To cricket-loving executives at Rio Tinto, a tilt at Riversdale Mining must feel like smacking a slow ball out of the ground after a long winter spent practising indoors. The US$3.5bn approach may well come to nothing: to win Riversdale, Rio would need the support of steelmakers Tata and CSN, which are both big strategic shareholders in the target. But the fact that the Anglo-Australian miner is weighing a bid at all suggests it has emerged from its post-Alcan funk.

Rio has not countenanced a multibillion-dollar acquisition since its $38bn cash takeover of the aluminium producer at the height of the commodities boom in 2007 – a deal which sentenced it to two years of asset sales and opportunistic approaches from rivals. But this year, things have been looking up. The Australian government has replaced its mining super tax proposal with a less punitive alternative. Rio has extricated itself from a huge proposed iron ore production joint venture from which its partner, BHP Billiton, stood to gain much more. And in Beijing last week, Rio and state-owned Chinalco – its largest shareholder – unveiled an exploration JV. Stern Hu, the Rio executive jailed in March for bribery and espionage has, it appears, become Stern Who?

Perhaps most significant, though, the Riversdale approach signifies that Rio has restored first claim over its own cash flows. Yes, spending half a year’s free cash on a Mozambique-focused coalminer may yet turn out to be incompatible with Rio’s oft-stated aim of recovering the single-A credit rating it lost when it bought Alcan. But Rio’s shares and bonds barely budged on Monday, suggesting that for the first time in years, capital providers do not mind allowing Tom Albanese to invest a lot of cash outside Rio’s own assets. The chief executive has served his penance.

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