The Pulse Returns to Patriot Coal

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When a heart stops beating, every second counts in the race to register a pulse.

After watching an entire industry flatline this year in collective cardiac arrest, nervous investors will breathe a welcome sigh of relief as signs of life return.

Patriot Coal (NYS: PCX) slogged through a difficult quarter plagued by a pair of costly longwall moves and latter stages of impairment by legacy coal contracts. The company pulled in slightly lower revenue than analysts expected, generating $589 million as thermal coal production dipped 5% from prior-year levels. But aided by a 12.5% increase in met coal production and a resilient price environment, Patriot's loss for the third quarter came in substantially lower than expected at $0.54 per share.

Meanwhile, investors with exposure to coal will assign particular importance to Patriot's reiteration of the bullish long-term outlook for export-ready coal ... most notably in the case of metallurgical coal used by steelmakers. Countering widespread speculation of a major softening of demand, Patriot offers a timely update from multiple hotspots within the global coal market that Peabody Energy (NYS: BTU) has properly termed a global supercycle. Patriot notes a 20% increase in South Korean steel production year over year, suggesting that steelmaker POSCO (NYS: PKX) may be the wrong place to look for signs of softening demand. Patriot also reveals a planned 75% capacity expansion by India's largest steelmaker to reach 23.6 million tons by 2013. Brazilian steelmakers reportedly maintained resilient capacity utilization of 80%, perhaps offering signs of support for a pair of stocks that have suffered a Patriot-style collapse this year: Brazilian steelmakers Companhia Siderurgica Nacional (NYS: SID) and Gerdau S.A. (NYS: GGB) .

These are certainly welcome and reassuring anecdotes from a number of key destinations for export coal, but conspicuously absent from Patriot's market discussion was any specific mention of the 800-pound gorilla in the coal mine: China. China's role within the long-term demand outlook that prevailed before coal stocks entered critical condition over the summer months can scarcely be overstated, so I do find Patriot's silence on the matter somewhat troubling. Although I for one am of the mind that China's long-term growth outlook is unlikely to have turned on a dime, I concede that even a near-term hiccup there could continue to reverberate throughout the bulk commodity sectors until clarity is restored.

The ongoing commodity correction -- which has similarly decimated stocks relating to copper and even precious-metals production -- has left me with some deep-underwater picks for 2011 within my silverminer CAPS portfolio. My Patriot Coal pick has thus far underperformed the S&P 500 (INDEX: ^GSPC) by 46%, and my score for Alpha Natural Resources (NYS: ANR) is too painful to mention. But I believe long-term investors can turn my pain into their gain by viewing the current meltdown in coal stocks as a likely overreaction to the down side that is likely to subside as the long-term demand picture comes back into focus. Stay tuned for further discussion of the best picks within the sector as earnings reports continue to cross the wires, and be sure to track individual coal stocks using the Fool's My Watchlist feature.

At the time this article was published Fool contributorChristopher Barkercan be foundblogging activelyand acting Foolishly within the CAPS community under the usernameTMFSinchiruna. Hetweets. He owns shares of Alpha Natural Resources, Patriot Coal, and Peabody Energy. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has adisclosure policy.

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