For a while, it looked like it was going to be about as overdone as that first Thanksgiving turkey my spouse and I cooked up as newlyweds. I'm talking about the drubbing that Freeport-McMoRan
The company spent most of the session with its share price in the dumpster by double-digit percentages, only to "recover" to a decline near 5% when the rest of the market bolted for higher ground. The cause of the catastrophe? Fourth-quarter earnings per share fell from $1.99 to $1.05 thanks to one-time charges and higher costs.
Even if you back out the net charges of $0.29 a share for a host of special items, you still end up at $1.36 a share, or well below what Wall Street was planning on welcoming, which was closer to $1.68. The news wasn't a complete disaster, though. The top line leapt 155%, from $1.64 billion to $4.18 billion, and the company finished paying off its $10 billion debt load it took on to fund the Phelps Dodge acquisition last year.
The culprits involved in the earnings shortfall were mainly attributed to copper prices, which slid from about $3.70 per pound at the start of the quarter to closer to $3.00 at the end. At the same time, unit production costs were more than 50% higher year over year.
Of course, Freeport's future -- or at least, its future share price -- will rise or fall on the basis of copper prices. In that connection, the key questions today involve how prices will fare in the event of a U.S. recession and where they'll head if a severe slowdown starts at home and spreads to the rest of the world. Those questions appear to have gained sufficient currency to have pushed other copper or copper-related companies such as Southern Copper
For my money, however, Freeport-McMoRan is a far better buy than a sell. Copper prices remain comfortably above $3.00, and the developing nations thus far show no signs of economic sputtering. Further, the company is trading at a less than eight times the forward P/E multiple, while dishing out better than a 2% dividend yield.
And beyond that, in the rapidly consolidating metals and mining sector, it doesn't require much imagination to envision Freeport -- which tripled its own size through acquisition last year -- becoming a gleam in the eye of, say, a BHP Billiton
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