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Not long ago, copper prices were headed for the $4-per-pound level that they flirted with last summer, and hooligans were making off with telephone lines and air conditioners for the salvage value of their copper content. At the same time, Freeport was on the buyout trail, with Phelps Dodge, a copper producer twice its size, in its sights.
My, how things have changed! Freeport's shares have plummeted by a whopping 85% since their high above $127 in May, and nobody cares any longer about pilfering other folks' copper-containing items, since the metal is now trading at about $1.50 per pound. As a result, the world's largest publicly owned copper company is cutting back meaningfully on production, at least for now.
Freeport isn't the only one. Steelmakers ArcelorMittal (NYSE: MT ) and U.S. Steel (NYSE: X ) and aluminum giant Alcoa (NYSE: AA ) are all making cuts. They join miners Rio Tinto (NYSE: RTP ) and Vale (NYSE: RIO ) in chopping production, employees, payrolls, and/or dividends at a breakneck pace. But given the speed of its decline, Freeport's moves seem particularly amazing.
For instance, Freeport is cutting -- I'd like to say "trimming," but that doesn't really tell the story -- its 2009 capital budget by more than half, to $1.1 billion. It sees copper production falling 5% next year and 11% in 2010. Molybdenum production at the company's primary "moly" mine is likely to slide by 25%. And I'm guessing that many of those cuts will eventually go even deeper than that.
Perhaps most surprisingly, Freeport is getting rid of its annual $2-per-share dividend entirely. That'll save more than $750 million a year.
So do we walk away from the company? I'm ambivalent. My 30,000-foot perspective is to remind Fools that Freeport is an incredibly solid company, with long-lived, geographically diverse assets and sound management. If you have an extended investment time horizon -- a couple of years at the very minimum -- it might be worth a nibble. If not, there are better places for your shekels for now.
Freeport remains a wearer of five stars, as judged by Motley Fool CAPS players. Do you agree?
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