Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility

All That Glitters Is ... Copper?

By Rich Duprey - Sep 29, 2013 at 1:30PM

You’re reading a free article with opinions that may differ from The Motley Fool’s Premium Investing Services. Become a Motley Fool member today to get instant access to our top analyst recommendations, in-depth research, investing resources, and more. Learn More

The red metal might present better investment possibilities than its yellow cousin.

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 (NEM 2.76%) 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 (FCX -0.16%) 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 (GOLD 2.07%)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.

Fool contributor Rich Duprey has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool owns shares of Vale and 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.

Invest Smarter with The Motley Fool

Join Over 1 Million Premium Members Receiving…

  • New Stock Picks Each Month
  • Detailed Analysis of Companies
  • Model Portfolios
  • Live Streaming During Market Hours
  • And Much More
Get Started Now

Stocks Mentioned

Freeport-McMoRan Inc. Stock Quote
Freeport-McMoRan Inc.
$31.62 (-0.16%) $0.05
Barrick Gold Corporation Stock Quote
Barrick Gold Corporation
$16.74 (2.07%) $0.34
Newmont Mining Corporation Stock Quote
Newmont Mining Corporation
$46.55 (2.76%) $1.25

*Average returns of all recommendations since inception. Cost basis and return based on previous market day close.

Related Articles

Motley Fool Returns

Motley Fool Stock Advisor

Market-beating stocks from our award-winning analyst team.

Stock Advisor Returns
S&P 500 Returns

Calculated by average return of all stock recommendations since inception of the Stock Advisor service in February of 2002. Returns as of 08/15/2022.

Discounted offers are only available to new members. Stock Advisor list price is $199 per year.

Premium Investing Services

Invest better with The Motley Fool. Get stock recommendations, portfolio guidance, and more from The Motley Fool's premium services.