Does a 20% Downside Call for Freeport-McMoRan Spell Trouble for All of Copper, Gold and Moly?

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Freeport-McMoRan Inc. (NYSE: FCX) has seen its shares recover handily from the lows of the past year. In fact, its stock was last seen trading up about 175% from its 52-week low. Is it possible, or likely, that the enthusiasm around commodity prices has taken its shares up perhaps way too far from those lows?

A new research report from Merrill Lynch says that the recovery expectations for Freeport-McMoRan have become too aggressive. Merrill Lynch’s Timna Tanners and P.T. Luther have reinstated coverage with an Underperform rating, versus a prior Neutral rating. To make matters worse than just the equivalent of a “sell” rating, they set an $8.00 price objective.

Monday’s negative outlook was based on a tepid copper view. As a reminder, Freeport-McMoRan is far from just a one-company issue. Not only is this the world’s largest publicly traded copper and moly producer, but it is also the eighth largest gold producer. It has operations all over the planet: Indonesia, North America, South America and Africa. After diversifying into oil and gas, the commodity downturn caused Freeport-McMoRan to refocus on mining.

Merrill Lynch’s team sees Indonesia risks and they are concerned about valuations. Freeport-McMoRan did say that the balance sheet repair merited a strong performance year to date, but the analysts here see limited catalysts as investors look past 2017 estimates.

The firm’s $8 price objective was based on a blended 1.2 times net present value and a value of 5.0 times the enterprise value over EBITDA for 2017 (and 7.0 times for 2018).

On copper, the team said:

The BofAML global commodity team sees copper weakest among the base metals complex against a backdrop of sluggish global growth and large mines ramping up. After asset sales, Freeport-McMoRan’s Americas and Indonesia mines become even more critical, and Indonesia challenges return to the forefront, specifically affected by export restrictions that could start in 2017 estimates and an unclear future once Freeport-McMoRan’s license expires in 2021… Freeport-McMoRan looks temporarily cheap on unsustained 2017E strength, yet a longer-dated or net present value analysis provides a more tempered result.

The Merrill Lynch investment rationale said:

Our Underperform rating reflects an opinion that balance sheet fixes are now priced in, and a sluggish copper outlook and risks related to Indonesia operations poise a real risk. We think investors will look past a strong 2017E year of unsustainably low costs and high production, and shares look pricey on longer-dated analysis.

Freeport-McMoRan shares had closed at $9.66 on Friday, and shares were trading down seven cents at $9.59 on Monday. The stock has a 52-week trading range of $3.52 to $14.06, and the company has a market cap of $12.8 billion.

Thomson Reuters has a consensus analyst price target of $10.97. That means that Merrill Lynch is calling for more than 17% downside at a time that the average analyst on Wall Street is calling for 14% upside.

While this is a serious downside call, 24/7 Wall St. noticed that the most negative analyst price target is actually down at $7 and that the highest analyst price target is up at $15.

For whatever it is worth, this used to be a $35 stock, as recently as the summer of 2014. That’s what makes a ballgame.

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Other Freeport-McMoRan considerations of late include the following: