So far we are seeing a continued rotation. What worked great in 2011 is being sold and the worst performing groups are being bought. No sector with as many names in it took it on the chin as much as the solar sector last year. Despite many headwinds and fears of a recession, Germany could end up being the saving grace for solar power this year by sucking up the excess supply of PV panels.
Solar makers are trying to stage a recovery. First Solar, Inc. (NASDAQ: FSLR) is the leader of the pack in quality and operations and its shares are up about 9% at $42.30 versus a 52-week trading range of $29.87 to $175.45. Even more impressive is the move in shares of MEMC Electronic Materials Inc. (NYSE: WFR) with a 17% gain to $4.58 versus a 52-week range of $3.65 to $15.04. Even the Guggenheim Solar (NYSE: TAN) ETF and the Market Vectors Solar Energy ETF (NYSE: KWT) are surging. We are paying close attention to SunPower Corporation (NASDAQ: SPWR), Suntech Power Holdings Co. Ltd. (NYSE: STP), Yingli Green Energy Holdings Co. Ltd. (NYSE: YGE), LDK Solar Co. Ltd. (NYSE: LDK), Energy Conversion Devices, Inc. (NASDAQ: ENER) and others as well. Here are the other movers with relative prices to their 52-week highs:
- SunPower Corporation (NASDAQ: SPWR) is up 9.5% at $7.33, down from a year high of $23.36;
- Suntech Power Holdings Co. Ltd. (NYSE: STP) is up a whopping 25% at $3.22 versus a year high of $10.83;
- Yingli Green Energy Holdings Co. Ltd. (NYSE: YGE) is up 17% at $4.85 versus a year high of $13.59;
- LDK Solar Co. Ltd. (NYSE: LDK) is up 11.3% at $5.21 against a high of $14.97 in the last year, although it is easy to stick by the guns that LDK is mathematically bankrupt without the coverage of the Chinese government.
- Energy Conversion Devices, Inc. (NASDAQ: ENER) is up 23% at $0.38 against a high of $4.80 but this is one still is unlikely to survive 2012.
In the world of ETFs, these are running as well: Guggenheim Solar (NYSE: TAN) is up 10.5% at $2.95 versus a high of $9.16 and Market Vectors Solar Energy ETF (NYSE: KWT) is up 11.5% at $4.45. The more diversified alt-energy ETF of PowerShares WilderHill Clean Energy (NYSE: PBW) is up less than all of these with gains of 4.8% at $5.65.
Before getting too euphoric keep in mind that this is not unusual at the start of a year or new period where sector rotation favors the most beaten up sector. Besides that, there is always the political angle on the solar sector that is front and center in the elections this year.
What we do know within reason is simple: solar PV unit prices cannot drop by another 50% or so in 2012. If pricing has bottomed, perhaps these value traps may get to migrate to value stocks after all. We still expect margin pressure, austerity, and a lack of the ability to pay dividends to all equal concerns of PV panel dumping by Chinese firms leading to a virtual race toward zero.
If you want to know just how big this news is, the S&P Utility Sector was the best performing sector in all of 2011 and its gains were not quite 15%. To prove the point, the Utilities Select Sector SPDR (NYSE: XLU) ETF rose by 19% in 2011 if you adjust for the dividend payments as so many utilities offer investors dividend yields of 4% and higher.
JON C. OGG