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UPDATE 4-AngloGold Ashanti boosts dividend five-fold on gold price boom

* Headline earnings per share more than doubles

* Shareholders’ payouts five times bigger

* Pandemic drives 7% production drop, costs rise 6%

* AngloGold Ashanti setting aside funds to help vaccination drive (Updates share price)

JOHANNESBURG, Feb 22 (Reuters) - AngloGold Ashanti on Monday joined gold mining peers in boosting payouts to shareholders after reporting a leap in annual earnings thanks to surging gold prices.

The Johannesburg-listed miner declared a full-year dividend of 7.05 rand per share, more than five times the 2019 dividend when translated into U.S. cents.

Mining companies have been a rare bright spot in South Africa’s battered economy, benefiting from a rally in metals prices. The world’s top two gold producers, Barrick and Newmont, last week hiked dividends too after outdoing earnings estimates.

AngloGold Ashanti, which operates in four African countries as well as Australia and South America, reported headline earnings for the full-year 2020 were 238 U.S. cents per share, more than double the 91 U.S. cents per share reported in 2019.

Shares in the miner, which gained 86% in 2020, were up around 1% by 1000 GMT.

With gold prices down since the start of this year and many expecting the safe-haven asset to take a hit as a global vaccination drive ramps up, interim CEO Christine Ramon said the company was being prudent in its long-term price expectations, and focusing on organic growth.

“M&A is really not a focus for us, we’ve got significant optionality within our current portfolio,” she said.

AngloGold Ashanti is setting aside funds to put towards the vaccination rollout programme in all its jurisdictions, Ramon said.

OUTPUT DOWN, COSTS UP

Production fell 7% in 2020 to 3.047 million ounces from 3.281 million ounces due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the sale of the remaining South African assets to Harmony Gold, as well as the sale of the Sadiola and Morila mines in Mali.

All-in sustaining costs increased 6.1%, from $998 per ounce to $1059 per ounce, AngloGold said, with most of that increase due to the pandemic.

Ramon said the process for finding a permanent CEO was “well advanced”, and confirmed she was in the running for the role. Ramon took over on Sept. 1 last year when Kelvin Dushnisky stepped down.

AngloGold would be interested in acquiring the remaining 30% of Australia’s Tropicana from its joint venture partner IGO “at the right value,” Ramon said.

“We’re keeping a watching brief on that,” she said, adding that AngloGold has a pre-emptive right to the stake which IGO has been reviewing since September. (Reporting by Helen Reid; Editing by Christian Schmollinger, Uttaresh.V and Bernadette Baum)

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