Commodities & Metals

What Recession? Coal Acquisitions Keep on Coming (BTU, MT, MACDF, ACI, WLT, RIO, ANR, AAUKY, BHP, VALE, PCX, KOL)

While Peabody Energy Corp. (NYSE: BTU) and ArcelorMittal (NYSE: MT) haven’t been pursuing Australia’s Macarthur Coal Ltd. (OTC: MACDF) for more than a few months, the deal never really looked like it would get done. The original offer of $3 billion never got any traction with Macarthur and the Peabody-Arcelor bid was eventually raised to $5 billion. Macarthur’s largest shareholder, China’s Citic Resources, has blessed the new price and the deal is all but done. Citic owns 25.2% of Macarthur and Peabody-Arcelor own another 24%, virtually guaranteeing the acquisition.Macarthur’s appeal comes from its large metallurgical coal resources. Met (or coking) coal commands a premium price in the market and is a necessity for steel-making. Earlier this year, Arch Coal Inc. (NYSE: ACI) acquired International Coal Group, another met coal producer, for $3.4 billion. Walter Energy, Inc. (NYSE: WLT) paid about $3.3 billion for Canadian miner Western Coal Corp. in a deal that closed in early March. And mining giant Rio Tinto plc (NYSE: RIO) completed its acquisition of Australian met coal miner Riversdale in June. The largest deal was the acquisition of Massey Energy and its large met coal assets by Alpha Natural Resources, Inc. (NYSE: ANR) for nearly $9 billion.

Met coal currently commands a contract price of about $285/metric ton. The spot price for Australian met coal is around $250/metric ton, a -20% drop in just three months. That indicates that the contract price will fall as well, and probably below the spot price. Platt’s has quoted a broker who has projected prices of $235/metric ton in the first quarter of 2012, falling to $205/metric ton by the end of the year.

The lower pricing is the result of an anticipated slowdown in the global economy, particularly in China which has experienced a construction boom in the past few years. But tighter government restrictions on lending and an over-supply of vacant buildings have resulted in fewer construction projects.

Still, there remains speculation that other coal companies may be takeover targets. We noted a rumor in early September that British miner Anglo American PLC (OTC: AAUKY) may be preparing a bid for Walter Energy. Last week, BHP Billiton plc (NYSE: BHP) was said to be considering a $6 billion offer for Walter Energy, with Brazilian giant Vale SA (NYSE: VALE) also included in the mix.

Like many commodities stocks, Walter Energy’s share price plunge in early August, and posted a 52-week low of $57.62. Shares have recovered to over $75, but that’s still about 50% off the stock’s 52-week high. If a takeover offer is coming, now is probably a good time.

US miner Patriot Coal Corp. (NYSE: PCX) has been boosting its production of met coal, and the company has said it sees strong demand for the steel-making coal continuing from Brazil and India. Patriot’s share price is about 67% below its 52-week high, making it another possible takeover target now that it’s market cap has fallen below $1 billion.

Peabody’s shares were up more than 3% at this morning’s opening, at $39.39, in a 52-week range of $30.60-$73.95. ArcelorMittal’s shares were also up more than 3%, at $18.72, in a 52-week range of $14.77-$38.88. The Market Vectors Coal ETF (NYSE: KOL) is unchanged, at $35.14, in a 52-week range of $27.42-$51.87.

The elephant in the room that no one wants to acknowledge is that if the stronger coal players are using the recent weakness to acquire the weaker players, perhaps these companies are positioning themselves better for the next decade and beyond.  Coal demand is a often considered as a leading indicator because it is still used as a key measurement for power consumption and for building infrastructure equipment and structures.  As with many businesses in and around commodities, getting better scale and better geography can incrementally lower costs and that drives higher margins.   Coal players seem to be positioning themselves for far beyond the next few years.

Paul Ausick

Sponsored: Tips for Investing

A financial advisor can help you understand the advantages and disadvantages of investment properties. Finding a qualified financial advisor doesn’t have to be hard. SmartAsset’s free tool matches you with up to three financial advisors who serve your area, and you can interview your advisor matches at no cost to decide which one is right for you. If you’re ready to find an advisor who can help you achieve your financial goals, get started now.

Investing in real estate can diversify your portfolio. But expanding your horizons may add additional costs. If you’re an investor looking to minimize expenses, consider checking out online brokerages. They often offer low investment fees, helping you maximize your profit.