10 Key Reasons to Focus on Freeport-McMoRan

By now you've seen Freeport-McMoRan Copper & Gold's (NYSE: FCX  ) quarterly results, wherein earnings were nearly cut in half versus year-ago levels by labor strife in Indonesia. Those numbers were posted by the business scribes immediately after they were released, along with Freeport's having topped Wall Street's per-share expectations by $0.10 at $0.96.

So my churning out a detailed regurgitation of the quarter's numbers won't help you much. But since, from my perspective, Freeport ranks with oil-field services giant kingpin Schlumberger (NYSE: SLB  ) in the effectiveness with which it describes its circumstances each earnings season, let's breeze through 10 items that I think are important in understanding the big company. If we follow that approach, you're likely to have a keener understanding of my rationale for maintaining that Freeport should grace all Foolish versions of My Watchlist:

1. Operations are returning to normal at Grasberg, the company's big copper and gold mine in Indonesia, and normality should be achieved in the current quarter. As you know, February brought with it clashes between workers who had struck over wages during the previous quarter and those who hadn't. The results included a stoppage of production and the depressed numbers that you know about. Now, the focus is also returning to developing the infrastructure that will result in the addition of underground operations that will expand production considerably.

2. Despite concerns in some quarters, CEO Richard Adkerson remains positive about global copper markets. The U.S. market is being boosted by the automobile industry, and, while Europe is weak, "China continues to spend money on infrastructure projects."

3. The company appears to be immune from the 20% divestiture requirement that's resulting from new mining laws in Indonesia, where Colorado-based Newmont Mining (NYSE: NEM  ) also operates. As Adkerson says, Freeport's operations are covered by a status called "lex specialis." That's probably Latin for "We're grandfathered in, we get along well the Indonesian government, and they're going to leave us alone."

Growing, growing everywhere
4. In North America, where the company operates seven open-pit copper mines, management continues to evaluate a number of opportunities for capacity expansion.  The same is true of its four copper mines in Peru and Chile.

5. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, Freeport has a 56% interest in a still relatively new copper and cobalt concession. Despite being designed to produce 8,000 metric tons of ore per day, it managed 12,200 daily tons in the most recent quarter. A second phase will boost rated capacity to 14,000 metric tons per day, but if recent performance is a guide, that capacity level will be topped. In addition, Freeport appears to enjoy a sound relationship with the country's dicey government, a situation that bears monitoring.

And there's moly, too
6. We tend to bypass the fact that Freeport leads the world in the production of molybdenum, which hardens steel. Much of its "moly" production occurs as a byproduct of copper operations, but Freeport has also started up its exclusively molybdenum Climax mine outside Leadville, Colo.

7. Adkerson expects the company to produce about 3.7 billion pounds of copper, 1.1 million ounces of gold, and 81 million pounds of moly this year. That compares with 2011 levels of 3.7 billion pounds of copper, 1.4 million ounces of gold, and 79 million pounds of molybdenum. Average costs, which escalated with the shenanigans at Grasberg, are heading down and will be lower in future years than in 2012.

8. Despite any rumors that may have reached your ears about Freeport's being acquired by BHP Billiton (NYSE: BHP  ) or perhaps Rio Tinto (NYSE: RIO  ) , the company isn't for sale, Adkerson told a CNBC audience on Thursday. "We're really focused on growing our own business and creating value for our shareholders," he says.   

Extremely good balance
9. To my way of thinking, Freeport-McMoRan's balance sheet tells much of the tale about the strong management team at the company. In 2007, when the company bought Phelps Dodge, a much larger copper producer, its debt level scurried up to $17.6 billion. It's now down to $3.5 billion. If I recall my finance courses correctly, $4.5 billion in consolidated cash renders the company net debt-free.

10. Analysts always maintain that they pay close attention to managerial competence, and then promptly forget about that consideration, since it can't be factored easily into an earnings model. I'm convinced, however, that there's little that's of more importance in judging a company than management's track record and an analyst's visceral feel for managerial strength. Having watched Freeport for a number of years, I judge its team to be as good as they come.

The Foolish bottom line
So there you have it: 10 key items to focus upon in judging Freeport as a potential Foolish investment.  Perhaps add in its long-lived, geographically diverse assets, and you have an awfully compelling company.

Fool contributor David Lee Smith doesn't own shares in any of the companies listed in this article. The Motley Fool owns shares of Freeport-McMoRan Copper & Gold. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of Schlumberger. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy. We Fools don't all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days.


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