Last year was an extremely difficult one for gold miners Freeport-McMoRan Copper & Gold (NYSE:FCX) and Goldcorp (NYSE:GG). That's because the price of gold fell dramatically, which actually just continued a bearish trend for gold over the past few years. It wasn't just gold that fell, however; pain was widespread across the mining industry. Diversified miner Southern Copper (NYSE:SCCO) suffered just as much as the gold miners when copper prices fell.
And yet, the price of gold has risen from close to $1,200 per ounce just a few weeks ago to nearly $1,300 per ounce. Other precious metals, such as copper, are showing strength as well. After such a pronounced downturn, precious metals are finally showing some signs of life. If it continues, a sustained rally in gold and copper prices will be a huge benefit for miners, especially for these three since they're keeping production growth intact.
Pricing may turn into a tailwind
As the price of gold rises, the financial position of gold miners improves. Gold is nearing $1,300 per ounce, which would represent a higher level than the average sales price realized by some gold miners last year. For example, Freeport-McMoRan's average realized gold price in 2013 was $1,315 per ounce. Its overall profits fell by 17% last year, so this year will probably see improvement should gold keep heading higher. If gold prices keep rising, the price of gold will turn into a source of strength instead of weakness.
Not only that, but the management teams of all three companies kept production growing steadily last year, even while gold prices fell so sharply. This may have looked foolish at the time, but these companies may have the last laugh if their increased production coincides with a precious metals rally.
Production strategy may pay off
Freeport-McMoRan, Southern Copper, and Goldcorp kept growing production over the past year, even while precious metals prices collapsed. This may have seemed illogical at the time, but if gold prices continue to increase, the strategy will look extremely timely.
Freeport kept production growth steady last year, even in such a difficult environment. Freeport increased copper production by 13% and gold production by 30% in 2013. If a prolonged rally materializes, they will be set up very well in 2014.
Likewise, Southern Copper increased production in recent quarters since it experienced recovery at two of its major mines in Peru. Its total mine production increased 6.5% quarter over quarter. It won't stop there, though. Southern Copper expects to increase copper production by another 5.5% in 2014. Plus, the company sees the upcoming year being a record one for molybdenum production.
Goldcorp not only increased its own gold production by 11% last year, but it unleashed an aggressive acquisition campaign. Goldcorp attempted to buy smaller miner Osisko Mining Corp. (NASDAQOTH: OSKFF) to demonstrate its long-term bullishness on gold. Goldcorp offered more than $2 billion for Osisko in a hostile takeover bid, which Osisko has resisted to this point.
Goldcorp expects its 2014 gold production to increase 13%-18%, and by 50% over the next two years. Absorbing Osisko's reserves and mines will only add to the company's production capacity going forward. The Malartic mine, the only mine owned by Osisko in operation, is expected to produce 500,000 to 600,000 ounces of gold per year over its 16-year life.
Completing the acquisition would represent a significant increase to Goldcorp's production. Goldcorp produced approximately 2.6 million ounces of gold over the last year, so bringing Osisko's operations on board could further increase production by 20%. As a result, it's clear Goldcorp would benefit hugely from higher prices, thanks to its production profile going forward.
The Foolish bottom line
There's no denying what a poor year 2013 turned into for precious metals miners. As the prices of gold and copper fell, so too did profits across the mining industry. However, conditions in the precious metals market are reversing, and prices are now nearing a point of profitability for Freeport McMoRan, Goldcorp, and Southern Copper.
Plus, these miners bucked conventional wisdom and increased production last year, even in such a harsh operating environment. Freeport, Goldcorp, and Southern Copper could perform very well this year should the gold rally continue, thanks to their shrewd management teams.