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Why Carl Icahn Might Not Succeed in Freeport-McMoRan

Activist investor Carl Icahn disclosed nearly an 8.5% stake in the copper and gold miner Freeport-McMoRan Inc. (NYSE: FCX) after the markets closed on Thursday. This is not the first time that Icahn has wanted to affect change in a company. Previously he has made moves with Apple and even Chesapeake. However, the question of whether Icahn can change Freeport-McMoRan still has to be answered.

In the filing, Icahn said that he believes the shares are currently undervalued and that he intends to have discussions with the board and executives of the company relating to its capital expenditures, executive compensation packages and capital structure. He also wants the company to rein in its high-cost production operations.

Also in the filing, Icahn and several affiliated companies acquired an aggregate 88 million shares in Freeport-McMoRan. About 7.6 million were purchased outright and the remainder “may be deemed beneficially owned” due to three forward contracts.

Shares jumped nearly 30% to Thursday’s closing price of $10.19, and at that price Icahn’s stake is valued at around $900 million. According to the filing, the value of the stake when shares were purchased or put under contract was around $1.2 billion.

Earlier on Thursday the company said it was cutting its 2016 capex budget by 29%, firing about 10% of its workforce and cutting its copper production. Freeport already had chopped its oil and gas capex budget by nearly a third.

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Late on Thursday, following Icahn’s filing, Freeport-McMoRan issued a response to Icahn’s filing and announced revised capital and operating plans to combat the recent decline in commodity prices resulting in reduced capital expenditures, lower production levels and lower operating, administrative and exploration costs. These actions, along with the August 5, announcement of reduced oil and gas capital expenditures, are the results of the previously announced review of operating plans.

Part of the reason for this revised plan was falling commodity prices over the past year. Some might even call the commodity cycle busted, given how far most commodities have fallen. The falling commodities have been reflected in Freeport-McMoRan’s share price over the past year; the stock is down over 55% year to date and over 70% in the past 52 weeks.

So after instituting this new plan, the question still remains: How can Icahn change Freeport-McMoRan and create more value for shareholders?

He is not necessarily looking for a dividend payout, but it can be surmised that he almost certainly wants the company to get rid of the oil and gas albatross it acquired. Another very likely scenario would be the shedding of its expensive North American copper mines. Both are reasonable goals, but may be difficult to achieve. Freeport filed a registration statement for an initial public offering of its oil and gas operations in June, but an IPO in which the company sells a minority stake is not likely to satisfy Icahn.

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If the company already has set its plan in motion, Icahn will be fighting an uphill battle to affect any change. Not to mention, to do so he would require a lot of support and leverage from other shareholders to get his way.

Freeport-McMoRan shares closed up 2.9% at $10.49 on Friday, within the 52-week trading range of $7.76 to $36.48. The stock has a consensus analyst price target of $19.41.

By Chris Lange