Back to top

Industry Outlook

Overview

Coal is burned as fuel or gasified to create a synthetic gas (syngas) that can then be used as feedstock for the production of chemicals, fertilizer and electric power. Coal is also used for producing heat through combustion.

Metallurgical coal or coking coal is used in steel production. Coal remains a dominant source of power generation worldwide. In the U.S., around 40% of total power generation capacity is coal fired.

The U.S., Russia, Australia, China, India and South Africa have the largest coal reserves in the world. Coal is produced in 25 states in the U.S. though the bulk of current production takes place in just five states: Wyoming, West Virginia, Kentucky, Pennsylvania and Montana.

According to estimates by the Energy Information Administration (EIA), the country’s current coal reserves will last for 168 years at the current production rate. They will most likely last even longer with environmental issues coming in the way. However, if the fuel’s environmental standing can be improved, there could potentially be new sources of end-market demand in the future, in communications and transportation systems, computer networks and even space expeditions.

As per the World Coal Association (WCA), proven global coal reserves will last nearly 112 years at current production rates. On the other hand, proven oil and gas reserves are projected to last around 46 years and 54 years, respectively, at current production levels. Asia is the biggest coal market and presently accounts for 67% of the global coal consumption.

President Obama’s Climate Plan, which aims to lower carbon pollution in America, could impact the future prospects of the coal companies. Power plants in the U.S. are responsible for nearly 40% of greenhouse gas emissions in the country, and the majority of these units use coal as its fuel.

The president’s plan calls for implementation of carbon pollution standards for both existing and upcoming coal-fired units, which in a way could make coal-fired units more expensive and less attractive for operators. The electricity generators to avoid the stringent regulation could decide to erect power plants using natural gas or alternate sources, which will lower the demand for coal and impact the future profitability of the U.S. coal companies.

The European Investment Bank (EIB), said it would stop financing majority of coal-fired power stations to help the European Union’s 28-nation coalition reduce environmental pollution. This decision is in sync with President Obama’s plan to cut down global emission. New coal units will not be funded unless the emission level is less than 550 grams of carbon dioxide per kilowatt-hour (gCO2/kW).

Zacks Rank – Negative Outlook

The Zacks Industry Rank, which relies on the same estimate revisions methodology that drives the Zacks Rank for stocks, currently puts the Coal industry at 232 out of 259 industries in our expanded industry classification. This puts the industry in the bottom third of all industries, corresponding to a negative outlook.

The way to look at the complete list of 259+ industries is that the outlook for the top one-third of the list (Zacks Industry Rank of #85 and lower) is positive, the middle one-third of the list (Zacks Industry Rank of #86 to #169) is neutral while the outlook for the bottom one-third (Zacks Industry Rank #170 and higher) is negative.

Please note that the Zacks Rank for stocks, which is at the core of our Industry Outlook, has an impressive track record going back years, verified by outside auditors, to foretell stock prices, particularly over the short term (1 to 3 months).

None of the 18 companies in the Coal industry has a Zacks Rank #1 (Strong Buy); only two have Zacks Rank #2 (Buy), while 7 have either Zacks Rank #5 (Strong Sell) or Zacks Rank #4 (Sell). The other 9 have Zacks Rank #3 (Hold). Overall, the Zacks Rank for the industry and for individual stocks indicate our bearish outlook.

Earnings Review and Negative Outlook

The companies haven’t reported Q2 results yet, but in terms of Q1 earnings surprises, Alliance Resource Partners LP (ARLP - Snapshot Report), Alliance Holdings GP, L.P. (AHGP - Snapshot Report), Alpha Natural Resources Inc. (ANR - Snapshot Report), Natural Resource Partners L.P. (NRP - Analyst Report), Rhino Resource Partners LP (RNO - Snapshot Report), Walter Energy Inc. (WLT - Analyst Report), Peabody Energy Corp. (BTU), James River Coal (JRCC) and Hallador Energy Company (HNRG - Snapshot Report) came out ahead of expectations. In total, 54% of the coal companies in our coverage came out with positive earnings surprises in the first quarter, below the 65% average for the S&P 500 as a whole.

Second quarter earnings are on its way with the majority of the coal companies expected to report earnings within the next fortnight. The beginning of coal industry releases was quite bright with Peabody Energy surging ahead of market expectations in its second quarter.

Can the other operators in the coal industry match the performance of Peabody? We expect second quarter 2103 performance of most coal stocks in our coverage universe to decline from the year-ago quarter.

Tailwinds

Coal Dominates U.S. Power Generation: Coal as a major source of fuel for power generation dominates the Utility industry. Coal is used to generate about half of the electricity consumed in the U.S. and is also the largest domestically-produced source of energy. Electricity generation absorbs about 93% of total U.S. coal consumption. The reason is simple: coal is by far the least expensive and most abundant fossil fuel in the country, though the emergence of large shale natural gas reserves is expected to pose tough competition going forward.

The EIA report also suggests U.S. coal production will increase by 1% in 2013 and 1.3% in 2014, primarily due to an expected rise in natural gas prices from 2012 levels.  The relative increase in U.S. natural gas price, compared to coal, will also increase the share of coal in electricity generation. The EIA report suggests coal’s share in electricity generation in 2013 will reach 39.5%, up from 37.4% in 2012.

A recent release from the EIA indicates that total coal consumption will increase by 7.1% from 890 million short tons (MMst) in 2012 to 954 MMst in 2013, as consumption in the electric power sector rises due to higher electricity demand and higher natural gas prices. Coal consumption will grow at a more modest pace of 1.8% to touch 970 MMst in 2014.

Not Just Electric Generation: Electricity generation is just one use of coal in the U.S. Manufacturing plants and industries use coal to make chemicals, cement, paper, ceramics and metal products, to name a few. Methanol and ethylene, which can be made from coal gas, are used to make products such as plastics, medicines, fertilizers and tar.

Certain industries consume large amounts of coal. For example, concrete and paper companies burn coal, and the steel industry uses coke and coal by-products to make steel for bridges, buildings and automobiles.

Coal as an Input for Steel Industry: Due to its heat-producing feature, hard coal (metallurgical or coking coal) forms a key ingredient in the production of steel. Nearly 70% of global steel production depends on coal. Any improvement in the production of steel will also bring in fresh demand for coking coal. Global steel usage is expected to increase in 2013 and 2014, which will benefit the coal industry.

Demand Upsurge in Asian Countries: The increase in coal demand in the Asian economies of China and India has been a key price driver. We expect this trend to continue in the future, mainly due to the growing energy needs in India, China and South Korea.

Of the Asian countries, economic growth in China and India will be the fastest. These two countries do produce coal, but its domestic coal production has yet to match the growing demand, resulting in the continuous need for importing coal. These countries rely heavily on coal for electricity generation.

It is estimated that by 2035, 60% of the world’s coal-fired units will be located in China and India. It is quite obvious from the current rate of production that these two countries will have to make bulk coal imports to run its units. So, the future prices of coal and the growth of coal stocks will to a large extent depend on these two countries.

As per a WCA report, 36% of China’s global investment is directed towards advanced coal technology, which we believe is a good sign for the coal industry. The Chinese government is taking active steps to endorse the use of clean technologies, as China has been one of the largest green house gas emitters.

We believe the infusion of funds from China and India would help the U.S. coal producers. As it is these coal companies have been hard pressed in 2012 with dwindling demand forcing them to idle a few coal mines.

Given the lackluster coal market at home, coal companies are looking to export coal to the fast growing Asian economies. Some of the names making the most from overseas coal exports are Peabody Energy Corporation and CONSOL Energy Inc. (CNX). During the second quarter Arch Coal Inc. (ACI) opened operations in Beijing to tap the growing metallurgical and thermal coal demand in the South Asian markets.

Coal Trade

According to an EIA report, U.S. coal exports in 2012 were 126 MMst, which reflected growth of 17.8% year over year, driven by Asian countries. EIA forecasts US coal export will be 110 MMst in both 2013 and 2014. The continued weakness in Europe, decline in international coal prices and increase in production from other coal exporting countries will weigh on U.S. exports in 2013-14.

Besides Australia and Russia, which has the second largest coal reserve next only to U.S, the U.S. coal exporters could face competition from Indonesia. Indonesia is the world’s largest exporter of thermal coal and its proximity to China and India will give it a geographical advantage over the U.S.

Headwinds

Coal is plentiful and fairly cheap relative to the cost of other sources of electricity, but its use produces emissions that adversely affect the environment. Coal emits carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide and mercury, which have been linked to acid rain, smog and health issues.

With governments becoming more and more stringent on environmental issues, the electricity generators are implementing new measures to bring down emission levels of greenhouse gases.

Sluggish Economic Recovery: The sluggish pace of economic recovery in the U.S. has to a great extent eroded demand for coal. This has pushed a few of the large operators to lower production, idle mines or even shut down mines permanently to realign output with diminishing demand.

In 2012, Alpha Natural Resources Inc. decided to shut eight mines in Virginia, West Virginia and Pennsylvania. Peabody Energy decided to permanently close its Air Quality Mine in Vincennes, Indiana. The tepid demand for coal was making the operation of this mine uneconomical, leading to its shutdown.

Environmental Legislations: Coal has been losing its importance as a fuel source over the last few years, particularly in the U.S., vis-à-vis other sources that have a lesser impact on the environment. Concerns on the emission of greenhouse gases and global climate change have resulted in the formulation of new legislations and policies which emphasize on the use of environment friendly fuel sources, particularly in the power sector.

Natural Gas Substituting Coal: A major substitute for coal in energy generation is natural gas. Coal is being dumped in favor of natural gas because of its relative fuel efficiency, low emissions, quick construction timelines and low capital costs.

There is an abundance of natural gas in the U.S. market and its usage is eco-friendly. Power generators are not only converting their existing plants to gas-fired ones but are also building new nat-gas units to meet regulatory standards.

As per EIA’s reports, 96.65 GW of new electric generation will be added in the U.S. within 2009-2015, of which 20% will be natural gas-fired plants.

The share of natural gas for power generation is projected to grow from 24% in 2010 to 30% in 2040, as per the EIA’s long-term outlook.  

Competition from Alternative Energy Sources: Apart from natural gas, the coal industry has been losing a major share to renewable sources of energy like wind, solar and hydro power.

Production of power from renewable sources has also been supported by various U.S. states. Undoubtedly, state legislators are laying more emphasis to produce power from renewables. Thirty-five U.S. states and the District of Columbia have enforceable renewable portfolio standards or other renewable generation policies. These policies were designed to spread awareness and encourage the power generators to produce more from renewable sources.

As per an EIA release, renewable energy’s share of total energy use (including biofuels) would improve from 9% in 2011 to 13% in 2040. This increase comes at the expense of coal-fired units.

Accumulated Stockpiles: EIA reports point out that coal consumption in the U.S. was up by 11% in the first quarter of 2013 versus the same period last year. However, the increase in coal consumption was not a function of rising demand for the fossil fuel.

In fact, the demand for coal decreased 5% over the same period. The rise in consumption maybe attributable to utility companies burning down their stockpiles to meet the demand for power. Cloud Peak Energy Inc. (CLD) registered a decline in coal shipments in the first half of the year, which did not come as a surprise, as the accumulated stockpiles at the utilities delayed fresh orders.

To Sum Up

Despite the stringent legislations and regulations regarding coal-fired generation, we could see some positive news for the coal industry. A release from Peabody Energy indicates that between 2012 and 2017, 425 gigawatts of new coal-fired generation is expected to come online globally, increasing annual world coal demand by nearly 1.2 billion tons.

The majority of the addition will be commissioned in the developing economies, where domestic coal production is far lower than consumption. This opens up new opportunities for coal shipments for US coal majors.

The World Steel Association projected nearly 3% year-over-year growth in global steel usage in 2013 and 2014. Since met coal is a necessity in steel production, positive steel fundamentals can drive the demand for met coal. In addition, rising natural gas prices in the U.S. will also help in the revival of coal demand for generation of electricity.

Transportation determines the pricing of coal to a large extent in the U.S. as it needs to be transported over large distances to reach its end-markets. An EIA report says that in the U.S., on average, transportation costs increase the price of coal by 40% and these costs have increased by 50% over the last decade. If transportation costs go up substantially in a short span of time, it will definitely have a negative impact on demand, domestically as well as in international markets.

If Chinese and Indian imports look encouraging, the lingering debt crisis in Europe continues to cast a pall over coal fundamentals. Despite relief packages, the crisis in Europe is far from over and will continue to restrain coal demand.

The coal companies are nevertheless working on the technology aspect with the aim of achieving near-zero emissions. Clean-coal technology development in the U.S. also has funding earmarked under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. This is an encouraging sign for coal producers.

There is no denying that in the U.S. coal continues to lose its ground to other fuel sources for power generation. As per EIA, coal will continue as the largest source of electricity generation, but its share of total electricity generation, which was 51% in 2003, would decline to 35% in 2040. Renewable energy sources and natural gas powered units will be the main beneficiary of the lost ground. Renewables and nat gas will come up in a major way in the next three decades.

All said, even if alternate sources of fuel generation are available, coal’s advantage lies in its price, which is far cheaper than other sources of fuel. If we look at the global picture, it is evident that cheap source of reliable power is a driving factor for economic development. Reinvigorating demand from growing economies and steady demand from the U.S. will continue to drive the coal industry in the future. In other words, we are not yet ready to sing coal's swansong.

Please login to Zacks.com or register to post a comment.

New to Zacks?

Start Here

Zacks Investment Research

Close

Are you a new Zacks Member or a visitor to Zacks.com?

Top Zacks Features

My Portfolio Tracker

Is it Time to Sell?

One of the most important steps you can take today is to set up your portfolio tracker on Zacks.com. Once you do, you'll be notified of major events affecting your stocks and/or funds with daily email alerts.

More Zacks Resources

Zacks Rank Home - Evaluate your stocks and use the Zacks Rank to eliminate the losers and keep the winners.

Mutual Fund Rank Home - Evaluate your funds with the Mutual Fund Rank for both your personal and retirement funds.

Stock/Mutual Fund Screening - Find better stocks and mutual funds. The ones most likely to beat the market and provide a positive return.

My Portfolio - Track your Portfolio and find out where your stocks/mutual funds stack up with the Zacks Rank.

Zacks #1 Rank Top Movers for Zacks #1 Rank Top Movers

Company Symbol Price %Chg
SYNAPTICS I… SYNA 78.11 +8.14%
CENTURY ALU… CENX 19.88 +5.74%
GREEN PLAIN… GPRE 39.41 +5.12%
PILGRIM'S P… PPC 28.82 +3.08%
THE PANTRY… PTRY 18.41 +2.79%