Freeport-McMoRan to Gauge Global Economy

BOSTON (TheStreet) -- When Freeport-McMoRan Copper & Gold (FCX) reports quarterly earnings tomorrow, the world will listen.

As the largest copper producer, what Freeport-McMoRan says carries a lot of weight. Copper is used in the construction and housing industry, and gold is viewed as investors' outlook on inflation and the economy.

Following Freeport-McMoRan with earnings reports will be bellwethers including Newmont Mining ( NEM), U.S. Steel ( X) and Nucor ( NUE).

Mining companies are expected by analysts to post big gains, boosted by huge demand and record prices for gold and copper. Stronger economic growth and demand for metals in China, India and other emerging markets are driving the success of companies like Freeport-McMoRan, which is based in Phoenix.

Still, steel firms are struggling as the rebounding economy has yet to filter through to new construction projects and car sales that boost demand for their products. Morningstar analyst Elizabeth Collins wrote in a year-end review that the fourth quarter should mark the bottom of earnings for U.S. steel producers in their current cycle.

What follows are the fourth-quarter earnings expectations of five companies in the mining and metals sector, starting with Freeport-McMoRan:

Freeport-McMoRan is seeing big revenue and earnings increases because of the skyrocketing prices of gold and copper.

Freeport-McMoRan sold copper for an average price of $3.25 a pound in the fourth quarter, 110% more than in the year-earlier period, according to Argus Research analyst Bill Selesky. That's as demand from China, which buys about 40% of worldwide copper, outweighed the sluggish U.S. market for new homes.

Standard & Poor's analysts project fourth-quarter earnings of $2.49 per share, bringing earnings for 2010 to $8.38, which agrees with its poll of 18 analysts. The company posted earnings of $5.86 per share in 2009.

S&P analysts estimate 2011 earnings will grow to $9.24 per share, while an S&P poll of 18 analysts resulted in a mean earnings estimate of growth of 26% to $11.14.

But on Jan. 14, S&P lowered its rating to "sell" from "hold," with the view that shares have had a sharp run-up and the stock is now overvalued.

TheStreet Ratings gives the shares a "buy," noting that the company's revenue growth, including 24% in the third quarter, is carrying the improved results. Its analysts project earnings of $8.92 per share for 2010. On Feb. 2, the stock will begin trading on the NYSE on a split-adjusted basis, after a two-for-one split.

Newmont Mining ( NEM) is a gold producer with assets, or operations, in the U.S., Australia, Peru, Indonesia, Ghana, Canada, New Zealand and Mexico. The company is scheduled to report fourth-quarter earnings Feb. 24.

Newmont Mining is benefiting from the 25% rise in gold prices in 2010. A Thomson Reuters poll of 21 analysts resulted in a mean estimate of $1.13 per share earnings in the fourth quarter, up from an estimate of $1.09 a month ago. That brings the consensus view for the year to $3.85.

But consensus estimates gathered by Bloomberg as of Jan. 17 call for fourth-quarter earnings per share of $1.19, up from $1.08 as of Dec. 19. That group of analysts expects full-year earnings of $4.01 per share. The company earned $2.68 per share in 2009.

Going forward, earnings per share are estimated to rise to $4.91 for 2011 and $5.87 for 2012, according to Bloomberg. TheStreet Ratings, which has its shares rated "buy," says "the company's strengths can be seen in multiple areas, such as its robust revenue growth, largely solid financial position with reasonable debt levels by most measures, notable return on equity, reasonable valuation levels and expanding profit margins."

Of the 19 analysts that Bloomberg polled, 10 have "buy" recommendations, seven rate it "hold," and two rate shares "sell."

U.S. Steel ( X), the second-largest steel company in the U.S. and among the top 20 globally, is scheduled to report on Jan. 25.

Standard & Poor's analysts estimate a fourth-quarter loss of 79 cents per share, bringing the loss for the year to $2.41. They project a turnaround in 2011 to earnings of $4.87 per share. According to S&P's roundup of analysts' opinions, the consensus estimate is for a loss of $2.55 per share for 2010, and a 218% turnaround in 2011 to a profit of $3.01 per share.

Thomson Reuters notes that the company's current quarter consensus estimate has decreased notably over the past 90 days from 39 cents per share to a loss of $1.11 per share for 2010. During the past 30 days, analysts covering the company have made one upward and three downward earnings estimate revisions for the fourth quarter, it said.

Nucor ( NUE), the largest U.S. mini-mill steelmaker in the U.S., is scheduled to report earnings on Jan. 27. For the fourth quarter, Standard & Poor's analysts, who have its shares rated "hold," are estimating a loss of 11 cents per share, bringing earnings for 2010 to 35 cents per share. They project earnings will rise to $2.97 for 2011. The 14 analysts polled by S&P have a mean earnings estimate of 37 cents per share for 2010.

In mid-December, the company said it expects fourth quarter results to be in the range of a loss of 10 cents to 15 cents per share. It cited significant increases in scrap prices and the inability to realize sales price increases quickly enough to benefit results in the period.

ArcelorMittal ( MT) is one of the world's largest steel suppliers and the fifth-biggest iron-ore miner. The company is scheduled to report on Feb. 8.

It is expected to post fourth-quarter earnings per share of 24 cents, bringing 2010 earnings to $2.25 per share, according to TheStreet Ratings. It expects the company's earnings will rise to $2.69 in 2011 as international demand for steel grows.

Ned Davis Research, which has the shares rated "buy," said its poll of eight analysts resulted in a mean 2010 earnings estimate of $2.36 per share. The company lost 26 cents per share in 2009.

A Morningstar analyst reports in a research note that "the company is slowly ramping up production in line with rising shipments while cautiously reinitiating key growth projects. Strong emerging market exposure will prompt a quicker sales recovery than at many of the company's competitors, as steel demand in the developed world is likely to recover at a slower pace."

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