Peabody Energy profits soar

ST. LOUIS — Coal-mining company Peabody Energy reported fourth-quarter profits Tuesday that easily topped Wall Street expectations, partly on surging contract prices in Australia. Company shares surged 13 percent.

Acknowledging continued softening in U.S. coal demand, however, the St. Louis-based company said it would stick with the 2009 production outlook it lowered recently — 190 to 195 million tons in the United States, 22 to 24 million tons in Australia.

Peabody, among the world's biggest coal producers, said it would wait until later this year to issue earnings guidance, calling that prudent in light of nagging "global economic uncertainty."

Peabody Energy Corp. reported net income of $293.3 million, or $1.10 per share, in the latest quarter, up from $35.8 million, or 13 cents per share, a year earlier, when the company took a charge from spinning off Patriot Coal Co.

Revenue in the most recent period rose to $1.9 billion from $1.2 billion.

Peabody's shares jumped $2.86, or 12 percent, to close at $26.70 Tuesday. Shares of major coal mining companies — in many cases the darlings of the energy sector in recent years — have been under pressure lately. Some of the biggest customers are steel companies, which have been slashing production amid a global economic downturn.

Peabody said that while its customers' inventories averaged 56 days, up from 50 days a year ago, the company expects supply and demand to rebalance. Observers also expect the massive stimulus package planned by the Obama administration to increase business by bolstering spending on infrastructure projects — repairing roads and bridges, and advancing energy-efficient programs.