Coal (Stocks) On Fire

May 11, 2009

There is an interesting thing happening in the coal market right now - prices have fallen, but coal stocks are up over 50% on the year.
  • The state of the coal market
  • Exceptional execution
  • The China syndrome


Last summer, I wrote about the prospects for getting into the coal market. At the time, I pointed out that "just because coal is up 140% does not mean that Joe's Coal Mine is all of a sudden 140% more profitable." And indeed, like so many bull markets of that halcyon summer, the bull market in coal came to a crashing halt, and brought down with it coal stocks, as well as the only coal-focused exchange-traded fund in town at the time, the Van Eck Market Vectors Coal (KOL).


Performance of coal stocks from May '08 to May '09


The story has been pretty straightforward and painfully familiar: The global economy tanked, including China, and thus energy and steel demand for coal dried up. At least, that's what happened to the demand for the spot coal that shows up on charts. The reality from the coal company's perspective is that long-term contracts drive the bottom line, and those long-term contracts are negotiated based on real supply and demand - how many boatloads of the stuff go from point A to point B, and on what schedule.

One theory for the big pop in coal prices is that it was driven by the participation of speculators taking long positions, and it's quite possible that some of those longs are now out of the market. That speaks to a potential bottom in coal prices, a theory that was at least hinted at in our interview with Howard Gatiss, CEO of coal marketing giant CMC, in January.

So if coal has found a bottom, does that mean it's time to consider the coal miners themselves?


Performance of coal stocks (KOL and PKOL) from Jan '09 - May '09


It might just be too late.

KOL and its new competitor, the PowerShares Global Coal ETF (Nasdaq: PKOL), both invest in a few dozen giant global coal players, with KOL being slightly more U.S. heavy, and PKOL making a slightly heavier bet in Asia. Practically speaking, the main differentiator so far is that KOL is a larger, more established fund with higher liquidity. Both have had phenomenal runs in just the past few weeks. So what's going on?


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