Here Comes Copper's Comeback

Europe, of all places, is helping to sound the charge for copper's resurgence, allowing the red metal to post big gains on the strength of better manufacturing numbers.

I've felt, for some time, that we would see a copper boom this year as a convergence of events would lead to shortages, though admittedly, I didn't expect the continent's economic might to be one of the factors. Supplies reached parity with demand, and then Rio Tinto (NYSE: RIO  ) suffered a wall collapse at its Bingham Canyon mine, which supplies about 1% of the world's copper. And despite China's economic slowdown, the country is still looking to increase copper concentrate imports by 17% this year.

So prices might be down about 11% so far this year, but they're up more than 4% over the past month, and a combination of good manufacturing numbers from Europe and better housing data here at home signals that we may be able to overcome a sagging Chinese economy.

Copper is widely used in construction, automotive production, and electronics, so perceptions on global economic growth play a large role in how its traded. With China being the world's largest consumer of the metal, followed by the U.S., their rise or fall will have an outsized impact on its price. 

One of the five largest copper projects in the world began shipping earlier this month, and though Rio Tinto, which owns about two-thirds of the Oyu Tolgoi in Mongolia, has been beset by difficult negotiations over future profits -- the government wants to increase its take -- exports to China began on July 9. The miner expects between 75,000 and 85,000 tonnes of copper to be produced this year.

Those shipments began right around the time Freeport-McMoRan (NYSE: FCX  ) started running copper shipments again out of its Grasberg mine in Indonesia, following a tunnel collapse there. It had anticipated the mine would produce as much as half a million tonnes of copper in 2013 (and 1.25 million ounces of gold), but the work stoppage affected the 220,000 ounces of copper ore it had been producing daily. Grasberg is now producing 160,000 to 170,000 tonnes a day, though that's expected to grow when the mine is fully operational again.

Which means the surprise rebound in Europe's manufacturing sector couldn't have come at a better time. Initial forecasts provided by Markit Economics shows manufacturing activity expanded on the continent for the first time since July 2011, with the purchasing managers survey rising to 50.1, from 48.8 in June.

Teck Resources (NYSE: TCK  ) would certainly think the timing opportune, though it probably won't reverse its decision to cut capex spending. It reported earnings yesterday reflecting copper's depressed state over the last six months, and said it was delaying the expansion of its Quebrada Blanca project in Chile. While it was partly the result of the financial resources the mine would consume, the delay is also a result of the changing political landscape there. As Barrick Gold has learned, the government is taking a harder line stance on giving miners free rein.

Still, Teck offered a cautious outlook because of the uncertainty surrounding both the U.S. and Europe, and with both regions looking better, we might just see Teck -- and other copper miners -- burnish their outlooks tomorrow.

We're not about to see copper prices go parabolic here, but I think we will see pricing continue to firm, even if there are setbacks along the way. Mining stocks have been on the outs for some time now, and I think we're getting to the point where they're starting to look more attractive, particularly those that are focusing on copper.

I may like copper now, and silver, too, but I also find gold attractive. If gold is your thing, as well, and you think the big declines it's suffered are only setting the stage for the next bull run, The Motley Fool's new free report, "The Best Way to Play Gold Right Now," dissects the recent volatility, and provides a guide for gold investing. Click here to read the full report today!


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