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The last 24 hours have been less like a roller coaster and more like a power tower for shares of First Solar (Nasdaq: FSLR ) . The stock crashed 25% yesterday on news that the company's CEO was out and have roared back 14% this morning after the company released earnings.
What in the world is going on?
The fall of Rob Gillette
The stock first tumbled yesterday when First Solar announced that Rob Gillette was out as CEO and would be replaced on a temporary basis by former CEO Michael Ahern. But did he quit? Was he fired? No one seems to know (although I'm betting he got the ax).
Losing a CEO is a big deal if you're talking about Steve Jobs or Michael Dell, but Gillette hasn't exactly been a standout, so the reaction was a bit wild to observers.
What drove the massive move was an underlying concern that executives are abandoning ship before things get really bad for First Solar.
Earnings make the world go round
The shocker this morning was that First Solar decided to release third quarter results more than a week ahead of time. Net sales were $1 billion in the third quarter, earnings per share were $2.25, and cash level remained strong at $795 million.
What we were really waiting for was an updated guidance, and I'll say it's mixed. For 2011, First Solar expects sales to be $3.0 billion to $3.3 billion and earnings per share of $6.50 to $7.50. The company is also planning to cut capital spending and invest more in market development, sales, and R&D.
At the bottom end of that earnings guidance, shares are trading at a 7.5 times 2011 earnings, but the problem is, they're headed in the wrong direction. A month ago, I contemplated whether or not First Solar was becoming obsolete as costs for manufacturers like Trina Solar (NYSE: TSL ) , JA Solar (Nasdaq: JASO ) , and Yingli Green Energy (NYSE: YGE ) continue to fall. Chinese competitors fighting for survival and dumping product at almost any price are eating up First Solar's cost lead.
To buy or not to buy? That is the question
Now the question becomes whether or not First Solar is so cheap it's become a screaming buy, or a disaster in the making?
I'm a shareholder and won't be selling today, but I have a hard time being very bullish on First Solar. SunPower (Nasdaq: SPWRA ) (Nasdaq: SPWRB ) has done a lot to cut into the company's cost lead, and as polysilicon prices plummet, everyone but First Solar becomes more competitive with the grid. That isn't likely to change unless First Solar can come up with a technology revolution.
Then First Solar might become a screaming buy again.