It's the mark of the beast. The Dow Jones Industrial Average was off 6.66 points yesterday, but it could have been a lot worse as it had been down as much as 200 points earlier in the day as concerns over the fractured eurozone weighed heavily on stocks. But happy talk from Italy and France helped rally the market to an essentially flat close.
Yet some stocks soared even higher, strapping on rocket packs and turning in double-digit percent increases. But resist the urge to high-five everyone in the cubicles next to you. Smart investors won't celebrate until they know why their stocks surged, because without a fundamental basis for the bounce, these stocks can quickly make the return trip down.
A day after tumbling 35% on fears it may not have enough cash to survive, Patriot Coal (NYS: PCX) reversed course and surged 22% higher after it said it was working with the Blackstone Group to secure a financing package. But Standard & Poor's has doubts it will be able to come up with the money before it's due to repay loans next March: It cut Patriot's corporate credit rating further into junk territory, dropping the rating from B- to CCC.
While investors chose to be positive and focus on the search for financing rather than dwell on S&P's doubts, there's little doubt a bet on Patriot at this point is a risky one. In addition to its financing needs, the coal miner noted one of its customers may default on its obligations, hardly creating a conducive atmosphere for a lender. On top of that, Patriot also had to cut the guidance it gave just last month that its production would be lower by 1 million tons.
More than three-quarters of Patriot's coal comes from the Appalachia region that has been particularly hard-hit by utilities switching to natural gas. Earlier this year, Alpha Natural Resources announced it was reducing production at its Central Appalachia mines because of changing market conditions while Arch Coal (NYS: ACI) , which also does the majority of its mining in the region, has been similarly affected, with its shares tumbling 75% from their highs.
Coal is in a depression, no question about it. The Energy Department says production fell 8% in the first quarter, with consumption down 18% in the third quarter of 2011. As the EPA tries to cut the industry off at the knees with harsh new regulations, utilities see few reasons to build new coal-fired plants, particularly when natural gas is so cheap.
Despite the hoped-for financing and the resulting bounce in its shares, I think things look bleak for Patriot. With an administration that has touted its hostility toward the industry's survival, I'm not sure who'd want to lend money to the miner. I'm acting as a canary in a coal mine here and have marked Patriot to underperform the S&P 500 on the Fool's stock-rating service CAPS, even though that goes against the majority of the 900 other members who've weighed in on the stock, 95% of whom see it beating the Street.
You can add Patriot to the Fool's free portfolio tracker as well as tell me in the comments section below or on the Patriot Coal CAPS page if you think someone will be willing to lend this risky miner money.
Tilting at windmills
Higher up on the Obama administration's energy food chain, wind power specialist American Superconductor (NAS: AMSC) also outpaced the Dow, rising 12% after signing a follow-on order from India's Inox Wind for 50 of its electrical control systems. They'll be used in Inox's 2-megawatt wind turbines.
Yet the alternative-energy crowd is finding it tough to subsist without taxpayer handouts. Solar companies are reeling and had to petition the government to impose tariffs on Chinese imports to prop up their business. The wind business isn't faring much better as more people realize the impact wind farms are having on the environment and health. One farm in Massachusetts is being turned off at night because it's too noisy; others have been blamed for the deaths of large numbers of birds and bats.
Moreover, there are simply not enough alternative energy sources to replace fossil fuels, and those policies are taking a toll on energy prices. Electric grid operator PJM recently held a capacity auction and the price for 2015 will be $136 per megawatt, eight times higher than what was paid for 2012, according to Investors Business Daily. Where coal-fired plants are being retired, such as in northern Ohio, the rates are as high as $357 per megawatt.
The Manhattan Institute recently released a study showing that forcing utilities to buy electricity from alt energy sources is raising rates on average 32%, while the Institute for Energy Policy showed that in 2010, in federal subsidies, solar power received $775.64 per megawatt hour, wind $56.29, and nuclear $3.14. Hydroelectric power was $0.82, while coal, natural gas, and liquids was just $0.64.
American Superconductor has been working to expand beyond its wind turbine base and invest in the inverter market for solar panels currently occupied by Power-One (NAS: PWER) and Satcon Technology. Those companies have themselves been brought low by lower prices and higher competition, and AS' entrance into the market is unlikely to help any of the players.
I don't see any hope for a sustained recovery. American Superconductor's shares are down 60% over the past year, even with yesterday's bounce. I'm rating it to underperform on CAPS. You can add your opinion on the American Superconductor CAPS page if you think it's now got the wind at its back, and then add it to your watchlist to see which way the wind ultimately blows.
Going into orbit
These two energy companies may have divergent futures despite their short-term bounce, but for free, check out the stocks The Motley Fool thinks will succeed in a period of high energy prices. Read "3 Stocks for $100 Oil," which is available for a limited time only.
At the time thisarticle was published Fool contributorRich Dupreyholds no position in any company mentioned.Click hereto see his holdings and a short bio. The Motley Fool owns shares of Power-One. The Motley Fool has adisclosure policy.We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe thatconsidering a diverse range of insightsmakes us better investors. Try any of our Foolish newsletter servicesfree for 30 days.
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