LONDON: The backgrounds of the leaders of the world’s top mining companies illustrate the choice facing investors, with BHP Billiton’s chief executive having worked in the oil industry and Rio Tinto’s new boss more focused on copper. After aggressive cost-cutting and asset sales to drive down debt, the two mining giants are positioning themselves to capture growth as commodity markets begin to recover from a crash that dented company balance sheets. French-born Jean-Sebastien Jacques has led Rio only since July, while his counterpart at BHP, Scotsman Andrew Mackenzie, has been in place for the turbulent past three years. Both men sang from the same songsheet when presenting financial results last month. They ruled out the reckless spending of the past that almost led to financial ruin and promised to be safe, boring and disciplined, buying assets only when the price was right and maintaining the focus on lowering costs. Rio is widely regarded as the better pick, with more analysts rating it a “Buy” than BHP, according to Reuters data. Rio has the advantage of having cut debt faster, while investors have also been put off BHP by a dam burst at an iron ore mine in Brazil last year that could lead to years of litigation. But there are signs of a shift in sentiment as investors weigh the two miners’ exposures to different commodities. Since the start of the year, BHP has rallied more than Rio — 31 percent versus 17 percent on the London stock market — and some analysts see better potential for BHP’s coking coal and oil assets, compared with Rio’s greater exposure to iron ore. “It’s pretty much a tie. Both are cautious and both have had big failures in the past,” one industry source said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “Oil is the swing factor and that’s a fairly safe bet longer term.” Chris LaFemina, managing director at Jefferies, upgraded his recommendation on BHP to “Buy” from “Hold” last month, having already rated Rio a “Buy”. He cited BHP’s potential to cut costs further and its bigger exposure to coking coal and oil. Coking coal has rallied because of demand in top consumer China, while oil needs an output agreement from the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries to get a meaningful boost. Frances Hudson, investment director, at Standard Life says it is pragmatic to have exposure to at least one of the two big miners given their heavyweight presence on the FTSE index of leading British stocks. Rio’s market capitalization is $58.7 billion, while BHP’s is almost 59 billion pounds, according to data. Reuters lists Standard Life Investments as the 15th largest investor in Rio’s London-listed share. It does not appear among the top investors in BHP, but does have a smaller stake. Not everyone feels it is time to reinvest in the mining companies after BHP plunged more than 40 percent last year and Rio lost around a third of its value. Liberum investment bank rates both Rio and BHP a “Sell”. Liberum analyst Richard Knights said BHP’s Samarco Brazilian joint venture, liable for last year’s dam burst, was a small asset for the company in financial terms. However, the concern is that no one can rule out massive damages being awarded after legal arguments.