March 24, 2015 / 1:10 PM / 5 years ago

UPDATE 1-Freeport-McMoRan slashes dividend as commodity prices weigh

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TORONTO, March 24 (Reuters) - Diversified U.S. mining and energy company Freeport-McMoRan Inc said on Tuesday it is slashing its quarterly dividend by 84 percent in response to the impact of lower commodity prices.

The company is cutting its dividend to 5 cents a share from 31-1/4 cents a share/ The stock was off 2.7 percent to $18.80 in trading before the morning bell in New York.

Freeport hinted in January it might cut its payout, depending on the direction of copper and oil prices, which dropped sharply in the latter part of 2014.

The dividend cut is a prudent means to strengthen Freeport’s balance sheet during a period of volatile market conditions, the company said. It added it would consider increasing cash returns to shareholders as market and business conditions warrant.

Last month, the company said it was unlikely to sell any oil, gas and copper assets in the current market as buyers are unwilling to pay good prices for quality assets due to weak commodities prices.

Freeport has been trying to reduce its debt, which ballooned in 2013 after it acquired two oil and gas companies. Its debt stood at $19 billion at the end of December and it had set a debt target of $12 billion by the end of 2016, with asset sales widely seen as one means to help reduce debt.

In late January the U.S.-based miner abandoned its debt reduction target, bringing in partners to help fund two oil projects and slashing its capital spending. (Reporting by Euan Rocha; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Jeffrey Benkoe)

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