Commodity stocks got pummeled in 2014, and Freeport-McMoRan Copper & Gold (NYSE:FCX) ended up getting hit hard in two different ways, first with weakness in copper, gold, and other mined commodities, and then once again when oil prices plunged. Yet even though Freeport-McMoRan's fourth-quarter financial report was predictably disappointing, the company's top management still had some upbeat things to say about Freeport's future. Let's take a closer look at the Freeport-McMoRan conference call and discuss five particularly important things that its corporate leaders said.
We are prepared to deal with whatever commodity price environment we have to live with. In many ways, there is a disconnect today ... between the current fundamentals of the marketplace and what we are seeing with commodity prices. But the market is what the market is, and we are not developing plans that are based on a near-term quick recovery in prices. -- CEO Richard Adkerson
Freeport-McMoRan has gotten blindsided in both of its key segments, as oil-price declines have made the energy assets it acquired just two years ago a lot less economically desirable than they appeared in the past. Adkerson noted that the current situation closely resembles 2008, with dramatic disruptions in markets that have created substantial uncertainty.
However, Freeport-McMoRan's experience with such markets is a mark in its favor. While the company will have to take some action in response to plunging commodity prices, it's a positive that Freeport-McMoRan won't overreact to changing conditions.
[W]e are having to change our focus from our previously stated debt reduction targets by 2016 because under these commodity prices, those targets are unrealistic. ... [W]e see 2015 as a bridging year to get us to higher cash flows that we have before us even without increases in commodity prices. We want to emphasize that we are not backing away from our objectives of reducing leverage, and going forward, we are going to continue to prioritize debt reduction. -- Adkerson
One issue that Freeport-McMoRan has faced for a long time is considerable debt on its balance sheet. That was a positive when conditions in the commodities market were favorable, and even now, low interest rates make high leverage levels sustainable. Yet the concern is that at exactly the time when Freeport is under the most financial pressure, it might not be able to handle rising debt-maintenance costs. Freeport's response is prudent, with expectations to reduce capital expenditures even as expanded operations with some of its mining properties, and promising results from its deepwater energy assets in the Gulf of Mexico, should help bolster production volume and eventually lead to improved revenue.
In Indonesia, as we work with the government to get our contract of work issue resolved, we just this week signed an extension of the [memorandum of understanding] that we had signed last July. -- Adkerson
Indonesia has been a trouble point for Freeport-McMoRan, with the South Asian nation having imposed hefty export taxes on copper concentrate early last year in efforts to persuade mining companies to build smelter facilities within the country. Freeport did an outstanding job getting past those issues, and though the company made concessions, it nevertheless handled a situation in which it had limited bargaining power exceedingly well. Ongoing labor struggles and other operational challenges still exist in Indonesia for Freeport, but working well with the government is a key component of ensuring that Freeport's key Grasberg mine sustains maximum output.
The oil and gas market is under severe stress, and our business is as healthy as anybody out there because of [our] rotation out of the shale [plays], so we actually have economic[ally viable] projects to go forward on. -- Chairman Jim Moffett
Many investors undoubtedly believe that Freeport-McMoRan's energy acquisitions were a terrible idea, and hindsight makes that assessment a lot simpler than it looked at the time. Nevertheless, Freeport's decisions to sell some of the company's valuable assets in the Eagle Ford turned out to be well-timed.
Now, Freeport is working to get the capital it needs to develop its most promising projects. Those efforts won't necessarily attract financing that offers the best deal for current investors. But by prioritizing capital expenditures, Freeport-McMoRan hopes that it can duplicate its success from after the financial crisis, and put itself in a strong position when a recovery comes.
We want to protect our balance sheet and liquidity ... with the primary goal, and the imperative of, preserving this really attractive and long-term asset base for the future benefit of our company. -- Adkerson
No one doubts that this will be a tough time for Freeport-McMoRan. The downward phase of commodity cycles is always a painful thing for natural-resources companies, and investors shouldn't minimize the adverse consequences that can result.
Nevertheless, it's comforting to see Adkerson and his team working at salvaging whatever they can from the tough conditions. Moreover, with a long-term focus on preserving asset value, Freeport-McMoRan will hopefully be able to keep its interests aligned with those of its current shareholders to ensure that vital projects move forward without any more dilution than is absolutely necessary. If it succeeds, then Freeport could emerge stronger than ever when commodities bounce back.