Could Peabody be bought?

NATHAN Tinkler would not be alone in pushing for the privatisation of a big coalmining company if Ken Talbot was alive today, because from what Hogsback can see the coal sector is alive with bargains.

Staff Reporter

Talbot, for people with short memories, was the Queensland legend who founded, and then sold Macarthur Coal, trousering a billion dollars (and perhaps more) for the trouble.

His exit, under somewhat of a cloud, came a few years before he died in a plane crash in central Africa where he was leading the charge into an iron ore mining venture.

If not for that ill-fated event there is little doubt that Talbot would be following Tinkler in the hunt for coal bargains – such as possibly making a buy-out offer to the new owners of Macarthur, the US-based Peabody Energy.

The irony of Talbot, if alive today, buying Peabody is so deliciously outrageous that some readers might imagine The Hog has fallen off his trolley.

Think again, and while you are at it, take a squiz at what has been happening on stock markets around the world. The share prices of coalmining companies have crashed, turning one-time high-flyers into bargain-basement discards.

Peabody, for example, is trading on the New York Stock Exchange at $US24.86, less than half its 52-week high of $US61.85. Alpha Natural Energy is down from a high of $US47.25 to $US8.76. Patriot Coal is down from $US24.99 to $US1.38 – a fall of almost 95% and perhaps the best example of what has happened to high-cost coalminers in the Appalachian Basin.

No prize, naturally, for figuring out why US coal stocks have fallen so far, so fast. It is all about the cost of natural gas, which has collapsed in that country thanks to a flood of the stuff from recently accessed reservoirs long-trapped in beds of shale.

Australian coal stocks have also fallen sharply as the US miners try to get some of their material onto the world market, with just enough arriving in Asia to damage the global coal price.

Peabody, however, is the story of the day because at its latest low-ball share price you could buy the entire company for $US7.14 billion. That price is not much more than the $US5 billion it paid for full control of Macarthur.

In other words, a courageous investor such as someone fitting the shoes of the late Ken Talbot, could buy Peabody today. They would get all of its US operations, plus a worldwide spread of other mines and trading divisions – with the former Macarthur operations tossed in almost as an afterthought.

Could happen is one thing. Will it happen is another. Meek observers might be inclined to say a successful takeover bid for Peabody is out of the question. The Hog is not so sure because there is more than one coal entrepreneur with the aggressive instincts of Ken Talbot.

Nathan Tinkler is a prime example of the new generation of bargain hunters stalking the world.

Tinkler sold Aston Resources to Whitehaven for a pile of shares, emerging as Whitehaven’s largest shareholder with about 21.6% of the stock – only to find that he was getting poorer by the day as other investors headed for exit.

Rather than ranking as a billionaire holding Whitehaven shares worth around $1.3 billion, which is what he was worth at Whitehaven’s peak share price of around $6.19, Tinkler awoke on June 4 (the date of Whitehaven’s lowest price this year) to discover he was merely a $770 million-man. That is roughly half what he was worth a few months earlier.

Reclaiming the status of billionaire is probably not what drove Tinkler to start assembling a privatisation party. The driver was almost certainly a recognition that investors unfamiliar with coal, or fearful that shale gas could decimate the industry worldwide, were exiting too soon, leaving a bargain in their wake.

Depending on the eventual price offered by Tinkler and friends it is likely that they will acquire control of Whitehaven at a lot less than what it was worth just a few months ago, which is what all bargain basement shoppers crave.

The tricky question, and one which must be occupying the thinking time of many investors, is whether now is the time to follow Tinkler’s example and start buying coal shares because they have fallen so far, so fast – or is a buyer today snatching at a falling knife which is yet to hit the ground.

Tinkler thinks not, and no doubt his mentor, Ken Talbot, would think the same, and just go for it.

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