Freeport-McMoRan Reaches Agreement, But It’s Not What Investors Wanted

Freeport-McMoRan's deal isn't exactly great news for FCX shares

Freeport-McMoRan Reaches Agreement, But It’s Not What Investors Wanted

Source: Nick Bastian via Flickr (Modified)

It’s been hard to be a shareholder in copper and gold stock Freeport-McMoRan (NYSE:FCX) over the last few years. First, there was the collapsing copper and gold prices due to the recession. Then, it was there was the company’s poorly timed forays into the oil and gas sectors.

The latest battle and subsequent bruising to its share price stem from issues with the Indonesian government at its largest mine — and there is finally some closure on that front.

But it’s not what FCX shareholders should want to see.

The deal for Freeport-McMoRan isn’t that great and could seriously hinder earnings at FCX for some time. It’s even worse as it comes at a time when copper prices are starting to drop hard. All in all, it’s another blow for Freeport-McMoRan shareholders.

A Big Problem for Freeport-McMoRan

Rising copper prices and its ability to rid itself of its energy woes did wonders for FCX a few years ago and the stock nearly doubled. However, since heading into the summer of 2017, the roller coaster at Freeport-McMoRan has taken on a new plunge.

The issue has been a major scuffle with the Indonesian government. The government called for changes including higher royalty payments and more local control of mines. The problem is, this isn’t some willy-nilly mine. Freeport’s Grasberg mine is the world’s second-largest copper mine and one of the cheapest to operate due to the gold it also produces. Grasberg accounts for about a third of Freeport’s copper production and accounts for about 50% of the value of its assets. Strikes at the mine to protest the new rules actually shut down production at Grasberg and hit FCX directly in the pocketbook when it came to earnings.

The struggle between Freeport-McMoRan and the Indonesian government has been going on for more than a year. And it didn’t look like it was going to end anytime soon.

That is, until recently. FCX may finally have a breakthrough in the negotiations. And it’s not necessarily good for the copper miner.

The deal is complex due to the size of the operation, but the gist is that Freeport would give up its majority stake in Grasberg to the Indonesian government. Under the deal, state-backed PT Indonesia Asahan Aluminum would pay $3.85 billion to increase the nation’s stake in the mine to 51%. Right now, it’s currently at just 9%. The kicker is that other owner Rio Tinto Group (NYSE:RIO) would get the bulk of that payout — around $3.5 billion — while FCX would snag just $350 million. The plus side is that Freeport-McMoRan would remain the operator of the mine

However, some analysts and even FCX itself aren’t necessarily happy with the deal. In fact, many think that Freeport accepted far less than it should have. Freeport Chief Executive Officer Richard Adkerson on a conference call even said that “Freeport left money on the table to get this deal done.”

What’s Next for Freeport-McMoRan?

The question is what’s next for the copper producer? The deal isn’t finalized and could be canceled, but given FCX’s willingness to get this done and end the painful chapter, there’s a good chance that this agreement is ultimate.

Going with that framework, FCX will still be the main operator, but not the main beneficiary of the mine. Rising royalty, dividends and taxes will directly benefit the Indonesian people/government — which is neither here nor there, but for Freeport shareholders, it’s not necessarily a good thing. The firm has already sunk about $14 billion into Grasberg and is in the middle of preparing a CAPEX plan to spend billions on taking the operation underground. That spending and operational risk will all be on FCX. The Government will only benefit. No wonder why other large miners such as Newmont Mining (NYSE:NEM) and BHP Billiton Ltd. (NYSE:BHP) have fled Indonesia, as the government has imposed higher royalty rates and regulations.

The worst part is copper prices have recently started to take a turn. Thanks to the trade war fears, copper has sunk. So, now, FCX is paying more in royalties and getting less for its what it produces — not too mention still selling out much of the cost for building out Grasberg.

What’s Next for Freeport-McMoRan?

While the deal does put away much uncertainty and ends a painful chapter for the copper miner, it’s not exactly a happy ending. Freeport isn’t exactly getting a great bargain for making the deal.

It could be much worse and it could have gotten nothing and lost 100% control, but shareholders are going to feel the effects of the higher royalties perhaps when it matters the most.

To that end, FCX shares still remain a riskier bet in the sector.

As of this writing, Aaron Levitt did not hold a position in any of the aforementioned securities.


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