Copper cost to soar; more lucrative than gold

A Chinese worker looks at copper products being reeled at a factory in Nantong city, east Chinas Jiangsu province, 8 May 2010. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP, Imaginechina

TORONTO - More big miners will likely follow the world's largest gold company into the copper sector as the metal's price soars alongside Chinese industry's growing hunger for it, experts say.

Canada's Barrick Gold Corp. (TSX:ABX) took a bold step into copper Monday with a friendly $7.3-billion bid to acquire Equinox Minerals Ltd. (TSX:EQN). Other miners will likely follow suit as copper becomes increasingly lucrative while China seeks to meet its need for the metal used in electric cables, cars, cellphones and trains, Scotiabank commodities specialist Patricia Mohr said Tuesday.

"Copper is much more profitable than gold. Considerably more, even with the record gold prices we've been seeing recently. That's why I've been calling copper the new gold," she said.

Copper is likely to hover around record prices for the next few years, because there isn't enough in the world to feed China's demand, which will climb even higher this spring as better weather leads to construction season, Mohr said.

The price of copper was trading at US$4.33 per pound midday Tuesday, below the record of $4.60 set in February. But Mohr said copper is still bringing in "huge" profit margins.

"Even at $4.29 you have a 68 per cent profit margin," she said, adding that other metals bring in about 50 per cent.

The high cost of mining and increasingly lower grade of copper found at established mines will inevitably lead to smaller players being swept up as the major global miners look to get into the industry and diversify with little risk.

Companies will see copper as a worthwhile investment while a world shortage of copper grows deeper as China grows in the next decade, said Tom Whelan, head of mining and metals research at consultancy firm Ernst & Young.

China already consumes between 35 and 40 per cent of the world's supply of copper, at about seven million tonnes a year, and appears to have an insatiable appetite for more. Whelan said statistics from the Chinese government indicate demand will grow to 12 million tonnes over the next 10 years on an annual basis.

But the world's supply won't expand fast enough to keep up with the demand, he said.

"It's not like mining companies can just flip a switch," he said, adding that it takes time to make mine sites suitable for extracting metal.

"Supply remains constrained and there's been an underinvestment in new mine supply. It's just taking longer and longer to get mines into production. At the end of the day the supply growth is constrained."

He said global copper output should rise to 20 million tonnes by 2015, helping to ease the supply shortage.

And metals miners —particularly gold companies like Barrick— are becoming increasingly more comfortable with copper, as they tend to find it nestled in the same mines as gold, said Whelan.

With the number of available gold mines wearing thin around the world, gold miners have to look to other metals to grow their business.

"All mining companies need a growth story, and mergers and acquisitions are certainly on the table for many copper companies," he said.

Mohr said opportunities to buy smaller, established copper miners are rare, and with the price of copper so high, many companies could start bidding wars to get their hands on one.

She said the price of copper should come back down when new mines open, but it will be the hottest metal on the market until that happens in about two years' time.

But John Ing, president and CEO at Maison Placements and a gold analyst, said he expects the prices of copper to stay high in the near future.

"(Acquiring companies) are looking ahead and they see continued demand for copper. In fact there's expected to be a deficit. In the near and intermediate term, the expectation is for higher prices," he said.

"Copper is at $4.29 thereabouts and this is at a time when China's imports for this part of the year have slowed down, yet copper prices remain very strong," he said.