Monday, April 28, 2008

First Solar: Bright Future or Dim Prospects?

Solar Stocks, along with shares of other alternative energy mediums, are currently being sold as "the next big thing" in the stock market. Whenever a stock or industry is touted as such an investment, be cautious.

Solar energy may, one day, make up a meaningful proportion of energy generation in this company. However, even with the advances that companies are making, it still makes no economic sense to choose solar over another power medium.

Even in a very sunny area like Odessa, Texas, solar panels generate a very unattractive return on investment. According to BP's website, a 6kW fixture would generate enough power to cover the average home's yearly use (about 9,000 kWh) would cost $49,000.

There are cheaper panels available (from other companies, like FSLR, SPWR, and the others talked about daily by pundits like Jim Cramer), but it's clear that buying panels offers a terrible ROI. The 9,000 kWhs per year equates to an energy bill of about $1000-1500, or 2-3% of the original cost. (Sure, panels can be purchased under mortgages and then qualify for tax-deductions, but instead of looking at every loophole, I'm looking at the big picture.)

Now Texas is one of the many states (like my home state of Pennsylvania) that offers little subsidies or refunds for panel purchases. The same panels purchased in Los Gatos, CA would qualify for $9,747 of additional rebates, $12,825 in Beverly Hills, or $23,000 in Albany, NY. In a state like NY, which refunds (what appears to be) about half of the purchase price, the investment is more attractive; however, solar output is also lower, so the ROI may only improve to 4-5%, still rivaled by simple, safe investments like CDs or I-Bonds.

I'm not here to discuss exact costs, but my point is, people (or companies) cannot honestly be motivated by economics, at this point, to purchase solar power fixtures. Secondary motives, like saving polar bears and penguins or electricity security during system-wide blackouts or a requirement (as is the case for CA's energy producers) may influence the decision to buy panels.

I view those general factors as an issue that the entire industry has to face, but First Solar is looking particularly vulnerable.

FSLR is expected to report earnings tomorrow, profiting $.47 per share. Analysts predict about $2.53 this year and $5.11 next year - certainly, growth is foreseen.

FSLR's future estimates manifest how inflated expectations already are. 2010's earnings estimate is $8.75/share, which would be a multiple of 32 - much higher than many current companies' TTM- or this-year P/Es. That conclusion is also reached by assuming the best-case scenario in many variables, like the price and availability of cadmium tellurium remaining ideal, and new production facilities coming online-as expected.

In a heavily subsidized industry, the end of such subsidies would also be disastrous. That doesn't seem too likely in the USA, where all three (but especially two) of the prospective presidents are pushing green energy, but in more developed countries, like Germany, who have been subsidizing for years, it looks like there may be an end to help to the industry.

First Solar's panels are made differently than any other company; instead of using the now-more-expensive silicon, they use tellurium. That helps them now, as it lets them offer attractive pricing, but may hurt in the long run; solar-grade silicon is being produced in bigger quantities by more companies as the solar movement is spreading, which should eventually lead to cheaper prices for that raw material. First Solar's tellurium appears to have supply and pricing issues, as is discussed here (warning: pieces from Seeking Alpha are not scholarly in nature).

Lastly, insiders have been dumping stock lately. About $100million of FSLR stock was sold during the past few weeks, mainly by FSLR's CEO. Yes, the sales were under pre-made plans that allowed such sales, but the CEO was not obligated to sell anything. If he though the company was a steal at $285, like the general market seems to think, why would he be letting go of his shares two weeks before earnings? (Insider data available here.)

My bottom-line conclusion is basically to short FSLR based on common sense. The current share price seems blinded (by the sun?) towards any sense of valuation, and towards potential difficulties. The end of subsidies, a tellurium disruption or price increase, or delay in facilities coming on-line. They may indeed beat estimates and raise guidance, as the solar business is hot right now - but I think rationality can't be ignored much longer. Years of good fortune are baked in to share prices already.

My risk tolerance is high, but I'm still worried by the $50 pop after the last earnings report. However, I'm short FSLR. It fell from $285 to $160 before, and I'm hoping that the same increase in rationality causes a similar crash after earnings tomorrow.

Disclosure: Short FSLR... and a little scared that hype will take over after earnings.

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