Boosted by higher global prices, U.S. coal miners are showing they can make money again. Now, for the hard part — winning back investors.
Five of America’s largest coal producers — Alliance Resource Partners, Arch Coal, Cloud Peak Energy, Peabody and Warrior Met Coal — reported a combined $801 million in third-quarter earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization. That’s up from $454 million from the year-ago period, company filings show, and St. Louis-based Peabody’s highest tally since 2012. And it’s helping management teams carry out shareholder-friendly tactics including stock buybacks and dividends.
That’s a sharp reversal from recent years, when low coal prices and high debt levels forced many of America’s largest miners into bankruptcy. Now, with those companies back with cleaned-up balance sheets, the industry is enjoying a period of higher seaborne prices for thermal coal, which is burned by power plants, and metallurgical coal, a steelmaking component. The elevated prices are thanks, in part, to China’s increased imports of the fossil fuel this year.
However, the U.S. thermal coal sector is still sluggish, mired in a longer-term problem — namely, that U.S. electricity demand is flat and there’s rising competition from cheap natural gas, wind and solar power. Prices will probably stay low for much of 2018, Robert Moore, CEO of St. Louis-based Foresight Energy, told analysts. Foresight, along with others, plans to focus more on exporting coal next year.
Another challenge facing miners is pulling in more investors. Hedge funds dominate companies’ shareholder ranks, creating volatility when they trade in and out of positions frequently. Excluding index funds, Peabody only had four or five conventional “long-only” investor funds among its top 20 shareholders recently, while Arch Coal, which has headquarters in Creve Coeur, had six or seven, Mark Levin, an analyst at Seaport Global Securities, wrote in a note Tuesday.
Read more: Bloomberg