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The Other Reason Why So Many Coal Companies Have Gone Bankrupt

By Motley Fool Staff - Apr 21, 2016 at 8:05AM

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Everyone knows falling demand for coal has been pummeling the industry, but there's another issue that has been punishing the big coal miners, and it's one few people are discussing.

Many declining coal companies have been blaming declining demand -- especially in China -- for their bad performance. 

In this clip from the Industry Focus: Energy podcast, Tyler Crowe and Taylor Muckerman explain why that's not exactly fair, and how poor management probably has a lot more to do with their less-than-stellar earnings than oversupply.

A full transcript follows the video.

This podcast was recorded on April 14, 2016. 

Tyler Crowe: That is something that I find absolutely fascinating about the coal story. You talked about a lot of the weakening demand and the global glut of coal, and everybody just kind of blames that [for] these companies' demise and downturn. And, yes, that has been a huge factor. But one of the things I don't think a lot of people really think about is, these companies made some really bad moves a few years ago that are finally coming to reckoning. To give you an idea -- in 2011, the absolute peak of this cycle of coal ...

Taylor Muckerman: Yeah, that's when we talked about prices being down 75%, since 2011, yeah.

Crowe: Right. So, since then, right at that time, Peabody Energy buys Macarthur Coal for $4 billion. Alpha Natural Resources buys Massey Energy for $7 billion. Arch Coal buys International Coal for $3.4 billion. Walter Energy buys Western Coal for $3.3 billion. Every single one of these companies made a massive, massive purchase at the top of the cycle, took on huge debt to do it ...

Muckerman: It's a gold rush right there. Everyone's competing with each other, trying to get bigger, get bigger, get bigger.

Crowe: Yeah. So, when you see those huge moves, four or five years ago -- and I think this could be a good long-term investing view for people -- when you get in these big commodity boom cycles, when everybody's like, "We're going to grow like crazy because there's this booming demand somewhere overseas, and it's looking great," and you see these sort of moves, that can kind of be a little bit of a yellow flag, be like, "Woah, there's some people making some very aggressive moves." And when you're looking at something like energy, it can grow in fits and starts, but it's never a massive growth engine -- multiple, double-digit growth every year that you see in other industries. It's a slower-growing industry, and you have to understand that when it comes to the commodity cycle, because if you grow too fast, you're going to hit a bust like we're hitting now. And that was a perfect example of it.

Muckerman: Yeah, I remember I first started at The Motley Fool in 2012 as an energy and materials analyst, and ...

Crowe: I think we landed right about the same time.

Muckerman: Yeah. It was just, all talking about, "When is coal going to turn around? When is coal going to turn around?" And here we are, four years later, and still, even worse off than we were.

Crowe: We were trying to call the bottom, and everybody was like, "Oh, it can't get any worse than this." Well, it did, and it's still getting worse.

Muckerman: Yeah. We even we talking about, "Oh, there's certain basins like the Powder River Basin out West, which is like, some of the cheapest coal to mine." So, you think, hey, Peabody has great exposure there. That was their saving grace for a minute, and now they're the last ones to be exposed to bankruptcy court.

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