The last few years have not been too kind for copper and gold miner Freeport-McMoRan Inc (NYSE:FCX) and FCX stock. The firm has suffered considerably thanks to a double whammy of falling prices for its two chief products. And, then, in one of the worst timed deals in all of history, FCX racked up huge debts to build out an oil and gas empire just as the market was peaking.
Since then, Freeport has suffered and, in fact, there were worries about it continuing as an ongoing concern.
But, these days, FCX seems to be on the upswing — and its latest earnings report highlights how far it’s come. However, there could be plenty of rough seas ahead, as some lingering issues remain.
The Good News About FCX Stock
Freeport finished 2017 down slightly, but you wouldn’t know it from looking its chart in 2018. FCX stock rallied over 33% in December and those gains have carried over into the new year.
Much of that good news stems from the fact that both gold and copper have rebounded quite nicely over the last few months, as the growing global economy has boosted demand for industrial metals. At the same time, high equity valuations, emerging market demand and general geopolitical uneasiness have helped on the gold side.
All in all, Freeport managed to realize average prices of $3.21 per pound for copper, $1,285 per ounce for gold and $9.79 per pound for molybdenum during the fourth quarter of 2017.
For Freeport, the higher prices, as well as overall lower all-in production costs, have been a lifesaver. As a result, FCX has managed to boost its cash flows and, more importantly, its earnings. During the last quarter, Freeport reported $750 million in net income, or 51 cents per share. This was nearly double the profits the firm realized in the fourth quarter of 2016. Moreover, FCX saw a big increase operating cash flows — which came in at $1.7 billion for the fourth quarter of last year.
The real win for FCX with its better cash flows and earnings has been in terms of debt reduction. It’s ill-fated trip to the oil patch cost a cool $20 billion. That put the firm very much in danger — especially with prices for all three commodities it produces in the dumps. However, since its cash flow situation has improved greatly, Freeport has been taking great measures to pay down its high debt load.
During the quarter, FCX managed to retire several different series of senior notes on the open market and through direct debt purchases. In all, Freeport was able to knock an additional $1.7 billion off its debt load. Today, FCX’s total debt load sits at $13.1 billion — still high, but a lot better than the $20 billion-plus it had just a short time ago. That debt load looks even better when you also take into account that Freeport had $4.4 billion in cash and investments on its balance sheet.
One Big Speed Bump For FCX Stock
It looks like Freeport-McMoRan stock is starting to really turn a corner. And that’s great for long-suffering investors. But the great earnings still mask a a growing concern — the fact that Freeport still hasn’t come to an agreement with the Indonesian government.
The issues stem from FCX’s massive Grasberg copper and gold mine. Grasberg isn’t just some mine that Freeport has in its holdings. This is where it gets the bulk of its production from. Back in May of last year, the Indonesian government changed the rules on royalty rates, exports and a whole host of other concessions for operation.
FCX agreed to give up a majority stake in the mine which dropped its share of profits from 90% down to just 49%. However, other aspects of the deal — such as how much that stake is worth — continue to be debated, like what will happen to the stake of the other owner, Rio Tinto (NYSE:RIO). The deliberations have taken so long that Indonesia has issued another temporary operating license for Freeport that will give it another six months to negotiate a deal.
There is still a chance that FCX could get less than it thinks it will. Moreover, the Indonesian government could simply tell the firm “see ya later” and not grant it a license to operate the mine at all. It’s a lingering issue that could seriously disrupt any benefit from rising copper demand and better earnings at Freeport.
Bottom Line on FCX Stock
So, is FCX stock a big-time buy or a big-time sell? A little from column A and a little from column B. The issues from Grasberg are going to be a major drag on shares of the firm until they are sorted out and the hope is that they will move in FCX’s favor. If not, you’re looking at some serious declines in the firm’s share price.
On the other hand, rising copper demand and pricing is seriously boosting Freeport’s fortunes. That provides a nice tailwind that will propel shares forward.
Perhaps the best strategy is to trim or sell half a position. Long-suffering investors have been able to realize some impressive gains so far with FCX. There’s never any harm to take some money off of the table. If Grasberg comes back a bust, then it’s not a whole position that is creamed. And if FCX rallies more, then you’ll still profit.
As of this writing, Aaron Levitt did not hold a position in any of the aforementioned securities.