Copper is a metal that can take a hammering. Copper stocks are, as well, with the commodity’s downturn.
Take Freeport-McMoRan (ticker: FCX), the world’s largest publicly traded copper producer. Over the last five years through Wednesday’s close, the stock is down 68%, adjusted for dividends.
Speaking of dividends, Freeport-McMoRan ended such payments in December. The company emphasized the bright side of the suspension: It would save about $240 million in cash per year “and further enhance Freeport-McMoRan’s liquidity during this period of weak market conditions.”
We were skeptical of the copper rally that seemed to materialize earlier this year, and the per-pound price remains almost as cheap as rotisserie chicken at about $2.25.
Freeport-McMoRan — which also produces two other hampered commodities, gold and oil — reported third-quarter results on Oct. 25. The good news: The company reported its first profit in nearly two years. The bad news: It still missed analysts’ expectations.
Two days after the report, on Oct. 27, one hardy Freeport-McMoRan director stepped up and bought $1.6 million worth of the company’s stock. Courtney Mather, managing director of Icahn Capital, purchased a total of 150,000 shares and now directly holds 190,523 shares, a stake of less than 1% of outstanding shares.
Mather saved himself quite a bit by merely waiting to buy as the stock slipped. He paid on average about $10.72 a share. In July, when the stock was higher, Freeport-McMoRan began a registered at-the-market (ATM) offering for as much as $1.5 billion in common shares and through Oct. 24, it sold 33.5 million shares for $415 million (or $12.39 per share on average). Shares closed at $10.62 Wednesday.
Mather’s purchases also mark the first insider stock buys on the open market so far this year.
Icahn Capital is the entity through which Carl C. Icahn manages investment funds. According to S&P Capital IQ, as of June 30, Icahn Capital held a 7.83% stake in Freeport-McMoRan.
Why would anyone buy the stock now? Gabelli & Co. analyst Chris Mancini wrote in an Oct. 20 research report, “We do not believe that the market is ascribing much option value in Freeport-McMoRan’s shares to the potential of higher metals prices in the future.”
Mancini estimated that every 10-cent change in the per-pound price of copper would affect 2020 estimated earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization (Ebitda) by $350 million. If prices of copper and gold average $3 per pound and $1,600 per ounce, respectively, in 2020, Freeport-McMoRan would generate approximately $6.5 billion in Ebitda and $2.5 billion in free cash flow in that year.
“In such a metals price environment Freeport’s vast mineral inventory would be likely be more highly valued, as the probability of its eventual exploitation would increase,” wrote Mancini, who rates Freeport-McMoRan at Buy.
But copper prices are highly dependent on Chinese demand for the metal, and China accounts for about half of global copper consumption, Mancini noted.
On Oct. 27, Guild Investment Management wrote in a report that “China’s imports of copper, iron ore, and coal are once again picking up.”
Freeport-McMoRan isn’t merely waiting for copper to recover fully. During this year, the company has announced $6.6 billion in asset sales.
Will copper demand hold up and will the company’s balance-sheet restructuring work? Icahn Capital’s Mather has wired his portfolio for such an outcome.