US coal miners had a tough fourth quarter and most are expecting the same conditions for at least the first half of 2012. Alpha Natural Resources Inc. (NYSE: ANR), Patriot Coal Co. (NYSE: PCX), and Peabody Energy Co. (NYSE: BTU) are either slowing production or selling some assets. Consol Energy Inc. (NYSE: CNX) reported earnings last week and beat expectations, but the Q1 forecast is weak. Arch Coal Inc. (NYSE: ACI) has not announced any closures and probably won’t ahead of its earnings release on Friday.
Demand for coal, both the thermal variety used for generating electricity and the metallurgical coal used in steel making, declined in 2011 as coal-fired plants have been shut down in favor of gas-fired plants and demand for steel has dropped.
In the US, gas-fired plants account for about 39% of total generation capacity, but these plants have traditionally been used to meet demand spikes because natural gas was more expensive than coal. With gas prices so low (about $2.49/thousand cubic feet today), coal miners have to lower prices or reduce production or both.
A quick look at coal mining companies’ valuations is enlightening.
Alpha’s share price at around noon today is $23.19 in a 52-week range of $15.49-$61.66. The consensus target price on the stock is $29.50, for a potential upside of 27%.
Patriot’s share price is $9.19 in a 52-week range of $6.92-$27.56. The consensus price target on the stock is $11.50, for a potential upside of 25%.
Peabody’s share price is $38.38 in a 52-week range of $30.60-$73.95. The consensus price target for the stock is $49, for a potential gain of about 28%.
Consol’s share price today is $37.34 in a 52-week range of $30.56-$56.32. The consensus price target is $50, for a potential upside of 34%.
Arch Coal’s share price is $15.39 in a 52-week range of $13.09-$36.99. The consensus price target is $22, for a potential upside of about 43%.
Market Vectors Coal ETF (NYSE: KOL) is down 0.4% at $37.17 and is 52-week trading range is $27.42 to $51.87.
Share price highs for all the coal miners is down by -24% to -64%, with Consol down the least and Patriot down the most. Our pick from among these would have to be Peabody, primarily for its strength overseas. The others are either closing shafts or soon will be.
The boom in shale gas production not only weighs down natural gas prices, but will continue to weigh on coal prices. About the only thing that can help here, is lower natural gas production, and that may be starting to happen.