The Turnaround In U.S. Coal

| About: Peabody Energy (BTU)


The US coal industry has been in a severe depression.

Recently, coal prices have been strong and inventories are shrinking.

Assets I like are CNX Coal Resources and Peabody bonds (in default).

The big downside risk is the Appeals Court verdict on the Clean Power Plan.

Times are very bad for the US coal industry. I think most SA readers know why:

  • The new technology of fracking has led to much lower natural gas costs. Natural gas competes directly with coal as an input for electricity generation.
  • The Obama administration has encouraged this switch in the hope of reducing CO2 emissions, although the percent of world emissions saved is miniscule.
  • The industry itself increased its leverage in the years prior to the decline, and has not had the resources to retrench.
  • The collapse of LNG prices in Asia has hurt the coal export market. Here's a graph of the Asian prices from the Wall Street Journal.

The result of this is that all coal prices have fallen sharply. Here's a nearest futures continuation graph from of US coal delivered to the CSX railroad:

And here is a similar chart of coal CIF Rotterdam area. This is a good proxy for the world export market:

I believe the little upmoves on the right-hand side of these charts are not fake-outs, but are the end of the long declines. Here's my argument:

The Bad News

The US coal industry extended its leverage in the years leading up to the bust. For example, in 2008, at the height of the financial crisis, Peabody Energy (BTUUQ) had a liabilities-to-assets ratio of .67. As of the last financial statement before Chapter 11, it was .92. Some of this was operating losses, but a large part was it was because of a 42% increase in debt. The company simply did not have the financial flexibility to hunker down when times got very tough.

The situation was exacerbated by the failure of the industry to cut back production when the writing was on the wall. The combination of declining consumption and stable production has led to a very big increase in coal inventories. Here's a chart from the US EIA of coal consumption and stocks. Note that this ends in March 2016. I explain below why I think this has since turned around. (Data is in 000 tons.)

The Good News

OK. That's the bad news background. Here's why I think things are turning around.

Recent data on coal railroad loadings has gotten better. This chart is from the American Association of Railroads:

You can see how coal loadings finally turned down in late 2015 and early 2016. That was the coal miners finally giving up and reducing production. Recently, it has moved up, although not to earlier levels. This is consistent with a story of production cutbacks to a level which starts to reduce inventories. However, railcar loadings and production are not likely to get back to earlier levels for a long time, if ever.

Natural gas prices have moved up. This directly impacts coal, since a large number of power plants have dual fuel capability and will chose whichever is cheaper. Here's a chart of August 2016 gas futures:

This is a 25% increase since April.

Weather has a surprising effect on coal demand (surprising to me anyway, since I thought coal was mostly used for baseline generation). In fact, analysts I have read put part of the blame for low coal consumption on the mild 2015-16 winter. Spring and early summer has been hot in much of the sunbelt. It hasn't been cool anywhere. This adds to demand for electricity.

The result of this has been the strengthening in coal prices we saw this in the earlier charts. It is important to know that the futures market is forecasting even higher prices for some coals, particularly in eastern US.

Aug 2016 - 40.20
Aug 2017 - 47.25

Since production costs may actually decline a little over the next year, this will be a big boost to cash flow.

So it looks to me like a typical commodity "cobweb" turnaround is happening right now. There is one big risk, however. The Obama administration has proposed a new set of rules for electric utilities, the Clean Power Plan. This would sharply limit how much coal can be burned. The administration did this by regulatory action, since they knew that it could not be done legislatively. Much like the recent administrative action on immigration, this is being challenged in the courts. It is currently before a Federal Appeals Court. If this is upheld, it will be a huge long-term negative for the industry and a short-term psychological blow. The ruling could come soon.

If you are willing to accept this risk, there are many assets you could buy. Probably the easiest is the VanEck Vectors Coal ETF (NYSEARCA:KOL). This is an ETF of coal miners, suppliers and transporters. However, the fund is not US-focused. Several of its largest holdings are Chinese, and its largest holding, Teck Resources (TCK), in involved in a lot more than coal.

If your tax situation is appropriate, the MLP CNX Coal Resources (NYSE:CNXC) should be considered. It was spun out from Consol Energy. David Einhorn, who owns much of Consol, wants it to concentrate on its gas E&P operations. Einhorn still owns much of CNXC, but I would expect him to sell on strength. Right now, its dividend rate is about 20%. However, only about 40% of that is covered by income, so count on some reduction.

Finally, if you are willing to take on high risk and you want upside optionality, consider buying Peabody Energy bonds. These bonds are going for about twelve cents on the dollar. If the coal market does right itself, and if the Chapter 11 proceedings are not closed too quickly, these could be worth much more than that.

Disclosure: I am/we are long CNXC, PEABODY BONDS.

I wrote this article myself, and it expresses my own opinions. I am not receiving compensation for it. I have no business relationship with any company whose stock is mentioned in this article.

Editor's Note: This article covers one or more stocks trading at less than $1 per share and/or with less than a $100 million market cap. Please be aware of the risks associated with these stocks.

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