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Freeport's Lousy Quarter May Have Been Positive

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It wasn't long ago that Freeport-McMoRan (NYSE: FCX  ) was the belle of the ball, buying up Phelps Dodge, a copper producer twice its size, riding copper prices to nearly $4.00 a pound, chalking up some heady financial results, and sporting a per-share price above $127.

But then, like virtually all metals and mining companies around the world, last summer brought with it a veritable plunger that sucked the life out of commodity prices and had those once flush mining companies running for cover. As a result, Freeport has now followed a sour quarter at aluminum producer Alcoa (NYSE: AA  ) , managing to check in with a loss of nearly $14 billion, or $36.78 a share.

These less-than-robust figures compared with net income of $414 million, or $1.05 a share in the same quarter a year ago. It's important to note however, that, after an inventory evaluation, Freeport has recorded after-tax charges totaling $13.1 billion, or $34.51 a share, related largely to the acquisition of assets in the Phelps purchase.

You may recall that Freeport suspended its dividend in December. The company also has minimized its capital expenditure forecast for 2009. Indeed, while capex totaled $2.7 billion last year, Freeport now has pulled in its horns to the point where it expects this year's figure to hit approximately $1.3 billion.

With global metals prices having plummeted to the point where copper is now sitting near $1.60 a pound -- a drop of about 60% just since late spring -- Freeport almost certainly will continue to struggle during the next couple of years. Indeed, the company sold about 4.1 billion pounds of copper in 2008, and expects those figures to fall to 3.9 billion pounds this year, followed by about 3.8 billion pounds in 2010.

Interestingly, despite the company's travails -- which place it alongside the likes of Rio Tinto (NYSE: RTP  ) , BHP Billiton (NYSE: BHP  ) , and Luxembourg-based steelmaker ArcelorMittal (NYSE: MT  ) -- through mid-day trading on Monday, Freeport's shares had risen by about 10%. It appears that that those with an appetite for metals assume that the big write-down may have cleared the decks at the company and that, barring another drop in copper prices, the likelihood of a further share price decline has been minimized.

On that basis, Fools with a longer-than-usual investment time horizon would be well-advised to at least monitor this well-managed, geographically diverse company, with its quality, long-lived assets. A turn in the economy could do good things for Freeport shareholders.   

Freeport has been granted five stars by Motley Fool CAPS players. Why not add your evaluation to the company's ranking?

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Fool contributor David Lee Smith doesn't own shares in any of the companies mentioned. He does, however, encourage you to send along your comments or questions. The Fool has a disclosure policy.

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