Peabody Energy reported a $2 billion loss for 2015 on Thursday, as bankruptcy rumors surrounding the country’s largest coal miner continued to mount.
The worries came as the operator of the North Antelope Rochelle Mine announced it had drawn the entirety of its $1.65 billion credit line. Peabody officials cast the move as an effort to maintain “the maximum amount of control and flexibility” over the firm’s finances.
But analysts noted Alpha Natural Resources made a similar move before it filed for bankruptcy last year. Peabody shares were down 30 percent to $2.35 in Thursday trading on Wall Street.
“What else can you do if you need cash to keep going? You’re running out of options once that’s fully drawn,” said Kristoffer Inton, a Morningstar analyst who tracks the company. “The market was pricing in a high chance they would have to file (for bankruptcy). The things we saw today only reinforced the thinking that might happen.”
Company officials sought to put a brave face on the grim earnings. They noted Peabody cut $620 million in costs and pointed out the company will see its fixed costs decline in the coming year. Peabody will make a last $250 million payment on its Powder River Basin mining leases in the second part of 2016, they noted.
“There is no question the industry backdrop has been challenging, not to mention that several of our peers have filed for bankruptcy in the last year,” Peabody President and CEO Glenn Kellow said in a conference call with investors. “Peabody is not immune to these external pressures, as evidenced by our earnings, cash flows and pricing of our public instruments. That doesn’t change, though, the underlying strength of a platform that continues to excel on many levels.”
Still, the Missouri-based company’s precarious position was underlined by the fact that Peabody executives declined to hold the question and answer session with financial analysts that customarily follows their earnings report.
Coal demand was down across the company’s operations.
Slowing economic growth in China, a key market for Peabody’s Australian mines, resulted in 5 percent and 8 percent drops in Chinese demand for metallurgical and thermal coal, respectively.
European thermal demand was down 8 percent.
And in the U.S., natural gas continued to batter coal. Coal fell from roughly 40 percent of American power generation in 2014 to 34 percent last year, the company said. Natural gas rose to 31 percent of U.S. electricity production.
The impact of declining demand was told in the company’s financial indicators. Revenues for 2015 were down 17 percent from the previous year to $5.6 billion.
U.S. mining revenues declined $145.6 million to $937.2 million on the back of a 13.5 million ton drop in American production. Shipments from the Powder River Basin fell from 142.6 million tons in 2014 to 138.8 million tons last year.
The company’s financial position was further clouded by growing uncertainty surrounding a proposed mine sale.
Peabody announced plans in November to sell three mines in Colorado and New Mexico for $358 million to Bowie Resource Partners LLC. Bowie had initially set a Feb. 8 deadline to secure financing for the deal. On Thursday, Kellow said Bowie was still working to secure money for the transaction.
The deal is aimed at shoring up Peabody’s balance sheet, providing the company with a cash infusion and removing $105 million in liabilities from the company’s books.
“When you’re on the ropes like this, you kind of need this one,” Inton said.
Peabody said it plans to curtail 2016 production 18 to 28 million tons below 2015 levels. Such cutbacks are sorely needed to help stabilize weak coal prices, analysts said. But whether Peabody can afford to curb production is unclear, they said.
The dynamic is one of the defining features of coal’s woes.
Utilities have reduced coal usage, but mining firms have been reluctant to dial back shipments because it further diminishes their already dwindling bottom lines. The result is a massive buildup in coal stockpiles outside power plants.
Inventories of Powder River Basin coal alone stood at nearly 104 million tons in November, the last month for which data is available. That is a 57 percent increase over the same time last year.
“It is absolutely a good thing,” said Hans Daniels, an analyst at Doyle Trading Consultants, of Peabody’s cutbacks. “It needs to happen faster and more than it is occurring.”
Inton, the Morningstar analyst, agreed, saying it would benefit Powder River Basin producers in the long run. It could even help Peabody’s future prospects, he said. But whether the company can afford such curtailments in the near term is another matter.
“From a company trying to get as much liquidity as possible, it was troubling to see,” Inton said.
Follow energy reporter Benjamin Storrow on Twitter @bstorrow.