Minutes from the Federal Reserve's October meeting are out, and the results aren't promising for gold. Seen as a fear trade and a hedge against inflation, gold rallied to $1,700 per ounce over the past year as the Federal Reserve's aggressive monetary stimulus took effect. Recently, though, various Fed officials hinted that the central bank may taper off its massive monthly bond purchases, and its recently concluded meeting did nothing to sway these fears.
As a result, gold prices are now plummeting. Not surprisingly, a slew of gold industry participants are under intense pressure. Are any gold miners worth considering, or should investors avoid the industry entirely?
Gold is losing its luster
The minutes from the October meeting of the Federal Open Market Committee revealed several members would like to start scaling back asset purchases "sooner rather than later." Furthermore, FOMC officials are considering setting a hard date to end or reduce asset purchases, perhaps as soon as one of its next few meetings.
Not surprisingly, the resulting sell-off in gold is a disaster for the major gold miners. Consider that gold miner Barrick Gold (NYSE: ABX ) saw its adjusted earnings drop 23% in the first nine months of the year, as compared to the same period one year ago. Not surprisingly, falling gold prices are the culprit. The company's average realized gold price per ounce fell from $1,652 to $1,453 during the first three quarters.
Ditto for Goldcorp (NYSE: GG ) , which barely broke even in the third quarter. Earnings clocked in at $0.01 per share, down from $0.61 per share year over year. Both prices and production fell for Goldcorp during the quarter. The company realized an average gold price of $1,339 per ounce in the third quarter, down sharply from $1,685 per ounce in the same quarter last year. And, production fell from the previous quarter to 637,100 ounces. As far as both Barrick and Goldcorp are concerned, gold has fallen significantly below their average selling prices just last quarter, meaning profits may have further room to drop.
A better play for gold enthusiasts
For wary investors who still want exposure to precious metals, including gold, Freeport-McMoRan Copper & Gold (NYSE: FCX ) continues to be a solid pick. Not only does Freeport provide exposure to gold and a slew of other metals, but it is a highly diversified natural resources play as well.
Freeport-McMoRan Copper & Gold has set its sight on entering the oil and gas production businesses, and spent $19 billion on two separate acquisitions to prove it. This may be a wise move, since Freeport is struggling right alongside its peers as gold prices fall. The company's earnings per share over the first nine months of the year fell 19%, due mostly to poor metals pricing.
Freeport's two acquisitions provide it considerable deep-water reserves in the Gulf of Mexico, as well as access into several promising shale plays in North America. Furthermore, McMoRan Exploration's portfolio brings in a "large, long-term, and low-cost source of natural gas production" according to management.
In all, Freeport plans to derive a significant percentage of its total business from oil and gas production going forward. To be exact, the company expects a full quarter of its 2014 earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation, and amortization, or EBITDA, to come from its oil and gas segments.
The Foolish takeaway
As gold plummets, so do the profits of the major gold miners. Barrick Gold, Goldcorp, and Freeport-McMoRan are all seeing business conditions deteriorate as gold prices continue lower. While there's little that can be done in the cases of Barrick Gold and Goldcorp, Freeport-McMoRan presents a unique diversification opportunity.
That's because Freeport-McMoRan has meaningfully branched out from just being a pure-play miner. It now has significant oil and gas assets in its portfolio, which will greatly help insulate investors against an ongoing bear market for precious metals. As a result, Freeport-McMoRan may be the best way to play the precious metals.
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