Freeport McMoRan Rides Copper's Rise

(Freeport McMoRan story updated with further information from the company's fourth-quarter earnings release.)

PHOENIX ( TheStreet) - Freeport McMoRan ( FCX) exceeded Wall Street expectations with its fourth-quarter results as copper prices surged to record highs amid an all-around boom in commodities.

Despite the bouyant report, Freeport stock came under selling pressure Thursday, changing hands recently at $109.66, down 5%. Freeport shares have rallied sharply since August, on the back of copper's fierce appreciation in value. But fears of an interest-rate hike in China, aimed at cooling growth in the world's most rapacious consumer of raw materials, once again took its toll on commodities prices Thursday. Metals and mining shares fell sharply across the board.

Freeport McMoRan's majority-owned Cerro Verde copper mine, in the Atacama Desert in Peru. The company is spending $50 million to boost the plant's production by 10%

Freeport, which has lived on sales of copper to China for use in such things as electrical wire, said its fourth-quarter net income was $1.5 billion, or $3.25 a share, better than the $2.88 analysts were predicting. A year ago, the mineral extractor earned $917 million, or $2.15 a share, good for year-over-year growth of 60%.

That profit growth was helped by a drop in net cash costs. Freeport said it spent 53 cents for every pound of copper mined in the fourth quarter, down from 62 cents a year ago. That drop reverses a rising cost trend experienced by the company during the rest of 2010.

Fourth-quarter revenue came to $5.6 billion in the final period of 2010, up about 18% from a year ago. Analysts were calling for a top line of $5.47 billion.

But despite the northward push of global metals prices -- and despite a wide-ranging multi-billion-dollar effort by Freeport to restart idled mines and expand other assets to take advantage of those elevated prices -- the company was forced to trim its production forecast for 2011.

Freeport estimated that it would sell 3.85 billion pounds of copper in 2011, down from its previous forecast of 3.9 billion. The company now expects gold sales of 1.4 million ounces, cutting its earlier estimate by 100,000 ounces. Freeport blamed the cuts on lower ore grades at the company's enormous Grasberg mine in Indonesia.

Freeport also declared a $1 supplemental dividend and a two-for-one stock split, which will go into effect on Feb. 1.

In their traditional joint prepared statement, Freeport's chairman, James Moffett, and chief executive, Richard Adkerson, said: "Our strong financial position and positive outlook will enable us to invest in economically attractive growth projects while providing strong cash returns to shareholders."

Freeport ratcheted up copper production in the fourth quarter, but actually sold fewer pounds of the metal. The company said it took 1 billion pounds of the red metal out of the ground during the period, up from 978 million a year ago, but sold 941 million pounds. That's down 4.8% from a year ago.

But Freeport said it sold its copper for $4.18 a pound on average in the fourth quarter of 2010, up 30% from the $3.20 per pound it fetched in final period of 2009.

Freeport has also made bank on gold, of course. Grasberg produces the precious metal as a byproduct to its copper production there -- only flecks of gold exist in the rock of Grasberg; there are no veins. But the mine is so large that more gold comes out of the Grasberg pit each year than any other mine on earth.

Freeport reported gold production of 629,000 ounces in the fourth period, up from 559,000 a year ago. The company sold 590,000 ounces at an average price of $1,398 per ounce. A year ago, those figures were 551,000 ounces and $1,115 per ounce.

-- Written by Scott Eden in New York

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