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Freeport Will Ride Copper's New Climb

By David Smith - Updated Apr 6, 2017 at 8:37PM

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Freeport-McMoRan has grabbed the world leadership in three of its products.

As you probably know, Freeport-McMoRan Copper & Gold (NYSE: FCX) produces copper, gold, molybdenum, and cobalt from state-of-the-art facilities in the southwestern U.S., South America, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).

And if you follow the solid, Phoenix-based company, you've probably noticed that I've left out perhaps the company's most significant facility. Indeed, as measured in reserves, it also operates the world's largest copper and gold mine -- its Grasberg operation in desolate and remote Papua, Indonesia. Grasberg was omitted because until today, it was the site of a weeklong strike involving its 10,000 workers.

Apparently, the crew members were dissatisfied with wages as low as $1.80 an hour. But Freeport has agreed to rescind a decision to lay off ranking union members, and the facility is being reopened.  

At least unofficially, Freeport's presence in Papua dates from the mid-1960s, when General Suharto conducted a coup that resulted in his assuming dictatorial control of the country. Early on, he was befriended by James R. Moffett, the chairman of Freeport, who eventually was granted the right to explore for gold and copper in the province. Discoveries that followed led to expenditures of about $175 million by Freeport for infrastructure in Papua, including roads, an airstrip, and an upscale mining town.

Grasberg is gaining
Despite its size and longstanding operation, the Grasberg facility continues to be actively expanded and upgraded. For instance, its high-grade Big Gossan mine began producing in late 2010 and is expected to reach 7,000 metric tons of ore per day next year, versus about 80,000 metric tons of ore per day from the entire facility. Further, through expenditures of about $600 million during each of the next five years, management expects newly tapped underground ore bodies to increase total production at Grasberg to about 240,000 metric tons per day by 2016.

But Grasberg is hardly the only mining expansion occurring at Freeport. In Arizona and New Mexico, the company operates seven open-pit copper mines, three of which also produce molybdenum. Its Miami mine in Arizona is undergoing a program to increase its efficiency, while the Chino mine in New Mexico has been restarted, following a suspension in 2008.

The company operates four copper mines in South America, one of which is in Peru, while three are in Chile. In the Katanga province of DRC, Freeport holds a 57.75% interest in the Tenke Fungurume copper and cobalt concession, which it also operates. Despite the African facility's relatively recent startup, it nevertheless is the subject of additional drilling, exploration analyses, and testing, all with an eye toward its expansion.

Freeport's big molly
While Freeport has become recognized as the world's largest publicly held copper and cobalt producer, the company also is the leader in the production of molybdenum, which is used to upgrade the strength and corrosion resistance of steel. Its molybdenum -- or "molly" -- output occurs both as a byproduct of its copper production and as a standalone product from its Henderson mine in Colorado.

With its current inventory of geographically diversified facilities, Freeport ranks second among the world's leading copper producers to Chile's privately held Codelco. Among publicly traded producers of the red metal, it ranks above BHP Billiton (NYSE: BHP) -- the world's largest minerals miner -- as well as Southern Copper (NYSE: SCCO), Rio Tinto (NYSE: RIO), and Brazil's Vale (NYSE: VALE).

Copper finds applications in a wide range of areas, from electronics to industrial equipment, automobiles, and housing. Largely as a result, despite our lethargic construction markets, and following a slippage in copper prices in May and June, the metal appears to have begun a recovery that could challenge the $4.63 per pound at which it traded in January. Indeed, indications are that the amount of copper being warehoused by the London Metal Exchange Warehouse is declining, and there are those who believe that prices could break new ground by penetrating $5 a pound.

China: big and getting bigger
As is the case with aluminum -- which can serve as a substitute for copper -- China far and away leads all other countries in copper consumption, accounting for 38% of the world's total demand. That sizable portion compares to 19% for the remainder of Asia, 15% for all of the Americas, and 16% for Western Europe. And with a five-year plan involving an increased urbanization of its citizenry, an improved transportation infrastructure, substantially increased housing, and an upgraded manufacturing base, it's hardly unrealistic to expect China to build on its current lead in copper demand.

I trust you'll agree that Freeport is ideally positioned to benefit from China's voracious appetite for a growing list of commodities. Therefore, just as aluminum kingpin Alcoa (NYSE: AA) rang up a solid quarter on Monday, such members of the copper community as Newmont Mining (NYSE: NEM) and the aforementioned Southern Copper are expected to handily beat last year's results when they report later this month.

For my money, however, given the quality of its facilities, its long-lived assets, its financial strength, and its size advantage over its publicly traded copper, molybdenum, and cobalt peers, my two peepers will be fixed on Freeport. I urge you to join me in adding the company's name to your personal version of My Watchlist.   

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We Fools don't all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. Fool contributor David Lee Smith doesn't own shares in any of the companies named in this article.  The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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Southern Copper Corporation Stock Quote
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