Spock met his untimely demise in Star Trek II, The Wrath of Khan ... or so we thought.
While we don't yet know if Taseko Mines (AMEX: TGB ) will succeed in resuscitating the company's recently flat-lined gold project in British Columbia, I have reason to believe that this intrepid copper miner will live long and prosper.
Although enterprising investors may bemoan the apparent death of Taseko's Prosperity copper and gold development project following a devastating regulatory impasse, the miner's flagship Gibraltar mine remains as solid as its namesake rock. Even after monetizing a 25% stake in the operation to fund Prosperity's now-stalled construction, Gibraltar is the sort of stepping stone to growth that small-scale miners pine for.
Now that the market has had a chance to discount the impact of the Canadian government's decision, we find the shares hovering just about where I placed fair value for Taseko's 75% stake in Gibraltar (around $4.50 per share). Incredibly, even with that monster 37% correction from October's peak share price, Taseko shares are still running ahead of larger competitors Freeport-McMoRan Copper & Gold (NYSE: FCX ) and Southern Copper (NYSE: SCCO ) on a two-year chart.
The miner's third quarter earnings, released this week into that remaining maelstrom of shareholder disappointment, highlights the operational improvements at Gibraltar that make Taseko an attractive investment at this juncture. Gibraltar produced 25.7 million pounds of copper during the third quarter, an 84% improvement over the prior-year mark. Molybdenum production surged by 125% to 252,000 pounds.
These achievements were facilitated in part by a 19% increase in mill throughput over the prior-year period, plus much-improved copper recovery rates that reached 90% during the quarter. Total cash costs remained very competitive at $1.40 per pound, providing a bountiful operating margin at a realized sales price of $3.76 per pound of copper.
Net earnings failed to impress at just one Canadian cent per share, which may explain why the company omitted the measure from its earnings-related press release. The principle culprit for the shortfall was a bottleneck at Vancouver's port facilities that left 16.3 million pounds of copper in inventory (63% of production) at quarter-end. Fools may recall that Teck Resources (NYSE: TCK ) cited similar capacity shortfalls at western Canadian port facilities when it announced a 10-year haulage agreement with railroad Canadian Pacific (NYSE: CP ) last month.
As I pointed out in the case of silver stream specialist Silver Wheaton (NYSE: SLW ) , delayed revenue bookings can prove fortuitous for miners in a rising price environment, so Taseko-watching Fools (click here to watch Taseko yourself) will want to track fourth quarter copper prices to gauge the impact of that sizeable sales lag. Meanwhile, I believe long-term investors will find Spock-like logic even in a revised investment thesis for Taseko Mines.