Barrick to ‘step back’ from Freeport after copper gain

Barrick CEO Mark Bristow. Image courtesy of The Northern Miner.

Barrick Gold says the window has closed on a potential deal with Freeport-McMoRan, given the run-up in copper prices and recent comments from the world’s largest publicly traded producer of the industrial metal.

Barrick had engaged in conversations with Freeport in an effort to boost its exposure to copper, Chief Executive Officer Mark Bristow said Thursday in an interview. Talks were “both remote and direct,” he said, without indicating when they took place or if they were focused on a potential corporate tie-up or asset deals.

A surge in copper prices to eight-year highs has pushed up valuations of producers of the metal used in wiring, with Freeport’s stock nearly tripling in the past 12 months. Freeport CEO Richard Adkerson also dismissed a merger of equals in October as the Phoenix-based company pushed ahead with retooling its massive copper-and-gold flagship mine in Indonesia. Barrick indicated in 2019 that any tie-up with Freeport would have to be friendly.

The messaging from Freeport and its stock performance is “very clear,” according to Bristow. “That’s the market and that’s what happens, so we’ll step back and maybe there’ll be other opportunities.”

For now, Toronto-based Barrick is focused on boosting its exposure to copper by developing its own assets. The company sees copper as a “strategic” commodity underpinned by electrification and one that’s compatible with gold from a production perspective, he said.

“I was very outspoken on the opportunity the copper industry offered back just two years ago,” Bristow said. “If we had managed to pull one of those opportunities off it would have been fantastic for us looking back.”

Barrick has shown it can build its own gold-copper mines and the run-up in prices has strengthened its existing copper portfolio, Bristow said. He also sees more consolidation ahead in gold, with Barrick keen and able to participate thanks to a strong balance sheet.

Still, with gold near what Bristow sees as the top of the cycle, mergers and acquisitions come with “substantial risk” and require “a lot of careful strategy to be able to be effective and not look back from a deal that cost you too much money.”

(By James Attwood, with assistance from Danielle Bochove)

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