Alliance Resources has - as my posts have shown - pretty ordinary operating metrics but exceptional financial metrics. Labor productivity is low and falling - profit is high and rising.
However the price they receive is now rising and well above spot.
In particular ARLP is now obtaining about $8 of premium per ton for their coal over Illinois Mid Sulfur coal. Whilst Bloomberg no longer have a price series for Illinois Basin high sulfur coal my contacts (and comparison with Arch Coal) say that ARLP coal instead of trading at an $8 premium it should trade at a $3.50 discount.
This price comparison has quite strong backing. Here is the price disclosure from the last Arch Coal annual:
If prices were reset to market (that is $10-11.50 lower) then the ability of this MLP to make distributions goes away. Indeed it is hard to see how they pay their debts. Bankruptcy is the likely outcome. If the prices go towards the $42.33 that Arch Coal is contracted to (in 2014) for Illinois Basin coal then Alliance debt holders will wind up extremely short.
Without these high prices Alliance would look like another very stretched coal mine with mediocre operating performance - but with a lot of debt - and it will probably go bankrupt.
The stunning performance of Alliance is a little from under-reserving workers compensation but mainly because the management team have extracted contract prices massively better than the competition... this is a company where the successes have been by senior management and white collar employees (those who sell the coal) rather than the workers who mine it.
The chart itself suggests the explanation: the prices in the contract look like they are regularly escalating. They were way below market for a while and are now a fair bit above market. It looks like the company entered some escalating price contract when its bargaining power was very strong.
My first take: the contracts will adjust
This is what the last 10-K said about contract resets:
Virtually all of our long-term contracts are subject to price adjustment provisions, which permit an increase or decrease periodically in the contract price to reflect changes in specified price indices or items such as taxes, royalties or actual production costs. These provisions, however, may not assure that the contract price will reflect every change in production or other costs. Failure of the parties to agree on a price pursuant to an adjustment or a reopener provision can, in some instances, lead to early termination of a contract. Some of the long-term contracts also permit the contract to be reopened for renegotiation of terms and conditions other than pricing terms, and where a mutually acceptable agreement on terms and conditions cannot be concluded, either party may have the option to terminate the contract.These are not reset to spot prices. These are reset in prices due to changes in operating costs and the like. Still resetting of the prices for this company to anything akin to market means likely bankruptcy - so the contract resetting terms are critical.
I figured that I have to look at more detail at the contract terms, price and volumes.
And what I found made left me with a few options - all ugly.
The mathematics of Alliance contract terms...
Unfortunately, you are going to have to bear with me through a little bit of arithmetic.
In 2010, approximately 92.4% and 89.0% of our sales tonnage and total coal sales, respectively, were sold under long-term contracts (contracts having a term of one year or greater) with committed term expirations ranging from 2011 to 2016. As of January 28, 2011, our nominal commitment under long-term contracts was approximately 31.1 million tons in 2011, 27.3 million tons in 2012, 24.1 million tons in 2013 and 19.0 million tons in 2014.
In 2011, approximately 92.2% and 90.5% of our sales tonnage and total coal sales, respectively, were sold under long-term contracts (contracts having a term of one year or greater) with committed term expirations ranging from 2012 to 2016. As of January 28, 2012, our nominal commitment under long-term contracts was approximately 33.8 million tons in 2012, 33.5 million tons in 2013, 27.2 million tons in 2014 and 19.8 million tons in 2015.
In 2012, approximately 94.2% and 94.3% of our sales tonnage and total coal sales, respectively, were sold under long-term contracts (contracts having a term of one year or greater) with committed term expirations ranging from 2013 to 2020. As of January 28, 2013, our nominal commitment under long-term contracts was approximately 38.5 million tons in 2013, 30.7 million tons in 2014, 23.4 million tons in 2015 and 18.7 million tons in 2016.
Just can also work out the size of the incremental contracts sold in each year. This is in the following table.
We reported Net Income of ARLP of $192.2 million, an increase of 43.2% in 2009 compared to Net Income of ARLP of $134.2 million in 2008. The increase of $58.0 million was principally due to improved contract pricing resulting in an average coal sales price of $46.60 per ton sold, compared to $40.23 per ton sold in 2008, partially offset by lower sales volumes and higher operating expense per ton sold in 2009.
We reported record Net Income of ARLP of $321.0 million in 2010 compared to $192.2 million in 2009. This increase of $128.8 million was principally due to increased tons sold and improved contract pricing resulting in an average coal sales price of $51.21 per ton sold, as compared to $46.60 per ton sold in 2009.
We reported record Net Income of ARLP of $389.4 million in 2011 compared to $321.0 million in 2010. This increase of $68.4 million was principally due to increased tons sold and improved contract pricing resulting in an average coal sales price of $55.95 per ton sold, as compared to $51.21 per ton sold in 2010.
A higher average coal sales price in 2012, which increased to $56.28 per ton sold as compared to $55.95 per ton sold in 2011, resulted from improved contract pricing for Illinois Basin coal sales offset partially by lower coal volumes sold by our Mettiki mine into the metallurgical export markets.
Explanation (a) large escalation clauses - is consistent with the price chart above. Alliance sold at prices well below market in 2008 and sells well above market now. However (a) has a very big problem. This is that none of the 10-Ks tell us about a coal price escalation clause. And the management team are promotional and would normally tell us.
Explanation (b) thus looks more plausible... The prices received are an artifact of cancelling old contracts set at higher prices. That would also explain why the company has failed to deliver its contracted tonnage in every year studied. In that case the new tons must be at much lower prices.
We get some guidance in this matter from the accounts of the two largest customers - the Tennessee Valley Authority and LG&E (the large German owned utility). Both these companies suggest that they have derivative liabilities on coal contracts - that is they are contracted to buy coal at above market prices. However in both cases the derivative liabilities are falling fast (consistent with explanation b above).
The disclosure from the TVA is most germane:
At September 2012 The Tennessee Valley Authority had 46 million tons contracted and they were $267 million underwater on those tons. In other words their coal was $5.80 per ton overpriced.
By December they had 48 million tons contracted but were only $224 million underwater - or $4.67 a ton underwater.
At this rate by early 2014 The TVA will have rid itself of all out-of-the-money contracts. They may be doing it this fast by paying their way out. Whatever happens Alliance Resources (whose biggest customer is The TVA) will be receiving closer to market prices.