The Small Sliver of Good News in Freeport-McMoRan's Earnings

By Reuben Gregg

Freeport-McMoRan Inc (NYSE: FCX) lost $3.58 a share in the third quarter. That makes it hard to suggest anything good is going on at this mining and oil company. But the truth is, Freeport is probably best viewed as two companies today. And while the one that's getting all the headlines isn't doing so well, the other is actually on more solid footing. It's worth taking a look at each separately.

The bad newsThe part of Freeport that's generating all the negative press is its oil business. This division was created via the 2013 acquisition of Plains Exploration and McMoRan Exploration for for roughly $20 billion. That created a debt overhang, which is bad enough. But, things got worse when oil prices started to plummet in mid 2014. Now the unit is causing massive writedowns and eating cash to pay for high-cost exploration efforts.

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To give you an idea of how much of an impact the oil business is having, take a look at the third-quarter loss. It was driven by $3.43 a share in one-time charges related largely to oil writedowns. In fact, if you pulled out the one-time items from the second quarter's results, Freeport would have earned $0.14 a share. So, when you get down to it, oil is the big problem, here, which is why the company is exploring alternatives for this business.

To be fair, the company's oil travails aren't unique. Take for exampleChevron Corporation's (NYSE: CVX) oil drilling business. It swung from an over $14 billion profit in the first nine months of 2014 to a $600 million loss through September of this year. If you pull out just the U.S. oil business, the company swung from earnings of nearly $3 billion to a loss of around $2 billion. Clearly there's a lot of pain in the U.S. market right now, which is pretty much Freeport's focus on the oil side.

The good newsThis isn't to suggest that the rest of Freeport is performing well. The company's copper operations have had their fair share of problems, too. The most obvious issue has been moribund commodity prices. For example, third-quarter sales prices for copper averaged $2.38 per pound, a 25% decline year over year.But there's good news here...honest. For example, Freeport has been working hard to save money. At this point, management believes its copper mines can remain cash-flow positive with copper selling as low as $2 a pound. And that's after taking into account sustaining capital expenditures, which are basically investments that have to be made to keep the mines up and running.

Moreover, Freeport is looking to keep cutting costs in 2016. It is projecting a nearly 25% drop in its cash cost of copper, even as it is projecting that it will be able to sell over 25% more of the metal. The miner even highlighted in its third-quarter release that demand for copper, which has myriad industrial uses, continues to grow.

Freeport's 2016 projections. Image source: Freeport McMoRan

These facts suggest good things for this side of the business over the long term.

There are problemsSo, if you look past the oil-driven headlines, there are actually some positive things going on at Freeport-McMoRan on the mining side. Still, that's a far cry from saying Freeport is a good investment. The debt overhang created by the acquisition of the oil business and the cash drag from owning it are real. Worse, it's not at all clear that the company will be able to deal with the problems it's facing in such a way that shareholders are protected from further pain. It's already sold dilutive shares at very low market prices to help shore up its balance sheet, a shareholder "unfriendly" move that probably won't be the last as it tries to right its listing ship.

But if you are watching this story unfold, it's worth keeping an eye on the various businesses that underpin Freeport's results. While you might not want to get on board for this roller-coaster ride today, you might be interested in owning Freeport if it managed to spin off or sell the oil business.

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Reuben Brewer has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool owns shares of Freeport-McMoRan Copper & Gold. The Motley Fool recommends Chevron. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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