Everybody Wants a Piece of Macarthur

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In addition to April Fools' Day, today marks a new year of benchmark pricing negotiated annually between steelmakers and the miners that supply their raw materials.

This year, with megaminers BHP Billiton (NYSE: BHP  ) and Vale (NYSE: VALE  ) seeking to abandon those traditional settlements in favor of a quarterly pricing structure in the case of iron ore, the joke is on steelmakers left reeling from the specter of more frequent price hikes ahead.

The point is, you can't get steelmakers and megaminers to agree on much these days when they gather at the negotiating table. These pricing negotiations are notoriously contentious. There is, however, one morsel of common ground. They all want a piece of the Australian coal producer with 145 million tons of proven coal reserves and nearly nine times that quantity in unproven resources. They all want a piece of Macarthur Coal.

ArcelorMittal (NYSE: MT  ) grabbed a 19.9% stake in the miner in 2008. Not to be outdone, South Korea's POSCO (NYSE: PKX  ) moved in for a 10% stake of its own. Fools may recall this was a time when skyrocketing coal prices sent steelmakers and related interests scrambling up the supply chain to secure access and control costs.

Including another major stake held by Chinese partially state-owned enterprise CITIC Resource Holdings, nearly half of Macarthur's shares belonged to these three downstream interests before U.S. coal giant Peabody Energy (NYSE: BTU  ) crashed the party this week with a $3 billion offer for the entire Macarthur Coal pie.

While Peabody's offer represents a 34% premium to the price at which Macarthur was prepared to issue shares to global commodity trader Noble Group (under a separate pending deal involving fellow Australian miner Gloucester Coal), POSCO's $400 million cost for a 10% stake back in 2008 serves as a timely reminder of how far these coal asset valuations have fallen from that precollapse peak.

With coal prices firmly gaining momentum in what I contend is a far more sustainable long-term trend of rising Pan-Asian coal demand, I suspect it may take something a little closer to that historical peak valuation to persuade steelmaking stakeholders to climb into cahoots with the king of coal.

The pace of consolidation in coal right now is breathtaking, with Massey Energy (NYSE: MEE  ) providing the most recent example on the domestic front. With or without a successful conclusion of Peabody's bid for Macarthur Coal -- which was abruptly rebuffed by Macarthur's board -- I continue to view Peabody as the premier vehicle for the second coming of seaborne coal.

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Fool contributor Christopher Barker can be found blogging actively and acting Foolishly in the CAPS community under the user name TMFSinchiruna. He tweets. He owns shares of BHP Billiton, Peabody Energy, and Vale. POSCO is a Motley Fool Income Investor recommendation. Try any of our Foolish newsletters today, free for 30 days.

The Motley Fool and its disclosure policy can always agree on their benchmark pricing.

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