Another Copper Stopper

So here's the latest metal muddle. Workers at three of Southern Copper's (NYSE: PCU  ) Mexican mines have been on strike since the end of July. Wednesday, their Peruvian brethren struck for the third time this year. This isn't a knock on Southern Copper specifically. Dozens of Peruvian mining unions have agreed to a national strike beginning Nov. 5. Thus, these miner grievances are anything but minor.

Production outages, of course, support the price of copper as stockpiles fall. So it's a great time to own a copper producer, so long as its operations aren't being disrupted.

I see a situation here analogous to oil-refinery outages. You want to own a refiner when the other guys' facilities are going haywire. The only problem is that we have no clue whether Valero (NYSE: VLO  ) , Tesoro (NYSE: TSO  ) , or Frontier Oil (NYSE: FTO  ) will have the next explosion.

Clearly, it's a bit different with copper, because we have the benefit of geography to differentiate between producers. Freeport McMoRan (NYSE: FCX  ) immediately comes to mind as a geographically diversified producer. It also has no production hedges, save for the ones inherited with the Phelps Dodge acquisition. Still, about one-third of Freeport's production came from South America in the second quarter. It was a great buy last month, but I'm less interested today.

Canadian producer Taseko Mines (NYSE: TGB  ) is a minnow compared with Freeport, but the smaller player has the virtue of eschewing Latin America entirely. Growth is also ramping up fast -- primary metal output rose 33% in the fourth quarter compared with the third quarter, and 58% from the fiscal quarter to the fourth. Taseko is also unhedged, which gives you leverage to that strike-spiked copper price.

The big trade-off here is that Taseko has only one producing mine, diminishing the reduction of operational risk you might hope to achieve by avoiding labor strife. If you consider this miner for your copper investing dollar, you'd better know the Gibraltar mine inside out, because the company's other properties are years away from moving into production.


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