Has Cliffs Natural Resources Finally Hit Rock Bottom?

It's been an ugly year for investors in Cliffs Natural Resources (NYSE: CLF  ) . The free fall in the company's shares just doesn't want to end -- shares were hammered again following a downgrade by Morgan Stanley. Is this the final nail in the coffin or have Cliffs' shares finally hit bottom?

For whatever reason, the Morgan Stanley downgrade appears to have come as a surprise to the market, which sent shares down by double digits. Maybe it's the fact that the price target was cut all the way to $14 a share. Maybe it's the language citing deteriorating market conditions in the company's core iron ore market. Whatever the reason, the stock took another big drop.

Cliffs, as some might remember and others want to forget, was at more than $70 stock this time last year. Those holding on to hope that the stock can someday make its way back should take a look at what Morgan Stanley had to say about the company. For starters, it sees the company's core iron ore business being cut in half in the coming years as new supply begins to come on line. That new supply would affect both volumes and pricing for the beleaguered miner. According to Morgan Stanley is that this would obliterate about 30% of Cliffs' bottom line.

However, Morgan Stanley isn't the only big Wall Street bank throwing around its weight when it comes to having an opinion on Cliffs. Goldman Sachs actually upgraded the stock, though it's mainly a valuation call. According to Goldman, the company shored up its liquidity after cutting the dividend and issuing equity while also idling a high-cost plant. It thinks the company's risks are already priced into the stock and are basically calling the bottom.

So who are you to believe? When it all comes down to it, the overarching problem is that Cliffs' cost of production is too high, especially when compared to global giants BHP Billiton (NYSE: BHP  ) and Rio Tinto (NYSE: RIO  ) . These two can remain profitable even if iron ore prices continue to fall. Meanwhile, with its debt load weighing the company down, Cliffs' investors could be left with a worthless stock.

While I don't think that's a likely scenario, I'm not inclined to be a buyer, even at these levels. High cost of production and heavy debt levels typically don't end well. Further, Cliffs simply doesn't have the commodity diversity to weather these storms as well as its more diversified global peers. Sure, a pure play is a great investment when a cycle turns up, but its not a great play for someone who wants to sleep at night knowing their investments are safe. 

Personally, the risk-reward balance isn't enticing enough, especially when there are so many questions surrounding the company's future profitability. I'd much rather stick with a diversified global miner than take a flier on a company that just might have further to fall. 

There's a lot more to the story. Cliffs Natural Resources has grown from a domestic iron ore producer into an international player in both the iron ore and metallurgical coal markets. If you'd like more information on why the company could now be looked at as a possible value play due to several factors that are likely to remain advantageous for Cliffs' management, click here now to check out The Motley Fool's premium research report on the company.


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