Image source: Freeport-McMoRan.

Companies that mine metals like copper and gold have been under pressure for years, and both Freeport-McMoRan (NYSE:FCX) and Barrick Gold (NYSE:GOLD) have felt the pressure from sagging commodities markets in the recent past. Barrick's concentration on metals has weighed on its results since the gold market topped out in the early 2010s, and Freeport-McMoRan's ill-timed diversifying foray into the energy markets came at what proved to be almost exactly the wrong moment in advance of plunging crude oil markets. Now, bargain-hunting investors looking at the sector want to know which one is the better buy. Let's compare Freeport-McMoRan and Barrick Gold on several key metrics to see which looks more attractive currently.

Barrick Gold and Freeport-McMoRan have seen their shares move in different directions over the past year. Barrick has actually risen 16% since April 2015, making it look extremely strong compared to the 47% drop that Freeport has suffered over the same time frame.

From the standpoint of simple valuation metrics, the fact that the two stocks have diverged in performance shows up in the value that investors have put on their shares. Neither Barrick nor Freeport has meaningful measures for trailing earnings multiples, because both companies have suffered substantial losses. The drops in commodity prices have required companies across the industry to take massive asset impairment writedowns that have crushed their profitability, and so neither company looks attractive on a backward-looking basis.

Looking forward, investors are more optimistic. Using estimates of future earnings, Barrick Gold trades at about 26 times forward earnings projections. Freeport's forward earnings multiple is a much more attractive 13. If you have confidence in those estimates, then Freeport looks like it has an edge over Barrick in terms of valuation.

The mining industry isn't well-known for its dividends, and the track record that Freeport and Barrick have shared lately shows how hard it can be to sustain dividend payments in such a cyclical industry. Right now, Barrick is the only one of the two to pay a dividend at all, and its yield is a pithy 0.6%.

Both companies have made negative changes to their dividend policies in the recent past. For Barrick, the gold miner chose to slash its dividend payout by 60% in mid-2015, citing the move as "a prudent measure to increase financial flexibility in light of current market conditions." As part of Barrick's broader strategy of maximizing free cash flow and cutting back on unnecessary capital expenditures, the dividend cut made sense, even if some investors weren't thrilled by the move.

Freeport made a similar but more extreme move in December, suspending its dividend entirely. The move followed past reductions from Freeport as conditions in the copper and gold market had deteriorated, and the drop in oil prices put even more pressure on Freeport's energy unit to cut capital costs.

Something is better than nothing, and so Barrick gets a slight edge on the dividend front. However, it's hard to give Barrick too much credit for a yield well below 1%.

The big question facing both Barrick and Freeport is where future growth will come from. Unfortunately, even the companies themselves seem not to have a lot of confidence in their near-term opportunities. Recent climbs in prices for copper and crude oil have pushed up shares of Freeport substantially, but the company has said that supply and demand remains imbalanced in its key copper market. Even though some producers have made decisions to curtail supply in an attempt to let demand catch up, those strategic moves will take time to fix the market. At the same time, Freeport is moving forward with expansion plans at key mines like its Peruvian Cerro mine, and that could further add to the gap between supply and demand.

Barrick's growth relies on gold prices, and the recent decline in the value of the U.S. dollar has made some commodities investors more optimistic about the yellow metal's future prospects. Barrick has relatively low costs of production, and that makes it a more conservative choice than some of its peers in the gold-mining industry. Yet Barrick also faces operational challenges, such as the ongoing disputes that have held back its Pascua-Lama project on the border between Argentina and Chile. Both Barrick and Freeport share similar regulatory risks on their mining projects, but the situation in Pascua-Lama is particularly frustrating for longtime Barrick investors.

Both Barrick Gold and Freeport-McMoRan have appealing characteristics for investors who are willing to play a potential turnaround in the commodities markets. In the end, Freeport's lower valuation is based on its additional risk from exposure to the hard-hit oil market. Unless you're comfortable with that risk, Barrick offers a more conservative play on commodities generally.