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From a trader's perspective, my selection of Peabody Energy (NYSE: BTU ) as my top energy stock for 2012 must look like a disastrously misguided call. My bullish CAPScall initiated alongside that article has already underperformed the S&P 500 (INDEX: ^GSPC ) by 33% in just over five months!
However, we're nowhere near the end of the year, and this Fool's long-term fundamental approach to stock picking is not easily swayed by the short-lived vagaries of frequent market disconnects like the one I see before us today. That this stock now trades within inches of its post-Lehman low from 2008 to me highlights the excessive depth of this sell-off relative to the company's stable long-term profitability outlook. These lower prices, then, only serve to sweeten the opportunity.
Coal analysts at Goldman Sachs corroborated my resiliently bullish stance toward Peabody Energy this week by upgrading the stock to "outperform" with a price target of $37. I have previously discussed two of the three rationales cited in the analyst's note: Peabody's market-leading position in the most attractive U.S. coalfield (the Powder River Basin), and the thoroughly unwarranted discount in Peabody's shares relative to its peers. As a result, I wish to focus today on the third rationale cited: the improving data regarding China's coal demand.
Coal imports into China across all product categories surged dramatically during the month of April, recording a 17.1% sequential increase from March import volumes and notching a new record level at more than 25 million tons. Compared to April of 2011, that represents an astonishing 90.1% increase in total coal imports to China! According to China's official customs data, thermal coal imports in April outpaced the year-ago mark by 312.5%, and imports of coking coal for steel production surged 59.7%. Although these data are not even remotely consistent with prevailing expectations for full-year 2012 growth in coal imports, they do suggest that a restocking cycle may have kicked into gear rather suddenly during April.
While China's decelerating growth rate has certainly contributed to waning investor enthusiasm for commodity producers at large, these data speak to the powerful underlying expansion of the nation's burgeoning demand for coal. Mining equipment manufacturer Joy Global (NYSE: JOY ) has repeatedly echoed Peabody's observation of a long-term global supercycle for coal, and in this Fool's view the recent softness in coal markets remains decidedly counter to that long-term guiding trend. I perceive similar counter-trend dynamics pervading the copper market as well, which likewise cements my long-term bullish outlook toward multi-commodity marvel Teck Resources (NYSE: TCK ) .
Finally, using an earlier chapter of the financial crisis as a guide, I consider China likely to engage in strategic stockpiling of key bulk commodities within any form of scaled-down growth stimulus that the nation might pursue as the world grips for another likely round of painful delevering. Just as I did through the carnage of the epic 2008 commodity collapse, I am content to accumulate the quality producers of strategic hard assets right in the midst of a noteworthy mass exodus from the entire mining sector. For decidedly contrarian exposure to the intact outlook for a long-term secular bull market in global coal demand, I consider Peabody Energy an immensely powerful choice.