Pop Goes Alpha Natural ANRZ

Alpha Stock Bubble Alpha Natural
Alpha Natural

This post and article captures the investing world we live in.

By David Stockman (Please read: http://davidstockmanscontracorner.com)

If you want a cogent metaphor for the central bank enabled crack-up boom now underway on a global basis, look no further than today’s scheduled chapter 11 filling of met coal supplier Alpha Natural Resources (ANRZ). After becoming a public company in 2005, its market cap soared from practically nothing to $11 billion exactly four years ago. Now it’s back at the zero bound.

This article by David Stockman perfectly illustrates that capital DESTRUCTION or mal-investment occurs DURING the boom phase. The bust which is what Alpha and the entire coal industry are going through creates the healing process as assets are redeployed to their higher uses and supply is re-balanced to meet changed demand.

From 2006 to today during the greatest coal boom in history, Alpha has lost almost $5 billion for its shareholders. At the peak of its earnings, the market cap (not including debt) traded at 25 times and during the insanity at over 50 times. Investors were destroying their capital and the company was mis-allocating its shareholder’s capital DURING the boom phase. Now is the cleansing process. Ditto for many coal companies. So ask yourself why do reasonably intelligent management teams and Board of Directors make such a CLUSTER of errors and why do investors pay stupid multiples on peak earnings? A combination of central bank distortion and psychology and momentum chasing?

Alpha Natural Case Study See spread sheet xls.

Yes, bankruptcies happen, and this is most surely a case of horrendous mismanagement. But the mismanagement at issue is that of the world’s central bank cartel.

The latter have insured that there will be thousands of such filings in the years ahead because since the mid-1990s the central banks has engulfed the global economy in an unsustainable credit based spending boom, while utterly disabling and falsifying the financial system that is supposed to price assets honestly, allocate capital efficiently and keep risk and greed in check.

Accordingly, the Alpha Natural stock bubble depicted above does not merely show that the boys, girls and robo-traders in the casino got way too rambunctious chasing the “BRICs will grow to the sky” tommyrot fed to them by Goldman Sachs. What was actually happening is that the central banks were feeding the world economy with so much phony liquidity and dirt cheap capital that for a time the physical economy seemed to be doing a veritable jack-and-the-beanstalk number.

In fact, the central banks generated a double-pumped boom——first in the form of a credit-fueled consumption spree in the DM economies that energized the great export machine of China and its satellite suppliers; and then after the DM consumption boom crashed in 2008-2009 and threatened to bring the export-mercantilism of China’s red capitalism crashing down on Beijing’s rulers, the PBOC unleashed an even more fantastic investment and infrastructure boom in China and the rest of the EM.

During the interval between 1992 and 1994 the world’s monetary system—–which had grown increasingly unstable since the destruction of Bretton Woods in 1971——took a decided turn for the worst. This was fueled by the bailout of the Wall Street banks during the Mexican peso crisis; Mr. Deng’s ignition of export mercantilism in China and his discovery that communist party power could better by maintained from the end of the central bank’s printing presses, rather than Mao’s proverbial gun; and Alan Greenspan’s 1994 panic when the bond vigilante’s dumped over-valued government bonds after the Fed finally let money market rates rise from the ridiculously low level where Greenspan had pegged them in the interest of re-electing George Bush Sr. in 1992.

From that inflection point onward, the global central banks were off to the races and what can only be described as a credit supernova exploded throughout the warp and woof of the world’s economy. To wit, there was about $40 trillion of debt outstanding in the worldwide economy during 1994, but this figure reached $85 trillion by the year 2000, and then erupted to $200 trillion by 2014. That is, in hardly two decades the world debt increased by 5X.

To be sure, in the interim a lot of phony GDP was created in the world economy. This came first in the credit-bloated housing and commercial real estate sectors of the DM economies through 2008; and then in the explosion of infrastructure and industrial asset investment in the EM world in the aftermath of the financial crisis and Great Recession. But even then, the growth of unsustainable debt fueled GDP was no match for the tsunami of debt itself.

At the 1994 inflection point, world GDP was about $25 trillion and its nominal value today is in the range of $70 trillion—-including the last gasp of credit fueled spending (fixed asset investment) that continues to deliver iron ore mines, container ships, earth-movers, utility power plants, deep sea drilling platforms and Chinese airports, highways and high rises which have negligible economic value. Still, even counting all the capital assets which were artificially delivered to the spending (GDP) accounts, and which will eventually be written-down or liquidated on balance sheets, GDP grew by only $45 trillion in the last two decades or by just 28% of the $160 trillion debt supernova.

Here is what sound money men have known for decades, if not centuries. Namely, that this kind of runaway credit growth feeds on itself by creating bloated, artificial demand for materials and industrial commodities that, in turn, generate shortages of capital assets like mines, ships, smelters, factories, ports and warehouses that require even more materials to construct. In a word, massive artificial credit sets the world digging, building, constructing, investing and gambling like there is no tomorrow.

In the case of Alpha Natural Resources, for example, the bloated demand for material took the form of met coal. And the price trend shown below is not at all surprising in light of what happened to steel capacity in China alone. At the 1994 inflection point met coal sold for about $35/ton, but at that point the Chinese steel industry amounted to only 100 million tons. By the time of the met coal peak in 2011, the Chinese industry was 11X larger and met coal prices had soared ten-fold to $340 per ton.

coal prices bbg_0 Alpha Natural
Alpha Natural


And here is where the self-feeding dynamic comes in. That is, how we get monumental waste and malinvestment from a credit boom. In a word, the initial explosion of demand for commodities generates capacity shortages and therefore soaring windfall profits on in-place capacity and resource reserves in the ground.

These false profits, in turn, lead speculators to believe that what are actually destructive and temporary economic rents represents permanent value streams that can be capitalized by equity owners.

Jeremy Grantham points out the unusual increase in China’s coal demand:

After every historical major rally in commodity prices, there has been the predictable reaction whereby capacity is increased. Given the uncertainties of guessing other firms’ expansion plans, the usual result is a period of excess capacity and weaker prices as everyone expands

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