While a nearsighted equity market obsesses over the shortfalls of a difficult 2012, Freeport-McMoRan Copper & Gold (NYSE: FCX ) continues to position itself for sustained growth within a bullish long-term outlook for its primary products.
Despite an increase in realized prices for both copper and gold, this major miner saw its third-quarter earnings dip by 22% over the prior-year period, after some changes to the mine plan at its key Grasberg mine in Indonesia brought some lower-grade ores from upper portions of the open pit into the ore mix, and a portion of the underground operation experienced a slower-than-anticipated ramp-up. Gold sales took the brunt of the impact, plummeting 51% to just 202,000 ounces for the quarter. With that lower by-product gold production from Grasberg, the company's net cash cost for copper production doubled to $1.62 per pound.
For its estimated 3.6 billion pounds of copper output for 2012, Freeport has targeted an uncharacteristically elevated net cash cost of $1.50 per pound . But that's just the news of today, and I'm not convinced that the market has properly set its sights upon the likelihood of improving news on the horizon. For starters, Grasberg will briskly return to its world-class, ultra-low-cost roots. The company expects net costs to average around $0.20 per pound over the next two years and improve to a net credit (a negative by-product cash cost) soon after! Accordingly, gold production will rebound to 1.4 million ounces in 2013 and is expected to average 2.1 million ounces per year from 2013 to 2016 . This is positive news as well for shareholders of Grasberg joint venture partner Rio Tinto (NYSE: RIO ) .
Further, while everyone seems focused on the near-term disappointments at Grasberg, Freeport has allocated $2.2 billion in growth-generating capital expenditures during 2012 in support of a three-project growth initiative, with the capacity to add nearly 1 billion pounds of incremental annual copper production over the next few years . During the earnings conference call on Monday, President and CEO Richard Adkerson indicated that the Tenke Fungurume expansion project in the Democratic Republic of Congo is proceeding "very well" and that construction is "virtually complete." Exploration success at Tenke may portend further expansions down the road, and in fact the sheer breadth of Freeport's prospects for long-term organic production growth from within its existing portfolio of operations is nothing short of astounding.
The near-term challenges affecting Freeport-McMoRan's shares have resulted in a share valuation that looks extremely attractive for long-term investors looking to profit from steady growth in the miner's low-cost copper production. Looking solely at Freeport's copper reserves -- ignoring for a moment the 30.6 million ounces of gold that by itself surpasses the combined gold reserves of Eldorado Gold (NYSE: EGO ) , and New Gold (NYSEMKT: NGD ) -- Freeport-McMoRan's current enterprise value of $41.5 billion amounts to a mere 12% of the present market value (using $3.50 copper) of the company's 96.1 billion pounds of copper in reserves .
In my experience, resource valuations at that extreme of a low have a tendency to be seen in hindsight as powerful investment opportunities; particularly in relation to a world-class operator with an impressive growth outlook. I believe Freeport-McMoRan Copper & Gold represents a tremendous bargain here beneath $40 per share, and that the dual attraction of a 3% dividend yield with continued positive price outlooks for copper and gold makes for a winning combination. Accordingly, I've designated my bullish CAPScall on the stock as a "top pick," and I invite Fools to track my ongoing coverage of the company by bookmarking my article list or following me on Twitter.
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