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Rio Tinto plc (ADR) (RIO), Freeport-McMoRan Copper & Gold Inc. (FCX), Teck Resources Ltd (USA) (TCK): Here Comes Copper’s Comeback

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Europe, of all places, is helping to sound the charge for copper’s resurgence, allowing the red metal to post big gains on the strength of better manufacturing numbers.

Rio Tinto plc (ADR) (NYSE:RIO)I’ve felt, for some time, that we would see a copper boom this year as a convergence of events would lead to shortages, though admittedly, I didn’t expect the continent’s economic might to be one of the factors. Supplies reached parity with demand, and then Rio Tinto plc (ADR) (NYSE:RIO) suffered a wall collapse at its Bingham Canyon mine, which supplies about 1% of the world’s copper. And despite China’s economic slowdown, the country is still looking to increase copper concentrate imports by 17% this year.

So prices might be down about 11% so far this year, but they’re up more than 4% over the past month, and a combination of good manufacturing numbers from Europe and better housing data here at home signals that we may be able to overcome a sagging Chinese economy.

Copper is widely used in construction, automotive production, and electronics, so perceptions on global economic growth play a large role in how its traded. With China being the world’s largest consumer of the metal, followed by the U.S., their rise or fall will have an outsized impact on its price.

One of the five largest copper projects in the world began shipping earlier this month, and though Rio Tinto plc (ADR) (NYSE:RIO), which owns about two-thirds of the Oyu Tolgoi in Mongolia, has been beset by difficult negotiations over future profits — the government wants to increase its take — exports to China began on July 9. The miner expects between 75,000 and 85,000 tonnes of copper to be produced this year.

Those shipments began right around the time Freeport-McMoRan Copper & Gold Inc. (NYSE:FCX) started running copper shipments again out of its Grasberg mine in Indonesia, following a tunnel collapse there. It had anticipated the mine would produce as much as half a million tonnes of copper in 2013 (and 1.25 million ounces of gold), but the work stoppage affected the 220,000 ounces of copper ore it had been producing daily. Grasberg is now producing 160,000 to 170,000 tonnes a day, though that’s expected to grow when the mine is fully operational again.

Which means the surprise rebound in Europe’s manufacturing sector couldn’t have come at a better time. Initial forecasts provided by Markit Economics shows manufacturing activity expanded on the continent for the first time since July 2011, with the purchasing managers survey rising to 50.1, from 48.8 in June.

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