Gold gets all the attention, but copper has staged a pretty remarkable recovery from its early summer lows. After bottoming out below $2.80 a pound, the December contract is near $3.70 and the highs of 2008 are in sight. Considering just how useful copper is in so many industrial, construction and communications applications, an ongoing global economic recovery should be a solid demand driver.

Most of the major copper producers have already run up in concert with the price of the metal, but investors may want a refresher course on the major players with an eye toward buying the inevitable dips.

Copper's Shining Star Players

Freeport-McMoRan (NYSE: FCX)
These are the fat times for Freeport-McMoRan, as this company is not only a major copper producer, but a major gold miner as well. At current prices, the 83 billion pounds of copper and nearly 34 million ounces of gold in Freeport's reserves are worth over $800 per share. Of course, that does not include the costs of extracting those resources (nor the risk of lower future prices), but it should give investors a sense of the magnitude of Freeport's resources. Freeport has long since diversified its reliance upon its Indonesia mine to a tolerable level, and the company produces more than 10% of the world's annual copper output. (For more, see Taking A Shine To Copper.)

Southern Copper (Nasdaq: SCCO)
Southern Copper is a major producer with operations in Peru and Mexico, with diversification across metals like molybdenum, zinc and silver. Copper is the major player here, though, and the company benefits from both low-cost operations and an incredible resource base. Although labor strife has been a serious ongoing issue, the company's low cost basis and large reserve base could make it a high priority target for larger resource companies looking to expand their copper assets.

Taseko Mines (NYSE: TGB)
Like Freeport-McMoRan, Taseko is active in copper, gold and molybdenum. Unlike Freeport, Taseko's asset base is close to home with four mining projects in British Columbia. The company is still in the expansion phase, looking to significantly increase production from its Gilbraltar project. Although the company's reserve base is relatively small (6 billion pounds of copper, 8 million ounces of gold), there is expansion potential. On the downside, though, the company does have higher operating and extraction costs than its larger and more diversified peers.

Teck Resources (NYSE: TCK)
Teck had the unfortunate bad timing to make a debt-fueled acquisition of Fording right before commodity prices collapsed, but the company managed to get itself through more or less intact. Now the company is a major player in metallurgical coal, copper (27% of 2009 revenue) and zinc. Teck's copper resources are mediocre from a cost standpoint, but that seldom gets in the way of investor enthusiasm when copper prices are high. (For more, see Is The Copper Supercycle Intact?)

Plenty More Where That Came From

While those companies are easy plays for U.S. investors, they are certainly not the only copper plays worth considering. Diversified miners like Rio Tinto (NYSE: RTP) and BHP Billiton (NYSE: BHP) still stand to benefit from higher copper prices, even if copper does not dominate their revenue outlook. Other companies like Vedanta, Xstrata, Anglo-American and Norilsk have sizable leverage to the metal, but they are somewhat less convenient for U.S. investors.

On the smaller and riskier side, investors can also consider ideas like First Quantum, Mercator, Capstone, Lundin and Inmet.

The Bottom Line

Hardly anybody ever mentions this, but copper is just as much a hard asset as gold, and likewise it can help hedge against inflation. Granted, nobody values copper just because it is pretty or has a historical reputation as a store of value. That said, investors who believe that the global economic recovery is real and inflation is likely to come could certainly do worse than diversify into hard assets like metal miners. Copper is a fine place to start, but investors should also consider the prospects for other metal and minerals like molybdenum, zinc and iron. After all, commodity booms can last for a while, and they seldom involve just one commodity. (For more on this topic, check out the Copper Tutorial.)

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