How to Play the Solar Market Now

Chinese solar stocks have been on fire lately. Most jumped by double digits on Wednesday after a similar jump last week, so there's some hope for these companies from investors. So what's going on with these stocks, and how should you play them?

China comes to the rescue
Last week's jump was after news of additional funding to install another 2.8 GW of solar in China. This has investors thinking that China will soak up a lot of the excess capacity at Chinese manufacturers by creating domestic demand.

The problem is, that amount of installations is only about the size of the capacity of Suntech Power (NASDAQOTH: STPFQ  ) , Yingli Green Energy (NYSE: YGE  ) , or Trina Solar (NYSE: TSL  ) , and there's still about 40 GW of overcapacity in the industry. Since shipments are down dby ouble digits sequentially at most manufacturers, it's hard to see how China alone could make up the slack for the industry.

While the subsidy news boosted stocks, so did the news that China would promote bankruptcies and mergers, which was a bit of a head-scratcher.

Let the weak fail
Since most of the Chinese manufacturers have built their capacity with state-run bank funding, the state will have to decide who fails and who doesn't. This is where Wednesday's announcement comes in. China's State Council said it will ban local government support for solar manufacturers, will cut support for the industry, and will let some companies fail.

Investors cheered the announcement, because this is just what the industry needs. Instead of fighting each other, these manufacturers should be trying to make a profit on their own. The big question for investors is -- who will survive?

Here's a look at just how bad the financial conditions have gotten at Chinese solar manufacturers.

Company

Q3 Revenue

Q3 Gross Margin

Q3 Net Income

Net Debt

Suntech Power 

$387 Million

5%

n/a

$1.09 Billion*

Yingli Green Energy 

$355.9 Million

(22.7%)

($152.6 Million)

$1.91 Billion

Trina Solar 

$298.0 Million

0.8%

($57.5 Million)

$417 Million

Canadian Solar (NASDAQ: CSIQ  )

$326.0 Million

2.2%

($43.7 Million)

$887 Million

JA Solar (NASDAQ: JASO  )

$260.9 Million

(5.9%)

($59.1 Million)

$367 Million

LDK Solar (NASDAQOTH: LDKSY  )  

$291.5 Million

(11.2%)

($95.9 Million)

$2.66 Billion

ReneSola 

$218.2 Million

(18%)

($78.6 Million)

$627 Million

Hanwha SolarOne 

$153.7 Million

(5.8%)

($51.3 Million)

$340 Million

JinkoSolar (NYSE: JKS  )  

$221.1 Million

9.9%

($8.7 Million)

$474 Million

Total

$2.51 Billion

 

$547.4 Million + Suntech's Loss

$8.77 Billion

Source: Company earnings releases.
Note: Suntech's results for Q2 and Q3 are not reported because of accounting challenges. Debt level noted is for Q1 2012.

There really aren't any sustainable companies in that group, so there's no clear winner from mergers or acquisitions. I find it unlikely that Suntech, LDK Solar (NASDAQOTH: LDKSY  ) , or Yingli Green Energy will have the balance sheets to be acquirers and they're most likely to end up out of business. Unless China forgives their loans, they simply can't make enough money to survive. It's possible that they could be buyout targets, but equity holders will be left with nothing, because no acquirer would take on their huge debt loads. Solar companies with huge debt loads and negative gross margins say -- do not touch!

JinkoSolar (NYSE: JKS  ) has the best gross margin and one of the best balance sheets in China. With a new $1 billion loan agreement to expand project development over the next five years, the company also has some stability, although cash is running low. Right now, JinkoSolar looks strong because it's selling most of its capacity, but why would it be a buyer unless the terms were advantageous?

JA Solar (NASDAQ: JASO  ) , Canadian Solar (NASDAQ: CSIQ  ) , and Trina Solar are all strong names in solar but they all have terrible margins. These three could be acquisition targets, and combining one or two of these mid-level companies may be something China will consider.

The bottom line is that there's no obvious solution. Right now, JinkoSolar may be in the driver's seat, but that's fleeting, and there's no clear acquisition target unless most of the target's debt is forgiven. Many of these companies will probably leave equity investors completely wiped out. It's a dangerous time to be betting on Chinese solar.

How to play consolidation
There is a way to play Chinese solar consolidation without throwing a dart at the names I've listed. SunPower (NASDAQ: SPWR  ) and First Solar (NASDAQ: FSLR  ) will both benefit from consolidation and have strong balance sheets and market positions. Even better, they don't have to worry about consolidation in China at all. If it happens, great. If it doesn't, installers will keep avoiding the terrible balance sheets in China.

With the U.S. and Europe expanding protectionism against the subsidized solar players I mentioned in this article's table, First Solar and SunPower are in position to gain more business in these two markets. The U.S. in particular is attractive, and First Solar dominates utility projects while SunPower dominates the residential market.

Investors and bystanders alike have been shocked by First Solar's precipitous drop over the last twelve months, and now the stakes have never been higher for the company. Is it done for good or ready for a rebound? If you're looking for our recommendation on how to play First Solar along with continuing updates and guidance on the company whenever news breaks, we've created a brand-new report that details every must-know side of this stock. To get started, just click here now.


Read/Post Comments (6) | Recommend This Article (3)

Comments from our Foolish Readers

Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On December 23, 2012, at 11:13 AM, NOTvuffett wrote:

    Travis, I want to be respectful, but until solar has a big drop in $/kwhr, this is a fool's errand.

  • Report this Comment On December 25, 2012, at 11:42 PM, chaz7342 wrote:

    Thin-Film solar companies like First Solar are behind the curve. They had a chance when the price of silicon was sky high, but now the Chinese panels are better qualify, cheaper, and more efficient. Factor in the Chinese government's recent annoucements to get behind the solar companies means this should be the death of First Solar and maybe Sunpower. These two just won't be able to compete on the world market. In the long run the Chinese solar companies with the best products and the strongest balance sheets will be the winners. TSL and JKS are my picks to survive, and eventually thrive.

  • Report this Comment On December 26, 2012, at 11:21 AM, aromatic wrote:

    An investment in Jinko is one of the most

    dangerous Chinese solar investment (like LDK,suntech)

    Their cash got in 1 year from 152m$ to 36m$

    The promised 1 bn$ loan can only been used for pledged project developments and certainly not to ameliorate their cash position.

  • Report this Comment On December 26, 2012, at 12:14 PM, TMFFlushDraw wrote:

    @NOTvuffett

    What level would you like to see? In CA a recent auction won by SunPower went for 10.4 cents/kWhr, about 5 cents below retail electricity cost in CA.

    @chaz7342

    I definitely understand the sentiment. China's panels are struggling because of weak balance sheets from all of these manufacturers though. If a company can't back a warranty because they're effectively insolvent then a few cents per watt advantage is useless.

    FSLR may actually be changing into more of an installer and project owner than a module manufacturer. Look for this slow transition over the next few years.

    @aromatic

    Don't disagree, but still looking better than YGE, STP, LDK, etc.

    Travis Hoium

  • Report this Comment On December 26, 2012, at 7:17 PM, Jimy11 wrote:

    One day you have to admit you Fools, despite the US money you are subsidised, that chinese ( solar) is and will prevail.

    The facts will matter and not your media control...

  • Report this Comment On December 26, 2012, at 9:21 PM, TMFFlushDraw wrote:

    @Jimy11

    China has provided 10x the subsidies to the solar industry that the U.S. has. Very little subsidy has been given to U.S. manufacturers (who manufacture in Asia btw) that are publicly traded.

    How are China's solar manufacturers more sustainable than U.S. based manufacturers (SPWR and FSLR)?

    Travis Hoium

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