An object lesson in how to destabilise a competitor: launch a hostile bid when it is attempting an orderly sale of assets to reduce debt. Keep that bid going, thereby ruling out other fundraising options for the target, even as evidence emerges that forced disposals may spoil your own sums. Finally, when management has been diverted long enough, walk away, blaming external factors. Investors will never know what was really going through the minds of BHP Billiton’s chief executive Marius Kloppers and its board during the long bid for Rio Tinto.

But right now it seems like a masterstroke. The collapse in commodity prices and withdrawal of credit means the only big players with the capacity to take advantage of distressed valuations are BHP, Vale and China Inc. Debt- drenched Rio, having missed the window to offload non-core assets in a civilised manner after the Alcan deal, is now selling core assets while going cap in hand to its largest shareholder, Chinalco. Another acquisitive miner, Xstrata, patched up its balance sheet after a big debt-funded purchase – Falconbridge – with a rights issue in 2007. Thanks to BHP’s bear-hug, that option was closed to Rio.

The self-congratulation at BHP’s first-half presentation on Wednesday was palpable. Never mind that net income, down 57 per cent, was less than analysts expected; a very lightly geared balance sheet and a broad sweep of cash-generating assets still gives BHP’s Australian shares an 80 per cent premium to peers on a forward price/earnings basis.

The feint at Rio was costly – $386m in fees, mostly through asking a group of banks to stand by with a huge debt package for 12 months. But in an alternative reality, in which Rio’s board had succumbed, BHP would now be about 80 per cent geared, rather than 10 per cent. That alone is cause for satisfaction.

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