Over the past year, this commodity-stock-picking Fool has suffered some truly exquisite failures as the entire resource complex has careened into a black hole of rampant value destruction that's mindful of the 2008 post-Lehman implosion.
Last summer, I tried to issue a wake-up call to investors to pay more attention to the notably unpopular coal sector, citing an "enticing outlook" for coal stocks and touting "unmistakably bullish long-term investment opportunity." Looking over the devastation in the group since that time, I find myself hoping that my calls fell upon deaf ears. A month later, I discussed what I saw as "The Rising Star of Patriot Coal," but this week's bankruptcy filing by the eastern U.S. miner drove plenty of nails into that coffin.
If you want to see what a slice of humble pie looks like on a one-year chart, here you go:
PCX data by YCharts
The failure of Patriot Coal is a snapshot of an industry in crisis as successive blows were dealt by weather, regulators, unsupportive economic conditions at home and abroad, and widespread switching to natural gas for electricity generation. Natural gas actually matched coal for the first time in April in terms of the amount of electricity generated from the competing fuels, which may help explain why some analysts view gas and coal producer CONSOL Energy (NYSE: CNX ) as one of the less risky stocks in the industry.
Mining equipment manufacturer Joy Global (NYSE: JOY ) reports that U.S. coal mines operated at just 73% of capacity during the first quarter, and the latest government forecast sees 2012 coal consumption down more than 120 million tons from 2011!
Furthermore, although conditions are extremely challenging throughout the domestic market, the bankruptcy reinforces the relative advantage of miners operating in the western coal fields rather than the more severely impaired market for Appalachian thermal coals. By spinning off its eastern assets into Patriot Coal back in 2007, Peabody Energy (NYSE: BTU ) appears to have dodged a strategic bullet. Then again, Peabody shares themselves have plummeted more than 60% over the trailing year, so perhaps it's more accurate to state that Peabody was struck by a bullet, but simply escaped without a mortal wound.
With $3 billion in remaining debt after acquiring Massey Energy near the peak in the medium-term cycle, Alpha Natural Resources (NYSE: ANR ) has found little love from investors as the stock has slipped into single digits for the first time since its 2005 IPO. Hoarding $700 million in cash as of the end of the first quarter, Alpha doesn't look destined for the chopping block just yet, but all the struggling miners need market conditions to improve before these stocks can be considered even remotely safe for intrepid bottom pickers.
In my own view, which you are free to take with a bituminous grain of salt given my tattered trailing track record here, Peabody Energy continues to offer the finest value in the sector, as well as the most attractively positioned asset portfolio with respect to fulfilling the still-anticipated long-term demand growth from the likes of China and India. Although the position is well underwater at present, I will retain my long-term bullish CAPScall on Peabody Energy, just as I intend to keep the stock as a core holding for many years to come.