Fancy a truckload of the world’s biggest coal miner?
New Delhi is planning to sell a 10 percent stake in Coal India Ltd., the Economic Times reported Monday, without saying where it got the information. Such a deal could be worth about 197 billion rupees ($2.9 billion) at current market prices, and would reduce the government’s share in the company to about 70 percent.
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 ton 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.
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 April 1 that will be permitted to sell coal on the open market, federal coal secretary Susheel Kumar told reporters 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 tons of coal a year, less than a quarter of the 8,388 tons at Indonesian pits and well below the 30,746 tons at major U.S. 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.
At NTPC Ltd., the country’s biggest generator, coal-powered electricity traditionally costs about three rupees 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 2.97 rupees/kWh for the first year, giving an average cost of 3.30 rupees/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 U.S. 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.
Still, at least Coal India is cheap, right? Well, not so much.
While the shares fell 14 percent in 2015 and 9 percent last year and are now priced below the 343 rupees 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.
Such a valuation might be justified if Coal India were heading into a booming market, but it certainly doesn’t look that way.