People have been trying to pick bottoms in coal for the past two years, without a lot of success. If you don't closely follow coal stocks, pull up a five-year chart of something like Alpha Natural Resources (ANR), or the Market Vectors Coal ETF (KOL). Terrible, right? What is going on here?
It's not too hard to figure out. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is hammering the coal industry with regulations, and the superabundance of natural gas is leading to lower demand for coal.
It is hard to understate how bad this is.
The funny thing is, even with all the fracking for natural gas, we still have a much bigger supply of coal on hand. We have about 230 years' worth in the U.S., at current consumption levels. We should not be too dismissive of coal, even if it is a pollutant. We have half the world's coal right here in the U.S., and it is very cheap to obtain.
Natural gas is a cleaner energy source, of course, and lots of people would like to switch our coal-fired electricity generation to natural gas. That takes time, and many people also fear that replacing coal with natural gas in electricity generation would lead to much higher prices for natural gas, even though we are producing lots of it through fracking. The reality is that we should probably use a range of energy sources, which includes coal, natural gas, oil, solar, and nuclear.
The economics of coal are currently being constrained by politics. It is hard to imagine a resurgence of coal, unless the U.S. gets an administration led by a President from a coal state, like Rand Paul from Kentucky. Beyond that, old coal plants are going to be retired, and I don't foresee us building any new ones. Even though you can buy just about any coal stock in the low single digits, it is hard to be optimistic. Even the Republican victory in the midterm election didn't do much for the coal names.
This has had pretty severe economic consequences in already-poor regions that don't have much going for them outside of the coal industry. Outside of coal mining, which pays quite well, there isn't much to do.
All of this has just been the cherry on top of what has been a very bad year for commodity investors. There has been no place to hide. This summer, agricultural commodities got smoked. Energy and metals have been getting hammered all year. The only bright spot is the meats, and maybe coffee.
Some smart people I know think that this is still the tail end of the unwinding of a commodity bubble back in 2007, when investors were piling into commodity index swaps. There is probably some truth to that. I tend to think we're getting down to tag ends of the commodity bear market. I suppose we could get down to $2 corn or triple-digit gold, but at this point, it seems unlikely.