* Gold mining shares were generally depressed
* Greater proportion of passive funds made size matter
* Rest of industry for now in better shape
* GRAPHIC-Barrick underperforms: tmsnrt.rs/2Bi07AG
By Barbara Lewis and Clara Denina
CAPE TOWN/LONDON, Feb 5 (Reuters) - The wave of consolidation sweeping the gold mining sector is for now passing the wider sector by as diversified majors have delivered returns to keep shareholders happy and investors are wary of repeating past mistakes, executives said.
Newmont Mining Corp said in January it would buy Goldcorp Inc, for $10 billion, creating the world's biggest gold producer.
The merger following Barrick Gold Corp's agreement in September to buy Randgold Resources Ltd in a deal valued at $6.1 billion.
In previous cycles, gold industry mergers have paved the way for broader activity, but executives say they expect the focus to stay on mid-tier gold companies and selling off any assets the new merged companies do not want.
Mark Bristow, CEO of the new Barrick, said gold had reached a point where action was inevitable.
"The one thing about business is that it eventually kills you. If you don't perform, the options run out. The gold mining industry is actually at that point and now you're seeing people making decisions," he told reporters on the sidelines of a mining conference in Cape Town.
Gold companies also had a need to grow because of a decline in the share of active fund managers that just left the big passive funds, which however only invest in big companies.
"A key driver to the gold sector is its need to stay relevant to investors from both active funds and the increasingly important passive funds," Richard Horrocks-Taylor, StanChart's global head of metals and mining, said.
Passive funds make up an estimated 50 percent of metal funds, compared with 80 percent in 2012, as active managers quit the sector after the 2015 price crash.
Many gold miners had suffered from poor share price performance and been unable to reward shareholders with the buybacks and dividends the diversified miners have delivered.
Chris LaFemina, a managing director at Jefferies bank, said shareholders, bruised by overspending at the top of the last cycle that never delivered returns, would only clamour for broader consolidation if the macro environment changed.
"We need to see the cycle shift from a defensive slow growth, low interest rate environment to growth and inflation," he said.
In the last cycle, the world's second biggest miner Rio Tinto was hit by some high-profile problems.
In 2013, it announced a $14 billion writedown almost entirely on the value of its two most significant acquisitions, the Alcan aluminium group in 2007 and Mozambique-focused coal miner Riversdale in 2011.
But it was also the first to recover and now has the best balance sheet in the business, leading to speculation it could be the first to emulate the merger activity in gold.
It has handed billions back to its shareholders in dividends and buybacks, sold unwanted assets, and bought nothing significant since 2012, leaving its portfolio heavily dependent on iron ore and some analysts say light on copper.
LaFemina said that could remain the case for now, barring incremental deals.
"I don't think there's anything obvious for Rio to do other than return capital to shareholders," LaFemina said.
But even fund managers, keen to maximise their own returns, predict there will be action at some point.
"Rio is now prioritising returning cash to shareholders and one could argue at the expense of volume growth and investors are questioning whether they will find themselves in three years' time with a company ex-growth," said a fund manager who owns shares in Rio speaking on condition of anonymity.
Reporting by Barbara Lewis and Clara Denina; editing by David Evans