All That Glitters Is ... Copper?

Over the past year, gold has lost a quarter of its value, and though it's bounced off its most recent lows, it remains depressed. A big price surge last month had investors hoping a new bull rally was upon us, and then again a few weeks ago after Federal Reserve Chairman Bernanke's "no taper" speech, it was off to the races. But the rallies were short-lived, and gold is down again around the $1,330-per-ounce level again.

Batu Hijau mill. Source: Newmont Mining; Denver Gold Forum presentation.

Not so copper, which, while down from the year-ago period, has been steadily making progress over the past few months, trading about 5% higher than where it did at the end of July. That could explain why gold and copper miner Newmont Mining (NYSE: NEM  ) is on the hunt for new opportunities in the latter, even if it isn't abandoning the former.

Appearing at the Denver Gold Forum earlier this week, the miner said it has the infrastructure already in place for its gold operations, but with the premium the yellow metal previously enjoyed having evaporated, it makes more sense to leverage its capabilities elsewhere, and that means copper will be a key component for future growth.

They're not targeting any specific volume percentage for copper, and any projects it does consider will have to be in a politically stable region, but they're definitely hot on the trail for red-metal projects they can invest in.

No wonder. In Indonesia, for example, where Newmont's huge Batu Hijau mine operates in Sumbawa, the government is imposing an export ban on ore starting Jan. 1 in an effort to boost in-country processing. Freeport-McMoRan (NYSE: FCX  ) runs the world's biggest world's biggest gold and copper mine in Papua and only just recently got Grasberg operational again after a series of tragic mishaps. But because it currently processes only about 40% of its copper in-country, unless it can get a pass from the government it will have to cut back on production. 

Newmont is also making contingency plans in the event the government doesn't change the rules in time, but resource nationalism is running rampant globally, and miners including Barrick Gold (NYSE: ABX  ) , Kinross Gold, Rio Tinto, and Vale are all suffering from its effects. Newmont's own Conga gold project in Peru is stalled over environmental concerns and local opposition, and it sees little chance of restarting anytime soon.

So Newmont's search for a stable relationship wherever it sets up shop is understandable. It's even willing to partner with someone like Barrick since it will help defray costs. That's another key part of its rationale for going with copper -- it can help reduce overall expenses. It wants to reduce its all-in sustaining costs from approximately $1,150 per ounce today to $1,025 per ounce by 2015. 

But focusing on copper is not without risk. Two years ago, Barrick bought Equinox Metals for $7.3 billion to gain access to its African copper deposits, and earlier this year it was forced to take $4.4 billion in after-tax impairment charges largely on the Lumwana copper mine. While there were some problems with the quality of the assets, it had just as much to do with Zambia's doubling the royalties it was required to pay, which again underscores Newmont's desire to find a politically stable country in which to invest.

Though those places seem few and far between these days, copper remains an attractive metal that I continue to expect to take off. If there is an industrial recovery on the horizon -- and Europe's recent manufacturing strength surprise suggests it's not out of the realm of possibility -- we can expect any ventures Newmont Mining does undertake will not end up leaving it in the red.

I'm a firm believer in gold and copper's rebound, but there's perhaps a more precious resource, maybe the most precious in the history of the world. It's not gold. Or even oil. It's more valuable than both of them. Combined. And here's the crazy part: One emerging company already has the market cornered and stands to make in-the-know investors boatloads of cash. We reveal all in our special 100% free report "The 21st Century's Most Precious Natural Resource." Just click here for instant access!


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