Copper Thieves Can't Filch Freeport Shares

They're at it again. Or perhaps they never really quit. I'm referring to the thieves filching copper for its scrap value from virtually anything containing the red metal. While the thefts are an obvious and costly nuisance, they're also something of an indicator of the value inherent in owning shares of Freeport-McMoRan Copper and Gold (NYSE: FCX  ) .

With our unemployment rate remaining at nosebleed levels, the chances taken in pulling off the heists may seem worth it for the perpetrators. In California, for instance, one person who had adopted a vocation copping copper cashed checks totaling $78,000. This summer, in Brisbane, Australia, rail transportation was bollixed by copper thefts to the extent that a number of stations had to be closed for repairs. So, if you'd intended to use the Moolooah station, for instance, you may have had to stop at Gympie North, a daunting thought in itself.

And in the same area, a homeless man appeared in court last month charged with 90 offenses relating to the theft of copper wire. It's likely that local officials immediately provided a roof over his head.

Hanging 'em high
The key to the copper kleptomania -- along with the attractiveness of Freeport, and to a somewhat lesser extent, the likes of Newmont Mining (NYSE: NEM  ) and Thompson Creek Metals (NYSE: TC  ) -- is what we economists call the upward stickiness of the metal's prices. At the $3.80 per pound level, with which it has been flirting, despite global economic softness, copper is trading about 20% above its late 2011 levels. And while less-than-stellar manufacturing numbers from China on Wednesday chipped away at prices somewhat, a number of areas of relative strength have emerged of late.

For instance, the U.S. housing market, a major user of copper, appears to be in the very early stages of regaining its sea legs. Sales of previously owned homes hit a two-year high in August, and new construction numbers have been at least moderately encouraging. In addition, London Metal Exchange copper inventories are at low levels, and a Southern Copper (NYSE: SCCO  ) manager recently forecast a 6%-7% growth in the demand for the metal in China this year.

With that array of positives as a foundation, I urge Fools to take a gander at Freeport. The largest publicly owned copper company is also a major gold supplier, along with being the world's biggest producer of molybdenum, a key component in the strengthening of steel.

Across-the-board expansion
I've noted in the past that Freeport is the holder of long-lived, geographically diverse assets, but those characterizations are far more than just talking points. The company's key facility -- and the locus of most of its gold production -- is its Grasberg facility in Papua, Indonesia. The operation was beset by significant labor difficulties during the last half of 2011 and into this year (and the Indonesian government is proving to be newly recalcitrant), but Freeport's production essentially has returned to normal. Furthermore, the company, which owns 90% of PT Freeport Indonesia, is progressively adding an underground operation that will permit it to access bodies of high-grade ore beneath its open pit.

Closer to its Phoenix headquarters, the company operates seven open-pit copper mines in Arizona and New Mexico. As in Indonesia, most of these facilities are undergoing expansion. Also in the U.S., it produces molybdenum at its wholly owned Henderson underground mine and its Climax open-pit mine, both in Colorado. Molybdenum is also generally retrieved as a byproduct at the copper mines.

In South America, the company operates three copper mines in Chile and another in Peru. And, if it isn't becoming repetitious, those facilities are generally undergoing expansionary programs.

In the Democratic Republic of Congo, Freeport's Tenke Fungurume copper and cobalt mining operation has a rated capacity of 8,000 metric tons of ore per day, but its real output is currently approaching 13,000 tons daily. The addition of a second phase to the still relatively new facility will boost its capacity to 14,000 tons, although if the past is prelude, actual output levels will exceed that target substantially.

A tough team to top
And then there's Freeport's management. The strength of the team at the top is always difficult to quantify for any company. As an erstwhile securities analyst I'm a perpetual management freak. The Freeport team has clearly done yeoman's work in, for instance, bringing Tenke on line and acquiring Phelps Dodge when it was a competitor twice Freeport's size. When the purchase occurred, slightly more than five years ago, Freeport-McMoRan's debt ballooned to a portly $17.6 billion. Today, despite the capital-intensive nature of its business and its plethora of expansion efforts, the company is net debt free.

The Foolish bottom line
I also remain a fan of mining and energy giant BHP Billiton (NYSE: BHP  ) . But given the nature of the world's economy and the exemplary resilience of copper and gold, I'd place Freeport at the top of the mining totem pole. Notably, of the 23 Wall Streeters who follow the company, an astounding 21 have its shares rated at least a "buy."

With all this in mind, I wouldn't for a minute discourage you from placing shares of Freeport-McMoRan into your portfolio. You also owe it to yourself to add the company to My Watchlist.

Fool contributor David Lee Smith doesn't have ownership interests in any of the companies named in the article above. The Motley Fool owns shares of Freeport-McMoRan Copper & Gold. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy. We Fools may not 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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David Smith

A longtime securities analyst and multiple-term member of The Wall Street Journal's All-Star Research team, Dave specializes in energy and natural resources.

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