The Investment Column: Dull outlook for Billiton shares

SOUTH-EAST Asian woes have given mining shares a real bashing. Billiton, the base metals group spun off last July from Gencor, the South African conglomerate, is no exception.

Billiton has been ground down on the London market from a flotation price of 220p to 149p by the end of last week. But yesterday the shares recovered 9.5p to 158.5p as it announced profits for the six months to December up 47 per cent to $249m (pounds 151m) on the back of a 10 per cent turnover increase to $3.04bn.

Billiton is directly affected by weak commodity prices and 27 per cent of its business goes to Japan and Asia. The group benefited in the last six months from good prices on aluminium, titanium minerals and base metal prices. But Billiton admits aluminium prices are now coming under pressure.

Confidence could be built by some well-placed acquisitions. Most natural resource companies are cheap at present, particularly in Asia. But as Brian Gilbertson, Billiton's chief executive, put it yesterday, making choice acquisitions is "easy to say and very difficult to pull off".

It is already planning to increase its stake in the Mozal aluminium smelter scheme in Mozambique but the big prize lies in Venezuala, where Billiton is bidding for privatised state assets.

It is up against tough competition and Billiton is a cautious company that does not want to pay too much. So the picture remains a dull, as does the outlook for shares.