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Coal is ripping up the tape for commodity investors lately, the way those longwall shearers built by Joy Global and Bucyrus can rip into a coal seam.
Back in November, I encouraged Fools to get their heads in the cloud by considering the Cloud Peak Energy (NYSE: CLD ) IPO from mining giant Rio Tinto (NYSE: RTP ) as a compelling value play. Accumulating some respect following a disappointing IPO, the market has begun to wrap its head around this unique vehicle for concentrated Powder River Basin (PRB) coal exposure.
Cloud Peak this week reported full-year 2009 earnings from continuing operations of $2.97 per share, which yields a trailing price-to-earnings ratio of just 5.5. Absorbing a minor production decline with ease, the company enjoyed record EBITDA of $396 million.
True to its stated strategy of targeting disciplined cost controls and heavy reliance upon fixed price forward sales contracts, this stock is not seeing the rip-roaring growth of expanding Appalachian miners like Massey Energy (NYSE: MEE ) and Patriot Coal (NYSE: PCX ) . Investors well-suited for exposure to Cloud Peak must be content to miss out on some of the near-term upside to coal prices as global producers scramble to satisfy Asian demand, but are nonetheless likely to appreciate a stable and steady journey into accumulating share value. The reason: Some 94% of 2010 production has already been sold at a fixed price of $12.52 per ton.
To its credit, Cloud Peak is not exactly being left out in the cold from the piping-hot Asian demand for thermal coal. The company shipped some 1.6 million tons to Asia through Vancouver during 2009, and intends to pursue additional export opportunities.
Reading the pulse of the PRB
Fools familiar with my coverage of the domestic coal industry will be well aware that fuel switching by the nation's utilities -- where it became more economical to burn natural gas than coal -- when combined with an economic slowdown and unfavorable weather, played a major role in growing coal stockpiles to an unprecedented peak above 200 million tons during 2009. Adding nuance to the discussion, Cloud Peak points out that PRB coals were less affected by this phenomenon than the bituminous coals of the eastern United States. In addition, much of the new electrical generation capacity set to hit the grid this year is intended to burn PRB coal.
Now that stockpiles have diminished to 175 million tons in the beginning stages of market stabilization, investors can expect the PRB to move swiftly toward normalized sales volumes. Accordingly, Arch Coal (NYSE: ACI ) recently issued an $86 million bid for lease rights to mine some 500 million tons from state-owned land at Otter Creek in Montana.
Although I continue to favor Peabody Energy (NYSE: BTU ) for its combined exposure to domestic coal in the PRB and expanding production of seaborne thermal and coking coals in Australia, I believe that value-focused investors seeking a smooth and predictable ride might enjoy a long-term walk in the clouds.