Shorts Exit ‘Solarcoaster’ as Chinese Glut Sinks Panel Prices
Short sellers are flocking to solar power, dumping record levels of stock in First Solar Inc. (FSLR) of the U.S. and competing equipment makers in a bet that profit will be hurt by a glut of Chinese panels and shrinking demand in Europe.
First Solar of Tempe, Arizona, the world’s largest maker of thin-film solar panels, had a record 23 percent of outstanding shares sold short this month, according to Data Explorers information on Bloomberg. A record 54 percent of Germany’s Q- Cells SE is short, meaning the stock was borrowed for sale by speculators who hope to buy it back later more cheaply.
A surge in Chinese competition and solar subsidy cuts in the world’s biggest markets of Germany and Italy have attracted short sellers and helped push down the 37-member Bloomberg Global Leaders Solar Index by 22 percent this quarter. The drop reflects a 21 percent price decline this year for solar cells, the devices that are fastened onto panels to convert sunlight into power, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance.
“The stocks look cheap, but 2012 still has massive and potentially overwhelming challenges,” said Shawn Kravetz, chief executive officer of Esplanade Capital. The Boston-based hedge fund has bought Chinese manufacturers and shorted their European competitors, he said, without naming stocks sold short.
Officials for First Solar declined to comment. Thalheim- based Q-Cells did not respond to e-mails or calls.
Kravetz said his colleagues who’ve invested in solar stocks for seven years call the industry a “solarcoaster” because of price volatility. The 37-member Bloomberg solar index has a 60- day volatility of 24 percent, or twice the 12 percent rating of the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index, according to data on Bloomberg.
Not all out-of-favor stocks are heavily shorted. The solar index’s biggest decliner this quarter, down 56 percent since March 31, is Evergreen Solar Inc. (ESLR) of Marlboro, Massachusetts, though just 15 percent of its shares were held short as of June 15, the most recent day Data Explorers data was provided. Ten stocks on the index have been shorted more heavily, including four Chinese manufacturers -- Trina Solar Ltd. (TSL), LDK Solar Co., Yingli Green Energy Holding Co. and Suntech Power Holdings Co.
As Italy and Germany slowed development of solar projects, China’s JA Solar Holdings Co. and Suntech, the world’s biggest solar-cell makers by capacity, were leading an industry-wide expansion of factory capacity that will add at least 9.5 gigawatts of new manufacturing lines this year. That will boost global capacity to 41.5 gigawatts, outstripping demand of no more than 28 gigawatts forecast by New Energy Finance.
“We had all this capacity added right ahead of the two biggest markets showing a significant slowdown, that’s why we have a tremendous collapse,” said Gordon Johnson, a solar analyst at Axiom Capital Management in New York.
The solar index already lost 25 percent since reaching a 13-month high on Feb. 18.
Global installations of photovoltaic devices doubled last year as developers rushed to hook up equipment in Germany before the government lowered incentives. New plants still may increase by about 30 percent this year as the cost of solar energy drops to near the rate consumers pay for power from the national grid in some of the sunniest parts of California and Turkey.
That’s made Charles Yonts, a solar analyst at CLSA in Hong Kong, optimistic that the industry can work through its inventory without suffering additional declines.
“The worst has passed for demand, but now it’s a question of working through the inventory and that’s difficult,” said Yonts, who recommends investors buy Trina Solar and Trony Solar Holdings Co. of Hong Kong. “Prices have fallen so much that returns are now attractive.”
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