U.S. Coal Exports on Track for Record Year

Demand for natural gas in the U.S. is surging, and should continue to do so in the coming years. But another natural resource is making waves overseas.

U.S. coal exports are headed for a record year. According to the Financial Times, the U.S. is on track to break the 1981 record for coal exports of 112.5 million. Demand in Europe is especially high, accounting for more than half of this year’s coal export tally.

Why the increased demand? Because coal is cheap – cheaper than it’s been in 40 years. Little more than four years removed from its all-time peak price of $161 per ton, coal dipped to $63 this week.

Natural gas is cheap too, even after its recent rally. But in Europe, coal is cheaper.

Natural gas is routinely sold as part of a package with oil in Europe. And oil is still close to $100 a barrel despite a recent slump.

Coal is sold on its own, and at $63 a ton, it’s a bargain.

That said, if overseas demand for the fossil fuel reaches record heights this year as projected, don’t expect coal prices to stay dirt cheap for long. My colleague Kevin McElroy wrote recently that he believes coal “could safely return 100%-200% gains in the next few years.”

That makes it a good time to buy shares of companies such as Peabody Energy Corp. (NYSE: BTU) – the largest coal producer in the U.S., which at $21.78 a share is close to four-year lows. It’s trading at less than seven times earnings right now.

Surely there are other coal companies out there that are just as cheap. But they might not be for long if European demand for the resource continues to break records.

For once, a lump of coal in your proverbial investment stocking might not be a bad thing.

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