Last Friday, gold suffered a rout of epic proportions, with its price falling below $1,450, and that continued into the start of this week, with the price of the yellow metal touching $1,400 at its intraday lows. It's now 25% below the peak $1,920 price, and it's possible it could sink further.
Silver is hardly faring any better, having fallen as low as $24.09 an ounce, its lowest point since late 2010. Traders and investors are abandoning precious metals as a safe haven despite being in some of the most precarious of times financially.
But could there be a boom coming in copper that's not reflected in its price? Treated as a commodity because of its many industrial uses, copper is down too, but not nearly as dramatically as its yellow and gray cousins. Particularly in light of just released economic data out of China that showed that country's GDP expanding at a slower rate than anticipated, copper has gone soft. China's economy grew 7.7% in the first quarter of 2013, below the fourth quarter's 7.9% expansion and well below the 8% analysts had been anticipating. Copper, corn, wheat, and oil all fell on the news.
Although a stalled global economic recovery would affect the red metal's fortunes, there are signs we might be on the verge of a new boom. Miners around the world are intensifying their focus on copper, and even though supplies have finally reached parity with demand, a massive collapse at Rio Tinto's (NYSE:RIO) Bingham Canyon copper mine in Utah could tilt supply back to an imbalance.
Bingham Canyon, the world's biggest copper mine, supplies about 1% of the global copper supply. It also supplies about 16% of total U.S. silver production and 5% of gold, suggesting that supplies are about to get significantly tighter there, too. Coupled with a port strike in Chile that's only just been resolved, it delayed the shipment of an estimated 120 kilotons of copper, meaning it's going to take some time for the metal to make it to market. Coming as it does after China continues to boost imports (up some 7% in March), there is enough pressure below to raise copper prices.
Freeport-McMoRan (NYSE:FCX) is looking to double its copper sales to the country within the next three years to take advantage of China's interest in expanding concentrate imports by 17% this year. Southern Copper (NYSE:SCCO), on the other hand, with the industry's largest copper reserves, intends on holding production at the same level it realized in 2012.
All of which would be good news for BHP Billiton (NYSE:BHP), which reportedly made a substantial copper discovery in western Australia near its Babel-Nebo nickel-copper deposit. Because of its remote location, however, the site has remained undeveloped for more than a decade and would require a big investment on BHP's part to build up the infrastructure necessary to exploit it.
Exit stage left
Both BHP and Rio are selling off their coal-mining assets to focus on their core businesses, though Rio is also said to be looking at strategic alternatives for its copper and gold mines, too. BHP and Anglo American, however, are prioritizing copper exploration for their operations, with the former only exploring for copper and the latter saying the red metal is a major component of its exploration funding.
Although under pressure, copper's price has held up better than either gold or silver. With supplies promising to remain scarce, investors may want to look at the miners for opportunities to profit, as they've seen their share prices peel back by double-digit percentages. They might be best positioned to capitalize on what could become a new copper boom.
Fool contributor Rich Duprey has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool owns shares of Freeport-McMoRan Copper & Gold. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools don't all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.