Your Bridge Over Troubled Water

Are you weary? Feeling small? I know I am, but thankfully I continue to see select sectors offering a well-built bridge for investors over these troubled financial waters.

I have continued to highlight precious metals and coal as two particular sectors with solid long-term fundamentals intact, despite some near-term disruptions and sharp declines in share prices for their constituent stocks. During recent months, miners of gold and silver have rallied convincingly, leaving shares of some promising coal miners to dig even deeper into value territory.

Crafty Roman architects utilized arches to build bridges that remain in use even today. After being thrown to the gladiators of a spooked equity marketplace, Arch Coal (NYSE: ACI  ) just may possess similar strength. Although shares have already been sliced to a fraction of their former glory, the market showed no more mercy following last week's earnings results than it had after the previous quarter.

Arch beat estimates with earnings of $62.3 million, a decline of 23% over the comparable 2007 period. Annual earnings more than doubled in 2008 to $354 million, and while nobody expects results as robust during the current year, the visible elements of a coal recovery on the long-term horizon place the 80% free-fall of Arch shares from their 52-week high into Foolish context. Following the lead of larger competitor Peabody Energy (NYSE: BTU  ) , Arch cut its capital spending budget in half and scaled back production targets for 2009 to reflect the dip in demand.

To be sure, waning steel-related demand from producers like United States Steel (NYSE: X  ) has placed a serious damper on coal prices, but Arch CEO Steven Leer points out that thermal coal is a recession-resistant resource. "People still turn on the lights," he reminds us while forecasting a 1% decline in thermal coal demand for 2009. Foundation Coal Holdings (NYSE: FCL  ) and Patriot Coal (NYSE: PCX  ) both announced they will idle mines and lay off workers. Pointing to economic stimulus efforts around the globe and the depth of production cuts underway, many experts see a classic reversal in the making as recovering demand may slam into curtailed production.

Although Arch's exposure to unpriced coal production is less favorable than that of CONSOL Energy (NYSE: CNX  ) , Arch Coal's balance sheet remains strong like a Roman bridge. Arch indicated it is looking to acquire competitors at distressed valuations, and I believe Fools may be wise to follow suit.

Further Foolishness:

The "Coal" tag within the Motley Fool CAPS community lists 21 coal companies. Find out what other investors are saying about the stocks you're watching, or share your Foolish thoughts with us. CAPS is free and fun!

Fool contributor Christopher Barker wishes he could squeeze coal into diamonds. He can be found blogging actively and acting Foolishly within the CAPS community under the username TMFSinchiruna. He owns shares of Arch Coal and Peabody Energy. The Motley Fool scrubs its disclosure policy before releasing it into the atmosphere.


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