(Updated for Friday stock prices and to provide further analyst commentary.)
PHOENIX, Ariz. (
blew past analysts' estimates when it reported fourth-quarter earnings on Thursday, but it wasn't enough to forestall a deep selloff in the company's shares.
Freeport, the biggest extractor of copper in the world, has benefited from the Chinese economy's hunger for raw materials, which has lifted prices for commodities, including the copper that comprises around 75% of Freeport's sales.
But when authorities in the People's Republic appeared to step up efforts to prep global markets for a coming tightening of monetary policy -- and thus a slowdown in China's roaring growth -- Freeport shares took a beating Wednesday and particularly on Thursday, along with equities in general.
Shares of the Arizona-based miner tumbled 8.7% in the previous session, and the declines continued Friday morning, with the stock losing more than 2% to $74.57 about an hour after the opening bell. Already, 9 million shares had changed hands; the three-month daily average turnover is 13 million shares.
Though Freeport's improved results in the fourth quarter largely depended on China's voracious raw-materials binge, and the resulting increase in copper prices, the name of that country appeared not a single time in the miner's earnings report.
In a conference call with analysts and, later, in an appearance on
, Freeport CEO Richard Adkerson downplayed the notion of any curtailment in China lending or an abatement in sales of copper to manufacturers in the world's third largest economy. Investors have periodically worried about just this thing for years, he said, and yet China's economy continues to bloom.
Furthermore, said Leo Larkin, a metals-and-mining equities analyst at Standard & Poor's, inventories have fallen so low inside the warehouses kept by Freeport's OEM customers that those manufacturing outfits are bound to begin the restocking process, butressing copper demand.
If investors weren't worrying about what a potential Chinese slowdown might mean for Freeport's business, they may have been taking profits. Shares of the company have nearly doubled in value since July and "were due for a drubbing," said Steven Spencer, a trader at SMB Capital in New York, in an email. "The next significant support level is" $73.20, he added. "I would expect it to bounce from there."
Before Thursday's opening bell, Freeport posted earnings for its fourth quarter of $971 million, or $2.15 a share. Analysts polled by Thomson Reuters were calling for a per-share profit of $1.72. A year ago, Freeport reported adjusted earnings of $23 million, or 6 cents a share, which excluded a huge multibillion-dollar charge for goodwill impairment after the financial crisis.
On the top line, Freeport's revenue surged 122% to $4.6 billion from a year ago, also besting the Wall Street consensus target of $4.2 billion. The company -- which operates the enormous Grasberg copper pit in Indonesia -- had revenue of $2.07 billion a year ago.
Freeport's results came largely on the back of the soaring price of both gold and copper -- the latter rose some 150% in 2009. The company's average realized price of copper in the fourth quarter was $3.20 a pound, Freeport said, up 106% from the $1.55 Freeport fetched for the metail in the same period of 2008. The company actually produced less copper in the latest quarter than it did a year ago -- 978 million pounds vs. 1.19 billion.
Freeport's outlook for 2010 was in line with earlier guidance: the company expects to sell 3.8 billion pounds of copper, 60 million pounds of molybdenum and 1.8 million ounces of gold.
Still, the copper and gold projections, at least, are well below the company's 2009 sales volumes: 4.1 billion ounces of copper and 2.6 million ounces of gold.
The company also forecast a significant rise in cash costs for 2010, up 56% to 86 cents a pound from 55 cents in 2009. (The metric takes into account all three metals.) The spike comes as Freeport's lowest-cost mine, the enormous Grasberg pit in Indonesia, produces less and less copper, thus pushing costs higher.
Freeport's cost projection assumes gold and molybdenum prices in 2010 of $1,100 an ounce and $12 a pound, respectively. Both those figures are less than the average prices realized by the company in 2009: $1,115 an ounce for gold and $13.45 an ounce for molybdenum.
Freeport boss James Moffett said in a prepared statement, "Our 2009 results reflected exceptional operating performance throughout our operations, successful execution of our production and cost reduction plans and improved market conditions for our products -- copper, gold and molybdenum."
-- Written by Scott Eden in New York
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