On paper, there’s an intriguing bull case for miner Freeport-McMoRan (NYSE:FCX). Freeport-McMoRan stock looks cheap. Copper prices have dipped of late, but have at least one important long-term tailwind. And Freeport has steadily improved its balance sheet in recent years, cutting net debt by over $12 billion between the end of 2015 and the end of 2019.
But the key phrase is “on paper.” In practice, there’s a huge stumbling block to the bull case for FCX stock. Even if Freeport-McMoRan can drive higher free cash flow, as bulls and the company itself project, there’s a long-running concern as to where that cash flow is going to go.
The answer, according to a recent interview with Freeport-McMoRan’s chief executive officer, is not to shareholders. Given the history not just of Freeport but the entire mining industry, that’s a significant problem.
The Case for Freeport-McMoRan Stock
FCX stock already has been a solid investment in the last few years. Shares bottomed in January 2016 below $4, as pressure on the company’s since-divested oil and gas assets weighed on the stock. From that bottom, Freeport-McMoRan stock has more than tripled — and there’s a case for more upside ahead.
After all, production should increase nicely in the next two years. After its fourth-quarter report last month, Freeport guided for copper sales to reach 3.5 billion pounds in 2020, up from 3.3 billion in 2019. In 2021, however, the figure should spike to 4.3 billion, as the Grasberg mine in Indonesia, of which FCX owns 49%, returns to normalized output after a shift to underground mining.
From there, copper prices need to cooperate, and that’s always a risk. Copper prices are notoriously sensitive to the global economy; the commodity has been nicknamed “Dr. Copper” for its ability to provide a leading indicator of macroeconomic strength. A poorly-timed recession — or even continued softness in key markets in Asia — could pressure prices and thus Freeport’s earnings and cash flow.
But there’s one potential long-term driver for copper demand: electric vehicles. EVs are “copper hogs,” meaning growth from the likes of Tesla (NASDAQ:TSLA) can boost copper prices. and those prices drop almost straight to Freeport’s bottom line. It’s not as if shares are expensive even in the current moderate-price environment; should copper spike higher from here, Freeport stock likely does the same.
Balance Sheet and Cash Flow
Finally, Freeport’s balance sheet is in much better shape. As noted, debt has come down dramatically in a matter of years. The company has over $5 billion in liquidity, and a higher stock price if it wants to make an acquisition. If Freeport doesn’t make a deal, free cash flow should impress — particularly if copper prices rise.
Indeed, with its fourth-quarter presentation, Freeport-McMoRan modeled solid free cash flow in a higher-price environment. At $3 per pound, up from a current ~$2.60, operating cash flow in 2021-2022 would be in the range of $5 billion.
Capital expenditures currently estimated at $2.4 billion for 2021 suggest free cash flow around $2.6 billion. Put even a 10x multiple on that figure and FCX gains over 50%; increase the multiple, and the upside could be even higher.
Where Does the Cash Go?
To be sure, that paper case does require some help from copper prices. Models for 2021-2022 at $2.75 a pound suggest free cash flow under $2 billion. A market capitalization currently near $19 billion thus likely doesn’t see that much upside without pricing help. But investors in mining stocks are looking for leveraged returns on gains the underlying commodity — and on paper FCX stock is set up to provide precisely those returns if copper gains.
But that gets to the practical problem, and the interview CEO Richard Adkerson gave to Reuters at the end of last month. Adkerson noted the potential for higher cash flow and a higher stock price which would allow the company to make acquisitions.
“I’m looking forward to having a new experience in my career toward accessing alternatives and deciding which way we go…We don’t have a clear directive now on what that direction could be, but we will be attractively situated and will have an opportunity to add value through investments,” he told Reuters.
Those investments could include not just acquisitions but the construction of new mines.
In other words, the incremental free cash flow Freeport-McMoRan hopes to drive isn’t going back to shareholders. It’s going back into the business under Adkerson’s direction. And that should worry, if not terrify, FCX shareholders.
Adkerson was named CEO on Dec. 10, 2003. Under his watch, Freeport-McMoRan stock has declined by 42%.
There isn’t an external reason for the pressure. Copper prices, according to data from YCharts, have increased 174% over that span. Meanwhile, diversified miner BHP Group (NYSE:BHP), which has significant copper holdings, has seen its stock more than triple. Including dividends, BHP has posted a total return of more than 450%. For Freeport-McMoRan stock, total returns remain modestly negative.
One big reason for the decline was the aforementioned move into oil and gas, spearheaded by Adkerson. Freeport-McMoRan spent $20 billion on two acquisitions in 2012 at the height of the oil boom. The moves were instantly criticized by Wall Street and by investors; Freeport stock dropped 16% in a single day on the announcement. Allegations of self-dealing soon followed.
Less than four years later, Freeport managed to get less than $4 billion for its assets at the nadir of the oil bust. Over $16 billion in shareholder value was destroyed.
An investor might believe — or want to believe — that Adkerson and the Freeport board have learned their lesson from the disastrous acquisitions. There’s no evidence they have.
The Freeport-McMoRan dividend was slashed in 2014; the board hasn’t hiked the payout since despite a paltry 1.6% yield and the expected growth in free cash flow. Adkerson, at least per his interview, is looking to spend more shareholder money after the company spent the last four years recovering from its foray into oil and gas.
There are thus two scenarios here. Copper prices fall or stay roughly flat, and Freeport-McMoRan stock likely does the same. Or copper prices rise, giving Adkerson free reign to go and spend billions of dollars more of shareholder funds. Neither sounds particularly attractive.
The Mining Problem
To be somewhat fair, this is not a Freeport-only problem. As I detailed back in 2018, gold miners like Barrick Gold (NYSE:GOLD) have done a disastrous job of fulfilling their mission of providing leverage to the gold price. Barrick, Kinross Gold (NYSE:KGC) and AngloGold Ashanti (NYSE:AU) all saw their shares fall by over 60% even in a rising-price environment.
Recent performance for mining stocks has been better, but it’s still not as good as it should be in theory. Even the gains in Freeport stock over the last few years are more a case of the stock rallying sharply from 2016 lows than any real improvement on the ground. FCX stock actually is down 20% over the past three years despite basically flat copper prices.
The Bottom Line on Freeport-McMoRan Stock
What makes a stock like FCX particularly problematic is that the exchange-traded fund revolution has created far better alternatives. An investor who is bullish on copper can simply buy copper through an ETF. She can lever up that bet through the use of margin or a 2x or 3x ETF. Those trades have risk if copper prices decline of course; so does FCX.
But if copper prices rise, that investor doesn’t have to let Adkerson determine what to do with her gains. ETFs do have fees, but they’re generally minimal; meanwhile, Adkerson’s pay packages from 2016 to 2018 alone totaled over $50 million, according to Freeport’s most recent proxy statement.
If Freeport-McMoRan and Adkerson truly had learned their lesson and were looking to use potentially higher cash flow for increased shareholder returns, that would be one thing. Clearly, they’re not. History, and the -42% returns under Adkerson’s 16-year tenure, both suggest that it is a real problem for Freeport-McMoRan stock.
As of this writing, Vince Martin has no positions in any securities mentioned.