period in 2008. The drastic decline was to be expected, with commodity prices having plummeted from the high levels that existed through July of last year.

Another key metric that deserves mention is the progress the company has made in debt reduction within the reporting period. As of June 30, Rio Tinto's debt was a whopping $39.1 billion. But subsequent to that date the company was able to pay down $14.8 billion -- a benefit from the completion of a rights issue. So, even though Rio hasn't completely escaped its debt bugaboo, it's made some pretty heady progress.

At the same time the contribution from the company's iron ore group was lighter than observers had hoped for. At the $1.9 billion in net earnings, it wasn't far off the $2.0 billion that analysts had expected, but as they say: a miss is a good as a mile. The difference appears to be the result of a reduction in more stable contract sales -- mostly to the Chinese – due to customers seeking more volatile spot sales. Rio's rival, and now partner, BHP Billiton (NYSE:BHP) has indicated that in past years it has sold up to 90% of its ore on contract, while recently that share has slipped below 70%.

The big three ore producers -- Rio, BHP, and Brazil's Vale (NYSE:VALE) -- have been squabbling with Chinese steelmakers over the amount that ore prices should drop from last year. At the same time, with Rio in a debt-reduction mode, China had hoped to double its holding in Rio through an investment from its Aluminum Corp. of China (NYSE:ACH), but was ultimately rebuffed as Rio favored the aforementioned $14.8 billion rights offering.

So the Chinese have reasons to be irked at Rio. Nevertheless, I recommend that Fools keep an eye on all the big three. When the world's economies improve, I'm betting that the trio will be in the catbird's seat.

Rio Tinto is rated a four-star company -- out of a possible five -- by Motley Fool's CAPS players. Why not add your vote to the tally?

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