Coal India risks burning investors as govt set to offload 10% stake

The stake sale could be worth about Rs19,700 crore at current market prices, and would reduce the government’s share in the company to about 70%


Coal India is the only large coal miner whose return on capital is above its cost of capital. Photo: AFP
Coal India is the only large coal miner whose return on capital is above its cost of capital. Photo: AFP

Sydney: Fancy a truckload of the world’s biggest coal miner? New Delhi is planning to sell a 10% stake in Coal India Ltd. Such a deal could be worth about Rs19,700 crore ($2.9 billion) at current market prices, and would reduce the government’s share in the company to about 70%.

Investors minded to buy into coal in spite of its contribution to climate change and the fact that global demand is probably in terminal decline could do worse than have a look. Coal India dug up about one tonne out of every 14 mined worldwide during 2015, making it far and away the biggest producer in volume terms. It’s also in the almost unique position among large coal miners of making profits in excess of its cost of capital.

In the black

Coal India is the only large coal miner whose return on capital is above its cost of capital. Not only that: Thanks to its position as a government-controlled corner of India’s regulated electricity market, the company been consistently profitable, posting positive results in every one of the past 24 quarters for which Bloomberg has data.

So what’s not to like?

For starters, there’s the issue of competition. Coal is traditionally a near-monopoly in India, with Coal India meeting about four-fifths of demand while state-owned Singareni Collieries Co. and various importers make up the balance. Other companies are permitted to mine product for use only in their own power and industrial plants, and forbidden from selling to third parties.

That’s set to change. The government will auction four mines in the year starting 1 April that will be permitted to sell coal on the open market, Union coal secretary Susheel Kumar said in New Delhi earlier this month.This may prove to be only a toe in the water of deregulation—but a more open market for coal could cause serious problems for incumbents, given their extremely low productivity.

The average employee at Coal India produces about 1,811 metric tonnes of coal a year, less than a quarter of the 8,388 tonnes at Indonesian pits and well below the 30,746 tonnes at major US coal miners, according to Michelle Leung, an analyst with Bloomberg Intelligence.There’s another problem.

Coal is still fundamental to India’s energy mix, but it’s under growing threat from the plummeting cost of renewables.

Heat and dust

The price of solar generation at Indian utility auctions has fallen dramatically over the past four years At NTPC Ltd., the country’s biggest generator, coal-powered electricity traditionally costs about Rs3 a kilowatt hour.

That was enough to make it clearly cheaper than solar a few years ago—but the cost of finance, panels and installation has since slumped dramatically.

The winning bid in a power auction in Madhya Pradesh state last week came in at Rs2.97 /kWh for the first year, giving an average cost of Rs3.30 /kWh over the life of the contract, according to Livemint.com.

That’s a third less than a November 2015 auction won by since-bankrupted US solar developer SunEdison Inc., which at the time was heralded as unfeasibly cheap. A host of comparable results over the past year suggest that such prices are no longer unviable outliers.

The Madhya Pradesh result was welcomed by Piyush Goyal, the country’s energy and mining minister:

Still, at least Coal India is cheap, right? Well, not so much. While the shares fell 14% in 2015 and 9% last year and are now priced below the Rs343 at which they ended their first day of trade in 2010, in terms of valuation they’ve rarely been more costly—touching 14.6 times blended forward 12-month Ebitda this month, compared with 11.8 times Ebitda at Rio Tinto Group, owner of mining’s best balance sheet.

Costly fuel

Such a valuation might be justified if Coal India were heading into a booming market, but it certainly doesn’t look that way. Here’s how The Economic Times article, sourced to an unnamed “senior Coal India executive,” describes its near-term prospects:

Way to go selling the deal! Like any other shareholder, New Delhi keeps an eye on market sentiment, so it’s no surprise that it’s seeking to offload a stake at a time when valuations are looking rich. Investors might want to consider though: If the government is so keen to sell, why should you be so keen to buy? Bloomberg

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