The 10 biggest gold companies led by Barrick Gold Corp. spent more than $100 billion in the past 20 years buying new mines and projects around the globe. Now they’re feeling pressure to throw the strategy into reverse.

Gold Fields Ltd. spun off most of its South African assets in February. Billionaire hedge-fund investor John Paulson is calling for a breakup of Johannesburg-based AngloGold Ashanti Ltd. Barrick, which has 27 mines, is selling assets after an acquisition and cost overruns helped erase $27 billion of the Canadian company’s market value.

A Bloomberg Index of 14 large gold miners has lost 27 percent in the past year, worse than the 7.2 percent drop in a similar gauge of global oil companies. The gold industry, which underperformed the metal for five of the last seven years, has tried to stop the slide by ending gold-price hedges, raising dividends, building new mines and, most recently, pledging spending discipline. Spinning off or selling assets may be its next option.

“The next fad is going to be the unbundling of the majors,” said Mark Bristow, chief executive officer of Randgold Resources Ltd. The Jersey, Channel Islands-based company believes the optimal number of mines is “four or five, six at a push,” he said.

Such moves would follow the example of international oil companies that have split up to unlock value. ConocoPhillips, the largest independent U.S. oil and natural gas producer, spun off its refining unit in May, less than a year after Houston- based Marathon Oil Corp. listed its refinery network as a separate company.

‘Herding Cats’

Shareholders have grown cold on further expansion as valuations in the industry declined. The ratio of the largest gold miners’ enterprise value to their earnings before interest, tax, depreciation and amortization dropped to 6.3, less than half the multiple at the end of 2010, data compiled by Bloomberg show.

The gold-mining strategy of bulking up was led by Barrick, which became the industry leader in 2006 when it bought Placer Dome Inc. for $10.2 billion. Now operating across four continents, Barrick saw the estimated cost of its Pascua-Lama mine on the Argentina-Chile border more than double to as much as $8.5 billion and it took a $3 billion writedown on a Zambian copper mine last month.

“It’s like herding cats to manage something like that,” said George Topping, a Toronto-based analyst at Stifel Nicolaus & Co. “It’s very difficult across all those different time zones, different cultures, tax regimes, politics.”

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