Freeport-McMoRan Tumbles Further On Downgrades

NEW YORK (AP) â¿¿ Shares of Freeport-McMoRan Copper & Gold Inc. extended their decline Thursday, hitting their lowest level in over a year after the company's plan to buy a pair of oil and gas producers for $9 billion was greeted by a raft of downgrades on Wall Street. The announcement triggered a 16 percent sell-off in the stock on Wednesday.

THE SPARK: Goldman Sachs, Deutsche Bank, RBC, Goldman, Citi, Macquarie and BMO all cut their expectations for Freeport.

Brian Yu of Citi cut his price target on the stock to $35 from $46 after the Phoenix company said it is paying $6.9 billion in cash and stock for Plains Exploration & Production Co. and $2.1 billion for McMoRan Exploration Co. It will assume $11 billion in debt.

THE BIG PICTURE: The deal will create a natural resources conglomerate with assets ranging from oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico to a huge copper mine in Indonesia.

Yu maintained his earnings estimates on the Freeport because the deal is still subject to a shareholder vote and isn't expected to close before the spring of next year. But he warned in a note that Freeport's shares will continue to trade at a discount because of the massive amount of debt the company will take on, possible impacts on earnings and investor pushback.

The analyst said he would have put a "Sell" rating on the stock if not for three factors: Most of Freeport's earnings will still be derived from mining; any doubts that the deal may not go through are likely to drive a sharp uptick in the stock; the possibility that potential buyers of Freeport and Plains Exploration will emerge before the deal is completed.

Deutsche Bank analyst Jorge Beristain moved his rating to "Hold" from "Buy," calling the acquisition a "surprising and unpopular move."

"We are not supportive of this deal, as we believe Freeport shareholders would rather maintain exposure to copper (or at least mining), receive higher dividends and there are few synergies and greater complexity," he wrote in a note to clients.

THE SHARES: After Wednesday's sell-off, the stock was down another $1.50, or 4.4 percent, to $30.66 in late trading, after earlier hitting $30.56, its lowest level since it touched $30.37 in late September, 2011.

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