By Tanisha Heiberg and Arunima Kumar
JOHANNESBURG/BENGALURU, Sept 13 (Reuters) - The world's top gold miners are retrenching after COVID-19 related shutdowns despite record prices for the yellow metal, with cost-conscious executives prioritizing investor returns over production growth.
Gold prices XAU= have jumped 30% this year to roughly $2,000 an ounce as central banks dial up stimulus measures in response to the coronavirus pandemic.
That has fuelled a cash surge for miners, with top- and mid-tier producers holding roughly $5 billion in cash as of June 30, according to Scotiabank estimates.
But interviews with executives, analysts and fund managers show miners are hesitant to spend on pricey projects and tap marginal deposits that require sizeable capital and take years to break even.
Seven out of 10 of the global gold miners, including Newmont NEM.N , the world's biggest gold miner, Canada's Barrick ABX.TO and South Africa's Gold Fields GFIJ.J , have cut planned output for the year by 7%, citing coronavirus-related shutdowns, regulatory filings show.
The caution is a reversal from the 2011 gold price boom, which prompted buyers to overspend on acquisitions and led to billions in impairments when prices crashed in subsequent years.
Companies which have won back investor favor are fearful of making similar mistakes.
"The real trap in the gold industry in the past was chasing volume," Newmont Chief Executive Officer Tom Palmer told Reuters.
Newmont's budget this year is $1.3 billion, about half levels seen in the previous cycle.
Gold Fields said it wasn't rushing to change cut-off grades, the minimum grade that can be economically mined, despite the higher price.
"It's not easy to just turn the ship in a different direction," Gold Fields CEO Nick Holland told Reuters, referring to boosting output with the higher price.
Barrick's long-term price assumption remains unchanged at $1,200, underpinning a growing dividend and debt reduction, CEO Mark Bristow said.
"No one made any real money" in the last cycle, he said at the Mines and Money Online Connect virtual conference last week.
GROWTH VS RETURNS
The spot price of gold has climbed more than 500% over the last 20 years, according to Refinitiv data. Global gold output, including from mines and recycling, rose 22%, according to World Gold Council data.
Miners have hiked dividends on the back of those stronger prices, with Barrick raising its quarterly payout 14% last month and Newmont boosting its payout 79% in April. Scotiabank analysts expect the industry's dividend growth to continue into 2021.
"Companies still need to take a very conservative approach," said Joe Foster of Van Eck Associates Corp, which holds shares in Barrick and Newmont and expects gold prices to eventually hit $3,000.
Investors have even threatened to dump shares of companies that don't prioritize payouts.
"If we get to the point where growth versus returns becomes a decision point, we'll back the companies paying returns," said Mark Burridge at Baker Steel Capital Managers, which hold shares in Kirkland Lake Gold KL.TO , Kinross Gold K.TO and others.
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