A rising tide carries all ships, so a true secular bull market tends not to leave many participants behind.
As unpopular a topic as it is -- given the environmental consequences implied both by mining, and then in burning the stuff -- coal is definitively in the midst of a global secular bull market. Peabody Energy (NYSE: BTU ) has called it "a long term supercycle," and Fools are advised to take notice today.
As the trend matures and gains wider recognition, some operators that have been relative laggards through this stage may find themselves poised to make up some ground. In the three months since I suggested that all systems were go at Arch Coal (NYSE: ACI ) (following a lengthy malaise), the stock has failed to break out convincingly as yet.
Arch Coal strutted boldly to the earnings table last week with an 85% increase in net income. Thanks in part to continued volume strength in the wake of a strategic purchase of assets from Rio Tinto (NYSE: RTP ) , Arch Coal grew revenue by 42% to easily surpass the top-line expectations from analysts. Although realized coal prices declined overall, operating margins expanded significantly from the prior-year period. The miner's debt-to-capital ratio of 43%, albeit improved from previous heights, remains perhaps the greatest blemish upon an otherwise solid coal play.
CONSOL Energy (NYSE: CNX ) , admittedly, is no longer the clear-cut coal play that it was before moving further into the natural gas arena earlier this year. At 77% of third-quarter revenue, however, coal continues to factor very heavily into the success of CONSOL's operations. Natural gas hedges managed to elevate realized sales prices about 48% above the current spot price for the fuel, and without those hedges CONSOL's gas operations would have turned in an operating loss. Meanwhile, the company's coal operations doubled production of low-vol met coal, while surging prices meant per-ton margins for the product doubled as well. Notwithstanding the persistent weakness in natural gas prices, I view CONSOL Energy as a quality coal stock that I believe has adequately priced in that reality.
Like shares of Massey Energy (NYSE: MEE ) before speculation began swirling about a possible sale of the company, I consider Arch Coal and CONSOL Energy two forlorn laggards of the coal industry with a real chance of reclaiming their participation in this long-term supercycle as it continues to mature. I urge Fools to insert both tickers into their watchlist to keep a close eye on their progress, and to share their opinions of these relative underperformers using the comments field below.