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There’s No Promised Land for Coal, in Australia or America

Liam Denning
·4 min read

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- There was a time when Australia was the promised land for America’s coal giants. Faced with the decline of coal-fired power and steel-making at home, U.S. miners bought their way into Australian resources situated helpfully on China’s doorstep.

Ultimately, it wasn’t enough to stave off bankruptcy. Having emerged from chapter 11 a few years ago, Peabody Energy Corp. finds its Australian business simultaneously a blessing, curse and — following a new agreement with its biggest shareholder, the ever-warm-and-fuzzy Elliott Management Corp. — potential Hail Mary.

To say Peabody is in the middle of a perfect storm would be something of an understatement. Its primary product, thermal coal, is the tobacco of the energy world, with demand slumping in its domestic market despite the imaginative efforts of President Donald Trump’s administration to force it on utilities.

Steel producers, which use higher-value metallurgical, or coking, coal, are also in a funk amid the trade war. Compounding that, a fire swept through one of Peabody’s coking coal mines in Australia in 2018, taking it out of commission just as prices were peaking. And now coronavirus has ground Chinese industry to a halt, not only taking down demand for energy in general, but hitting already-weak prices for natural gas, making it even more of a cut-throat competitor to thermal coal.

Unsurprisingly, Peabody just announced losses for 2019, suspended its dividend and cut capital expenditure plans. Elliott, which gained its stake in Peabody’s bankruptcy, has watched the stock plummet by four-fifths since fire was reported at the North Goonyella mine in 2018. It will now put two of its own on Peabody’s board, including Elliott’s head of U.S. restructuring, and they will be joined by an Australian coal veteran. More importantly, Peabody has agreed to appoint a consultant to review the performance of its Australian mines.

Despite the fire, the Australian mines remain the most profitable part of Peabody’s business. While they only account for a sixth of tonnage, they generated more than half of adjusted Ebitda last year, even after accounting for the costs of maintaining the North Goonyella mine. Australian cash margin per ton of about $17 — again, including those fire-related costs — is four times that of the U.S. business. Indeed, ex-depreciation, the difference is even starker:

Peabody says it has had “a number of inquiries” about North Goonyella. However, with the whole Australian portfolio under review, the process could ultimately lead to a sale of more or possibly all of the business. After all, an activist shareholder is sitting on 30% of the eviscerated stock and has now pushed onto the board. If some suitor could be persuaded to put a multiple of just 3 times on the Australian business’ adjusted Ebitda, that would equate to $1.4 billion — not far short of the current enterprise value of the entire company.

A bull might look at that and conclude Peabody is a bargain. Yet that math has held true for a while, and few seem to be charging in. By late Thursday morning in New York, the stock had already given back almost half of Wednesday’s jump on the back of the Elliott agreement.

The implication is that investors are skeptical of Peabody realizing much value in Australia or, perhaps more likely, see little value in the U.S. operations alone. Back in June, Peabody announced a joint venture with rival Arch Coal Inc. to combine their assets in the Powder River Basin. It is a textbook tactic to offset declining volume with cost savings — worth $545 million to Peabody, by its own calculations. Yet the stock has dropped another 60% since then, and the entire market cap is now just $823 million. Even Arch, which has done a good job to date of returning cash to shareholders, has suffered amid weak pricing and an expansion project that will keep capex running high through this year.

Beyond the ultimate result of Elliott’s efforts with Peabody, the miner’s resort to austerity and its review carry ominous signals for this industry. The American mines constitute a low-margin, high-volume business in a market where the volume of demand is under sustained pressure. The cost of capital is rising inexorably as a result of shifting attitudes on climate change and falling prices for rival energy technologies. Peabody’s Australian business may yet yield a deal that salves some investors’ wounds. But there is no promised land left to which this industry can turn.

With assistance from David Fickling

To contact the author of this story: Liam Denning at ldenning1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mark Gongloff at mgongloff1@bloomberg.net

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Liam Denning is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering energy, mining and commodities. He previously was editor of the Wall Street Journal's Heard on the Street column and wrote for the Financial Times' Lex column. He was also an investment banker.

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