Peabody Energy (NYSE: BTU) is the world’s largest private-sector coal company that operates mines across the U.S. and Australia. In 2008, Peabody fueled roughly one-tenth of all U.S. electricity generation and more than 2 percent worldwide. The company owned majority interests in 30 coal mining operations located in the United States and Australia, and also owns equity interest in one Venezuelan operating mine. Peabody mines, prepares, and sells steam coal to electric utilities in the U.S. and operates metallurgical and thermal coal mines in Australia.
Global demand for coal remained weak in 2009, driven by low capacity utilization at steel mills and a fall in the demand for electricity. Of the major steel-producing nations, China is the only country outpacing prior-year steel production levels, with all other nations running 38 percent below 2008 on average. Weakening demand for coal and the economic contraction has an adverse effect on Peabody's sales volumes and revenues. Peabody has already realized 2 million tons of its previously announced 10 million tons of planned 2009 Powder River Basin production cuts.
While the global economic contraction has had an adverse effect on the demand for coal in the United States, China continues to be a significant importer of coal, and Peabody predicts that China will be a net importer of coal by the end of 2009. Also, India continues to be a significant importer of coal. Peabody is positioned to take advantage of the rising demand for energy in East and South Asian economies through its Australian coal unit. Peabody is also entering joint ventures with Asian mining companies such as Shanxi Lu'an Mining Group Company Ltd.
Though falling electricity demand globally limits the demand for coal, legislation is spurring the development of low carbon technology. In the U.S., economic stimulus legislation is accelerating low-carbon technology development with funding and tax credits for carbon capture and storage. Funding has also been appropriated for smart grid and transmission upgrades in the United States that would enable improved utilization of current coal-fueled generation and drive increased demand for coal.
Peabody Energy Corporation is the largest private-sector coal company in the world; Peabody's coal is responsible for 10% of the electricity generated in the U.S. and 2% generated worldwide, a massive amount when considering that 40% of the world's electricity comes from coal power. Peabody is not a utilities company; it sells its product to electric utility companies, factories, and other coal-burning businesses, often under long-term contracts. These customers then burn the coal to fuel their generators and produce electricity. Once a mine is empty of resources, Peabody sometimes resells it to recreation companies in order to maximize returns.
Peabody's net income fell to $133.7 million during the quarter, down 21.4% from the first quarter of 2009. Revenue rose to $1.52 billion, up 4.8% from the first quarter of 2009.
Sales volumes for the quarter totaled 58.3 million tons, on par with prior years. A 41% increase in Australia shipments over the prior year offset reductions in U.S. production. Peabody has benefited from an increase in electricity demand and steel production in both developing economies such as China and India and in the U.S. Global steel production is expected to rise more than 10% in 2010. China's net coal imports reached 39 million tons in the first quarter. If this rate is continued, China will exceed its record 104 million tons of net coal imports in 2009. Also,India's coal imports are projected to rise 25% to 110 million tons in 2010. In the U.S., electricity generation has risen 4% this year and winter coal stockpiles are declining. These trends suggest coal demand will be strong throughout 2010.
Peabody is targeting an increase in 2010 EBITDA of between 47% and 64% due to increases in prices and a rise in metallurgical coal volumes in Australia.
Coal is a highly cost-efficient source of energy - one of the cheapest in the world. When burned to produce electricity, coal-powered plants tend to have an average efficiency of 33% energy-to-electricity output; liquid forms of coal are even being touted as the next great way to power vehicles. A form of carbon, coal is a nonrenewable fossil fuel found in the Earth and is obtained using capital-heavy mining techniques; Peabody maintains mines across the U.S., with its primary source in Wyoming's Powder River Basin. Peabody also has mines in Australia, and recently tripled its holdings on the continent through the $1.5 billion acquisition of Excel; these mines produce a form of coal that is sold to Asian steel mills, giving Peabody an entryway into the expanding Asian market. Peabody's regional diversity allows it to take advantage of economies of scale, as well as reduce transportation costs. Coal is a commodity good; though different coal from different sources can have different mineral contents, there is no real product differentiation between competitors. This leads to competitive price cycles and, as a result, relatively low profit margins. Peabody has not recently earned profits above its capital costs, illustrating the ability of the commodity cycle to combine with other trends to affect profitability.
Peabody is working with ConocoPhillips and has invested in GreatPoint Energy to develop cheap coal gasification techniques, in order to make coal competitive with natural gas for heating and liquid fuel.
Of all the mines in the U.S., the Powder River Basin is the most productive, and the most abundant in coal resources. The geography of the basin facilitates mining in a way that eastern basins, like the Appalachian basin, do not; this allows coal extraction at much lower costs. The coal from the Powder River Basin is also low in sulfur, and is therefore attractive to Electric utilities who want to meet environmental regulations for sulfur emissions. On the other hand, the coal is also high in water, which makes it less efficient to burn, and the basin is so far from Peabody's main markets that transportation costs are a major factor in constraining profitability. Nonetheless, the Powder River Basin is a highly lucrative part of Peabody's business, and because only five large companies control the whole basin (due to high establishment costs), there is little competitive pressure to mine out the area, meaning that Peabody has high future production potential in the area.
The strength of the Pacific markets has been driven by continued demand growth in China and India. China has emerged as a prominent metallurgical coal importer in 2009 and the nation is already a 22 million ton net importer of thermal and metallurgical coal. In fact, China is Peabody's largest metallurgical coal customer, importing 25 million tons from January to November 2009, more than 10 times the amount of coal imported in 2008. India continues to expand its coal imports as well, with critically low stockpiles at a number of utilities. India is likely to be the fastest-growing coal importer in coming years, with generation growth targeted at 13,000 megawatts per year and reports that the nation could be short 100 to 200 million ton per year within five years. Overall, demand for coal to generate electricity and make steel in China and India is expected to grow by 7 percent to 8 percent annually in the next five years.
Peabody has positioned itself to take advantage of rising demand for coal in East and South Asian markets via its Australian coal division. Peabody continues to target 2009 Australia coal sales of 20 to 23 million tons, including 5.5 to 6.5 million tons of metallurgical coal and 9 to 10 million tons of thermal export coal.
Some examples of Peabody's increased investment in Asian markets include:
Peabody's expansion in Asia is also part of a long-term strategy to reduce its reliance on North American coal markets. Given current trends, climate legislation will make coal power plants more expensive to operate, and some utilities are starting to switch to natural gas. Though coal is currently the cheapest source of electricity, new regulations will likely make it more expensive, especially in the United States. In contrast, the economic growth of China and India is being fueled by coal. Peabody is responding to this trend by planning to increase production volume in Australia by 30 percent in 2010.
Global demand for coal remained weak in the first quarter of 2009, driven by low capacity utilization at steel mills and a fall in the demand for electricity. Global steel production decreased 23 percent in the first quarter of 2009 from the prior year due to low demand. Of the major steel-producing nations, China is the only country outpacing prior-year steel production levels, with all other nations running 38 percent below 2008 on average. Operating levels at U.S. steel makers are just 40 to 45 percent of 2008 capacity. Further, Peabody predicts that global electricity demand will decline 1 to 2 percent in 2009.
Though falling electricity demand globally limits the demand for coal, legislation is spurring the development of low carbon technology. In the U.S., economic stimulus legislation is accelerating low-carbon technology development with $3.4 billion in funding and tax credits of $10 to $20 per ton of carbon dioxide for carbon capture and storage. Another $11 billion has been approved for smart grid and transmission upgrades in the United States that would enable improved utilization of current coal-fueled generation.
Coal is a commodity; there is very little that can distinguish Peabody's coal from competitors' coal. Coal companies are price competitors; they attract customers by attempting to lower their prices below the competitions'. This makes it difficult for companies to maintain high profit margins. When demand for coal is high, as could be caused by colder weather patterns or a rapidly expanding economy, prices rise for a period of time because of an undersupply to meet the demand; eventually, new companies enter the market to take advantage of high prices and the supply increases, lowering prices. Conversely, when prices are low for a period, due to high supply and low demand, companies leave the market, bringing down the supply and raising prices. According to the Edison Electric Institute, overall electric generation has declined 3.4 percent year-to-date through April 18, 2009. This fall in demand leads to falling prices for coal. Falling coal prices have lowered Peabody's profit margin since the company earns less revenue on each ton of coal sold to utility companies when spot prices are lower.
Because of the nature of coal power, as well as the nature of coal harvesting, government regulations could play a part in raising production costs and lowering Peabody's profit margins.
Coal is one of the dirtiest forms of energy production. It's burning releases a number of pollutants that contribute to smog, acid rain, and higher instances of respiratory problems in the general populace. Coal mined from the Powder River Basin has also been found to have a higher mercury and sulfur content, making it less healthy to burn and more difficult to push past more stringent air quality regulations. Furthermore, the methods of extracting coal from the earth are highly detrimental to the surrounding environment, from forest ecosystems to watershed resources.
The greatest environmental concern for coal is that coal power releases greenhouse gases, which are causing the global warming induced global climate change. This hot-button environmental problem, aside from being a major election issue, will have massive economic, political, and social effects in the future. For this reason, many governments around the world are being pressured by their citizens to regulate greenhouse gas emissions. From mandatory emissions caps to Carbon trading markets to subsidies of alternative, clean, and Renewable energy sources, these legislative regulations are making coal a less attractive energy source by forcing companies to limit coal power production or by making coal expensive relative to other power sources. While coal producers like Peabody are attempting to regain public support by developing "clean coal" technologies to reduce pollution emissions, the fact that burning coal will always release greenhouse gases keeps clean coal from being an environmentally viable form of energy, at least until carbon sequestration techniques are perfected. Overall, this trend will either lead to lower demand and, therefore, lower prices for coal or higher costs - either ways, contributing to lower profit margins.
In the United States, key legislation has been signed to fund the development of clean coal technologies. Following passage of the Energy Improvement & Extension Act of 2008, which provided new tax credits for geologic storage, the American Reinvestment & Recovery Act of 2009 provided $3.4 billion in funding for eligible carbon capture and storage (CCS) projects. Other bills being considered by Congress would also provide CCS projects with additional support in the form of bonus allowances, technology export support, and direct funding through ratepayer-based mechanisms.
In response to legislation promoting clean energy, Peabody Energy has invested in several clean coal technology projects. In March 2010, Peabody purchased a $15 million equity interest in Calera Corporation, which has proprietary technology that converts carbon dioxide (CO2) into green building materials. Every ton of Calera building material is can store as much as a half-ton of carbon dioxide. Calera's process also removes minerals from water, producing fresh water which can benefit areas that lack access to clean water.
Mines are dangerous places to work; perils ranging from falling debris to accidental explosions to dust-induced respiratory illness. Unions and citizens movements are always working for better mining conditions, which means higher production costs; the location of Peabody's mines means that labor cannot be exported to less-regulated parts of the world. The recent Coal Mine Health and Safety Act of 2006 is an example of a government regulation that has the potential, by taking time and energy away from production, to raise costs and, therefore, lower profitability. Peabody has again distinguished itself, however, as its Farmersburg mine was named the safest coal mine in the U.S. by the U.S. Department of Labor.
As a form of energy, coal faces most of its competition from natural gas, a cleaner burning source of power. If natural gas prices fall, the entire coal industry could face a drop in revenue as power consumers turn to the cheaper form of energy.
Peabody faces increased competition during times of high coal demand, and decreased competition during times of low demand. Because of the company's size and well-established industry position, there is very little risk of Peabody's collapse during a period of low demand. Peabody's major competitors include Arch Coal, Massey Energy Company, CONSOL Energy (CNX), Rio Tinto PLC, and a number of Chinese entrants such as Yanzhou Coal Mining. To compete effectively, Peabody must control its costs; it can't control its prices since product pricing is a function of the market. Peabody holds an advantage over its competitors because of the wide geographical range of its mines, its ability to produce using economies of scale, and its expansionary strategy, which includes acquisitions like Excel.
|2008 Coal Industry Production Data||Peabody||Arch Coal||Massey||CONSOL|
|Tons of Coal Sold (Millions)||255.5||133.6||41||64.3|
|Total Revenue (Millions)||$6,593||$2,983.8||$2,989.8||$4,652.4|
|Operating Profit per Ton||$5.45||$3.44||$3.24||$11.27|
|Net Company Profit (Millions)||$953.5||$354.3||$56.3||$442.5|
The data show the price-competitive nature of the industry. The fact that Massey and CONSOL's prices are around twice as high as Arch Coal's correlates to their sales being half as much. Peabody is an exception in the industry; though its prices are almost 25% higher than Arch Coal's, it sold almost twice as much coal. This is probably because Peabody sells coal to and is better proliferated in more markets than any of its competitors. Peabody also tends to sell much of its coal in long-term contracts. This could contribute to the phenomenon by which its has high sales even with relatively high prices; if it made a fixed-price, long-term contract at a time when prices were high, then average sales costs would stay high while sales would continue to increase. It should be noted that Arch Coal has the lowest production costs. This is probably because the company ditched its Appalachian holdings well before its competitors did, getting a head-start on the cost-cutting. Peabody can be predicted to have its costs fall in the next few years as it too loses most of its Appalachian mines.
Overall, Peabody maintains a high quantity sold, and, coupled with costs lower than most competitors and prices that are high enough to maintain margins but low enough to keep sales outstanding, it is easy to see how dominant the company is in the market. Arch Coal has highly competitive pricing, though it sacrifices its margins to achieve them. Massey and CONSOL pose little threat to the big two, though CONSOL stands to benefit overall from its natural gas production, as natural gas demand moves conversely with coal, allowing the company to benefit in some way from price shifts in either.