BHP Billiton could be several years away from treating shareholders to a special round of returns, according to guidance that chief executive Andrew Mackenzie gave recently.
Mr Mackenzie told UBS that he was unlikely to conduct a round of share buybacks or award a special dividend until the company's debt was below $US25 billion.
At last count, BHP's debt was just over $US29 billion, and UBS does not expect the company to be able to pay that down much during the 2014 financial year.
In a research note, UBS analyst Glyn Lawcock said BHP might wait until the 2016 financial year before conducting a special round of shareholder returns.
''At [$US25 billion] or lower, the CEO said he felt that the balance sheet would be at a level which would provide the company with flexibility and ensure the maintenance of a single-A credit rating,'' Mr Lawcock wrote.
Mr Mackenzie told UBS that share buybacks were more likely than a special dividend given the company's dual-listed structure.
BHP has been under pressure to increase shareholder returns in recent years, and has a progressive dividend policy that incrementally increases payouts to shareholders every year. Shareholders were last week awarded a full-year dividend of $US1.16, which was 4 per cent bigger than the payout the year before.
Mr Mackenzie's comments on shareholder returns come after a five-year period during which BHP shareholders went backwards in terms of total shareholder returns, but fared better than investors in most other big miners.
Meanwhile, BHP has confirmed that one of its most senior executives over recent years, Marcus Randolph, will retire from the company within a week.
The gregarious Mr Randolph spent close to six years in charge of BHP's iron ore and coal divisions, and was long touted as one of the favourites to replace former chief executive Marius Kloppers.
He recently returned after spending much of 2013 on sick leave, but will now depart on September 2.
Mr Randolph's departure was not the only change announced by BHP on Monday, with a new face set to join the company's powerful ''group management committee'' (GMC).
BHP's human relations boss, Mike Fraser, has been elevated to the GMC, and will carry the title ''president of human relations''.
The elevation was made possible by splitting in half the ''people and public affairs'' role that GMC member Karen Wood has held over recent years.
Ms Wood will continue at the company as president of public affairs and remain on the GMC.
Mr Fraser has spent 13 years at BHP, serving in South Africa, Mozambique and at the company's headquarters in Melbourne.