* Some investors focus on cheap valuations of miners
* Focus on sharp drop in metals prices and mining stocks
* Polls suggest metals prices likely to recover
By Atul Prakash
LONDON, July 24 (Reuters) - A slump in metals prices this week and worries over China’s growth prospects have heightened investor scrutiny of whether mining companies have the ability to weather the storm ahead.
China accounts for almost half of global copper demand, 70 percent of iron ore consumption and vies with India to be the top gold consumer. China’s economy is seen growing at 7 percent this year, the slowest in a quarter of a century.
While miners tend to track commodity prices closely, with the European index down 8 percent in a week following a tumble in copper and gold prices to their lowest in more than five years, firms also have the ability to fight back with job cuts, project cancellations and restructuring.
Some have fared better than others. Lonmin shares sank 13 percent on Friday on restructuring costs, while Anglo American traded flat as investors did not punish it for job cuts and asset sales plans.
Some fund managers are simply staying away. Stephen Mitchell, head of global equities strategy at Jupiter, said mining “was the sector to avoid”.
But others are looking at the sector to see if there are buying opportunities amid the wreckage.
Citi on Friday upgraded its rating on Randgold Resources , Acacia and Fresnillo to “buy” after three years, saying historical concerns about gold price outlook and excessive valuations had significantly reduced.
Didier Duret, global chief investment officer at ABN-AMRO Private Banking, which manages nearly $500 billion, said that valuations were pretty compelling and mining stocks remained attractive from a diversification point of view.
“We are ‘overweight’ on commodities. We see a ‘silver lining’ and believe that China’s plans to boost infrastructure will have a positive impact on miners.”
A Reuters poll on Thursday showed China looked set to further reduce interest rates and the amount of cash that its banks must hold as reserves in the most aggressive easing cycle overseen by the central bank since the height of the global financial crisis.
Shares in global miners Rio Tinto, BHP Billiton and Anglo American slumped as much as 20 percent in one month on moves in metals prices, making the stocks cheaper relative to other sectors.
The 12-month forward price-to-earnings ratio for the basic resources index fell to 13.5 last week before slightly recovering, against 16.2 two months ago. In contrast, sectors such as telecoms, construction and personal and household goods trade between 18 and 21 times earnings.
An expected recovery in metals prices later this year and in 2016 also prompts some investors to bet on miners. According to a Thomson Reuters poll on Friday, gold is expected to struggle for the rest of this year before snapping three years of losses in 2016, while silver and platinum are seen improving later this year.
Analysts welcomed aggressive and investor-friendly moves by miners to fight back. Anglo American said it will shed thousands of jobs and might put up more assets for sale, but maintain its interim dividend.
“We are overweight on the basic materials sector. We think that investors’ pessimism on China is overdone and believe that the stimulus measures being put in place in China will support growth in the country,” Robert Parkes, equity strategist at HSBC Global Research, said.
“The sector is cyclical and sensitive to a pickup in global economic growth. We expect China’s growth will hold up next year and global growth will accelerate.” (Additional reporting by Pratima Desai and Jan Harvey; Editing by Lionel Laurent and Peter Graff)