|Shares Out. (in M):||1||P/E||8.4x||0.0x|
|Market Cap (in $M):||147||P/FCF||0.0x||0.0x|
|Net Debt (in $M):||-35||EBIT||29||0|
|2012||718||24.28||11.60||14%||12%||$5 special div. returns depressed by large net cash position|
|2011||719||29.04||6.00||19%||16%||returns depressed by large net cash position|
A simple, high-margin, low risk business
Pardee is a royalty-focused natural resource company with a long history. Its roots are in the state of West Virginia, and to a lesser extent Louisiana, where the Pardee and Curtin families purchased land back in the 1800s. Today they operate a purely royalty-based business in coal and timber by negotiating royalties for production on these lands, as well as on recently acquired land (still mostly in West Virginia). Their oil & gas business is similar, except that it’s not purely royalties as they sometimes take working interests in wells. In recent years, Pardee has invested in solar power projects in CA and NJ that are similar to the royalty business model (ie minimal opex), except that pricing is locked-in. Overall, operating risks are low and margins are high: excluding income taxes, cash costs amount to just ~25% of revenues.
Philosophy and culture should be familiar to Buffett fans:
$27.3M for the Powellton property in 2003, containing coal, natural gas, and timber (the prices of which subsequently rose quite a bit)
$13.1M for the coal-focused Courtney property in 2007 (admittedly not a bad year for coal, but this deal has nevertheless returned a high-teens IRR so far)
$26.7M for a coal property in NW Colorado in 2009 (a good year to buy just about anything)
$13.9M for a timber property in central VA in 2010 (a terrible year for housing starts = good year to buy timber)
$10.8M for solar projects in NJ in 2010 and 2011 (as I will explain, that was excellent timing)
Just as importantly, consider also when they didn’t buy. Courtney was their only major purchase during the commodity boom years of 2004-2008. Looking at their capex all the way back to 1995, I frankly can’t find any major blunders.
Finally, one might ask if those ROEs were just a mediocre ROA juiced by leverage. I’d say definitely not. Just look at how close ROA has been to ROE. Pardee has rarely used leverage, never used much, and today sits on a huge pile of cash.
Let’s get the bad news out of the way:
1) The bursting of the housing bubble has taken down timber prices, causing Pardee’s timber ops to go from a steady $4-5M in operating income per year (pre-2008) to roughly breakeven.
2) The bear market in natural gas has driven oil & gas operating income from a high of $12.4M in 2008 to under $1M today.
3) This leaves the coal ops to generate nearly all of operating income today ($29.3M in 2012), and thermal coal prices have suffered along with natural gas. To a lesser degree, the slowdown in China has pressured metallurgical (met) coal. Production is down YOY, and it will drop again (other things equal) when their Colorado property is depleted around the end of this year, meaning a roughly $8M headwind to operating income in 2014.
Now for the good news:
1) Much of their coal reserves are low cost, and nearly all the currently leased reserves are leased to well capitalized operators, which should help to avoid further declines in production. Per management on 2/15/13: “it appears that the worst is behind us in terms of coal mine closures in Central Appalachia, as our coal lessees continue to benefit from strong exports, especially to Europe, where relatively high natural gas prices give coal an advantage…”
2) 20% of reserves are higher-priced met coal, and the production mix continues to shift in that direction. Met was 39% of coal royalties in 2011 versus 19% in 2008.
3) Housing starts are finally bouncing back, and Pardee bought more timberland during the bust.
4) Good things happen to patient contrarians with lots of cash. Moreover, they’ve shown themselves capable of learning new tricks. For example, the Colorado deal was their first coal investment outside of Central Appalachia, and should produce an IRR in the high teens.
Roughly speaking, I think operating income should benefit by $2-3M over the next few years from a higher % of met coal. Eventually, timber should at least get back to the $4-6M it did before the housing bubble.
Then there’s the $34.6M in net cash ($48/share) that I estimate they’ll have by the end of March, which is currently earning next to nothing. Assuming they invest that for an aftertax 15% IRR, that’s an additional $8M (34.6*.15=5.2, grossed up by (1-35% tax rate)). 15% ought to be a realistic IRR, since it’s below their historic ROE, and since it’s equivalent to the current earnings yield on their shares, net of cash. They could always just do another buyback or tender offer, as they’ve done numerous times in the past.
Together, that’s at least $14M of incremental operating income – more than enough to offset the $8M drop in operating income from coal.
Then there’s the income from the $29.7M they’ve invested so far in solar assets. Admittedly, I can only guess as to the returns on this until I can ask management at the annual meeting in May. (More on this below.)
And maybe, just maybe, the bear market in natural gas (and coal) prices could be over. Over the past 12 months, prices have gone from $2/mcfe to nearly $4 today. I recommend reading utah1009’s 3/14/13 writeup on natural gas if you haven’t already. (By the way, Pardee owns 8,800 acres in western PA, nearly all of which sits on Marcellus shale.)
A few words about solar
I’ll admit to being concerned when I first read that Pardee was getting into solar. After all, this is a new industry for them, and it’s typically reliant on government subsidies. But I’m not worried anymore.
First of all, they’ve basically locked in the revenues. In New Jersey, these come from 1) power purchase agreements (PPAs) with commercial customers that spell out the per-watt price for the next 20+ years, and 2) solar renewable energy credits (SRECs) that have been sold to utilities based on 15 year contracts. The utilities buy SRECs to satisfy regulations that require them to have a certain % of output coming from renewable sources. While California doesn’t use SRECs, it does have production based incentives (PBIs) that pay a certain $/watt for the first five years. And of course, plenty of power is sold to commercial customers under PPAs.
Also, the IRRs are likely pretty good. Overlapping state and federal subsidies unexpectedly pushed the IRRs on commercial solar projects in New Jersey to the 40% range in 2010 and early 2011 – about the same time that Pardee was investing there. (According to industry watcher Lux Research, New Jersey was the most lucrative solar market in the world at this time). While the California market hasn’t typically been as lucrative, the IRRs on commercial solar projects are typically high single digits to low double digits today. Those are unlevered returns, by the way. I doubt it would be hard to get non-recourse debt for an energy project with no emissions, no fuel price risk, and guaranteed revenues.
Solar operating income was only ~$1M for 2012, but I think this still ramping up. Given the returns for NJ and CA mentioned above, and given an opportunity cost in the mid-teens % (due to the share price), I think these investments will do just fine. Management has repeatedly said that solar is performing at or above expectations.
FYI, the full 2012 annual report should be out in mid April. The next annual meeting is scheduled for Thursday, May 17, 2013, in Philadelphia.
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