Don't let it get away!
Keep track of the stocks that matter to you.
Help yourself with the Fool's FREE and easy new watchlist service today.
There's enough going on at Freeport-McMoRan Copper & Gold (NYSE: FCX ) , the world's biggest publicly traded copper producer, that its management undoubtedly resembles a proverbial cat in a sandbox these days. But the key question regarding the big mining -- and now oil and gas -- company is whether its shares should be bought, sold, or ignored.
As we move into June, the company's attention is being directed to the combination of starting its huge Grasberg copper and gold facility in Indonesia, following a pair of accidents, and buttoning up its purchase of Houston-based energy producer Plains Exploration and Production Company. At the same time, its preparing to close on its planned acquisition of McMoRan Exploration (NYSE: MMR ) , an event that's expected to occur early next week.
Grasberg's horrendous happenings
On May 14, a training area in a Grasberg tunnel, away from the company's main operating areas, caved in on 38 workers. While 10 of the victims were rescued, the rest perished. The following day, Freeport suspended its operations at the big facility, which, in addition to its copper output, contains the world's largest reserves of gold. Only BHP Billiton's (NYSE: BHP ) Escondida facility in Chile can boast a size advantage over Grasberg.
Then, as the company was preparing to resume production at Grasberg -- which can produce 140,000 metric tons of copper daily when it is running all out -- a second accident at the facility left another employee fighting for his life. According to a statement from Freeport Indonesia, workers were performing approved maintenance activities at the deep ore zone underground in the complex when "wet ore material (wet muck) flowed from an ore bin covering a truck and its driver."
The victim was last reported to be in critical condition. This event followed by six weeks Rio Tinto's (NYSE: RIO ) stoppage of production at its Bingham Canyon mine in Utah.
It remains difficult to forecast when Grasberg will again produce at full capacity. On Thursday, a union representing 18,000 of the 24,000 workers at the operation said its contingent wouldn't return to work until all investigations are wrapped up at the complex. That contention raises questions about how long the company can continue to ship copper to its customers. Since the mine's closing, it's been tapping its stockpiles, which typically run to about a four week supply.
Unpacking the purchases
On Friday, Freeport's $6.2 billion Plains purchase, which had been announced in December, was closed. Plains' shareholders were given a choice of cash or Freeport shares in the deal. All in all, the acquisition likely will cost Phoenix-based Freeport about $6.9 billion.
Plains was formed in 2002 and had a final market capitalization slightly in excess of $6.3 billion. Through its acquisition, Freeport receives oil and gas operations onshore and offshore in California, in the Gulf of Mexico, along the Gulf Coast, and in the Rocky Mountains.
Once the McMoRan deal is completed, Freeport will add additional properties in the Gulf of Mexico and on the Gulf Coast. Through the two purchases, Freeport will notably gain acreage in both the prolific Eagle Ford play and the Haynesville shale. It will also assume McMoRan's provision of services in exploration and production technologies, including 3-D seismic interpretation and both offshore and horizontal drilling.
Freeport, which shares a number of executives with McMoRan, will pay the latter company's shareholders $14.75 per share in cash and 1.15 units in a royalty trust for each share of the acquired company they hold. As such, that deal will cost Freeport about $3.4 billion. In total, the two acquisitions will cost about $20 billion, including debt assumptions.
Cutting the copper correlation
It's now hard to forecast the extent to which Freeport shares will correlate to copper prices. Obviously, the new oil and gas properties in the company's repertoire will reduce the prior close relationship between the share price and demand for the red metal. Copper prices dipped this week when the International Monetary Fund reduced its forecast for economic growth in China.
In the past year, Freeport's shares have been about flat, although year to date they've retreated by nearly 9.5%. The latter movement clearly relates in part to concern about the wisdom behind the oil and gas purchases and, more recently, the negatives cast by the Grasberg tragedies. In contrast, Southern Copper (NYSE: SCCO ) has seen its share price rise by about 12.75% during the past year, but drop by more than 18% on a year-to-date basis.
There obviously also are concerns about Freeport's debt position following the conclusion of both mergers, along with its ability to seamlessly fold in the oil and gas operations. While the company's net debt position at the end of 2012 was about $12 billion, management forecasts that, at $3.00 per pound for average copper prices, that level can be reduced to about $7.7 billion by the end of 2016. And at a $3.50 average, net debt likely would decline to approximately $2.0 billion in the same time frame.
As to management's ability to comfortably take on the energy operations, a prior criticism can now become a strength. When the Plains and McMoRan deals were first announced, much of the criticism that sprang up related to board of directors and management overlaps among the companies. Now, those connections importantly mean that Freeport's leadership is hardly new to its new assets.