During a lingering period of tepid economic expansion, it's a rare company that can take its turn in the earnings parade and shred analysts' expectations, raise its guidance for product growth, and then toss in a supplemental shareholder dividend.

However, that was precisely the way Phoenix-based Freeport-McMoRan Copper & Gold (NYSE: FCX) distinguished itself during its first-quarter turn at reporting. Indeed, the world's largest publicly held copper producer recorded 67% higher earnings of $1.5 billion, or $1.57 per share, compared with $897 million, or $1.00 a share, for the initial quarter of 2010. Revenue rose 30% to $5.71 billion.

Analysts had arrived at a consensus forecast of $1.26 a share, or 20% below actual results. The company's powerful quarter led it to declare a one-time special dividend of $0.50 a share.

Freeport thus moves into first place among the metals companies in a still unfolding earnings session. The display of results was initiated by solid, if unspectacular, results by aluminum kingpin Alcoa (NYSE: AA). Southern Copper (NYSE: SCCO) then topped year-ago earnings by 25%. Looking ahead, U.S. Steel (NYSE: X) and Luxembourg's Arcelor Mittal (NYSE: MT) will represent the major steel producers on April 26 and May 11, respectively.

Freeport's copper sales volumes dipped by 3.5%, while its per-pound price realizations jumped to $4.31 from $3.42. At the same time that prices were rising, the company was able to reduce its costs for the red metal by $0.03 per pound to $0.79. Gold volumes were about flat with those of a year ago, while its price per ounce climbed by 26%. In molybdenum, a hardening component used in steel manufacturing, volumes grew by 18%, while the per-pound price rose by 20%.

At this juncture, Freeport management expects copper sales of 3.9 billion pounds for all of 2011, while gold is forecast to reach 1.6 million ounces and molybdenum sales to hit 73 million pounds. Each of those forecasts represents an increase from previous levels. The higher levels are tied to several factors including improvements at the company's big Grasberg copper and gold mine in Indonesia. Its future also includes an expansion at its Tenke Fungurume mine in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Given constant concerns about future demand for copper, CEO Richard Adkerson noted on Freeport's call that "we are running our business and our development plans with an optimistic view of long-term demand for copper globally, driven by China and the developing world ... coupled with the continuing challenges the industry faces ... to meet that demand."

It's difficult to imagine a stronger quarter at Freeport-McMoRan, a company that's a joy to track. We can help you keep tabs on your companies with My Watchlist, our free, personalized stock tracking service.