Could Gremlins Hobble Freeport-McMoRan?


From my perspective, one of the more eagerly anticipated occurrences in our nascent earnings season will take place next Thursday, July 19, when Freeport-McMoRan Copper & Gold (NYS: FCX) tells us about its latest results. As many Fools know, I'm a longtime admirer of Freeport, largely for its asset base and its proven management team. That hasn't changed.

But while its noteworthy strengths haven't disappeared, there are a couple of figurative gremlins periodically pestering Freeport that, while not yet qualifying as weaknesses, are items that bear watching. For the first time in at least a half-decade, I believe it's defensible to be of two minds regarding the world's biggest publicly traded copper producer. On that basis, let's take a look at its two potential pests, followed by a quick recap of Freeport's ongoing strengths. In doing so, we'll see whether we can reach a conclusion on an ideal approach to Freeport's stock.

The possible gremlins
Goings-on at Grasberg:
It was recently announced that Freeport's big Grasberg operation in Indonesia could be the subject of an initial public offering. The company owns more than 90% of PT Freeport Indonesia, the high-grade operation to which it is progressively adding an underground operation to access ore bodies that lie below its open pit.

But while the operation in Papua, Indonesia -- not far from Sumbawa Island, where Colorado-based Newmont Mining (NYS: NEM) plies its trade -- is clearly a strength for Freeport, the company was beset during the second half of 2011 and early 2012 by concerted labor strife at the facility. Those difficulties were contained in part by the company's concessions to the striking workers, which some believe were excessive.

In addition, with resource nationalism becoming something of the norm around the globe -- ask ExxonMobil (NYS: XOM) and other majors about their "joyous" experiences in Venezuela -- the government of Indonesia is no exception. The country has passed new mining laws that carry a 20% divestiture requirement for companies operating there. Freeport maintains that it's immune to the requirement. Nevertheless, it's tough to swallow the notion that the labor difficulties, coupled with concerns about potential government shenanigans, haven't precipitated the new IPO talk. I'm frankly not a fan of the spin-off concept, at least not without a satisfactory justification by management on next week's call.

Big bad Bosco: Moving from the Pacific island nation to Africa's Democratic Republic of Congo, we come upon Freeport's still relatively new Tenke Fungurume copper and cobalt mining concessions, which I'll be watching for in the news next week. Indeed, there may be some devils working against that successful operation, in which Freeport holds a 56% interest.

You see, the Central African nation is anything but a bastion of stability. And while Freeport's mine is churning out far more copper than its rated capacity would have indicated, rebels led by Congolese warlord Bosco Ntaganda are making matters difficult for tin and tantalum miners near the country's eastern city of Goma, on the border with Rwanda. As a result, more than 16,000 refugees have high-tailed it from Congo to Uganda in just the past week.

Tenke -- which, like Grasberg, is being expanded -- is farther south than Goma, sitting not far from the border with Zambia, so my concerns may be overdone. Nevertheless, given the world we live in, the escapades of Ntaganda and his marauders clearly bear monitoring.

Freeport's continuing positives
Until something changes, Grasberg and Tenke continue to be strengths for Freeport. Beyond that, the company -- which also ranks as the world's leading supplier of molybdenum, a vital hardening agent for steel -- boasts seven open-pit copper mines in North America and another four in Peru and Chile.

And while most of those mines produce molybdenum as a byproduct, Freeport also operates a pair of dedicated molybdenum mines (one open-pit and the other underground) in Colorado. The positive results for the company are long-lived reserves characterized by desirable geographic diversity. Add those strengths to a solid management team, a net debt-free balance sheet, a 40% operating margin, a 28% return on equity, and a 3.8% indicated forward dividend yield, and you've found a company with more than its share of positives.

The Foolish bottom line
I'm not certain whether you share my feeling that we are in the early stages of an unusually significant earnings season. So in addition to Freeport and Newmont, I'll be carefully monitoring the releases and sentiments of such other companies as Southern Copper (NYS: SCCO) and Encore Wire (NAS: WIRE) , a Texas-based manufacturer of wire and cables that constitutes a copper end-user well worth watching.

Until we receive the reconnaissance from the companies' release sessions, I'm disinclined to urge Fools to load up on Freeport-McMoRan to the extent that I might have previously. Instead, I strongly recommend that you keep close tabs on the company by adding it to your all-important, absolutely free My Watchlist feature.

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Fool contributorDavid Lee Smithdoesn't own shares in any of the companies named in the article above. The Motley Fool owns shares of Freeport-McMoRan Copper & Gold and ExxonMobil. The Motley Fool has adisclosure policy. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe thatconsidering a diverse range of insightsmakes us better investors. Try any of our Foolish newsletter servicesfree for 30 days.

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