Solar Stock Rally Nears 2007-2008 Craze: Time for a Reality Check?

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The solar stocks are back on fire. The problem is that this feels a lot like 2008, without the super-high share prices making it feel like another 1999 dot-com bubble all over again. We wanted to compare just the U.S. solar recovery players to the past, without focusing on all the Chinese solar stocks.

In this effort, we have focused on the former peaks from the 2007 to 2008 glory days, if applicable. The run higher seems like a bubble, but you will see that the bubble of today is nothing compared to the bubble of 2007 and 2008, when energy and alternative energy were flying high.

24/7 Wall St. evaluated the likes of First Solar Inc. (NASDAQ: FSLR), SunPower Corp. (NASDAQ: SPWR), MEMC Electronic Materials Inc. (NYSE: WFR), GT Advanced Technologies Inc. (NASDAQ: GTAT) and SolarCity Corp. (NASDAQ: SCTY) in the stock coverage. We also wanted to highlight exchange traded fund (ETF) performance and historical data on the Guggenheim Solar (NYSEMKT: TAN) and PowerShares WilderHill Clean Energy (NYSEMKT: PBW).

First Solar Inc. (NASDAQ: FSLR) is the de facto solar leader, and its shares have done what seemed nearly impossible just a few months ago. This stock went from less than $30 from late in 2006 after its initial public offering (IPO) to more than $300 in mid-2008 at the peak of the energy craze. Then came the “heads I win, tails you lose” trading, in which First Solar lost literally half of its value from July 2008 to December 2008. By June 0f 2012, First Solar shares were at a low even under $12, and the stock closed out 2012 at $30.86. Now we have shares up around $56, implying year-to-date gains of 81% and gains from last June’s lows of nearly 400%.

SunPower Corp. (NASDAQ: SPWR) remains a miracle recovery, but we question why on earth Total S.A. (NYSE: TOT) has not acquired the rest of the company when the stock was less than $5. It is the largest holder by far, and it could have taken this outfit over on the cheap. This stock trades around $21.60, after a drop of more than 4% on Tuesday, but shares hit a high of $23.76. SunPower shares peaked at more than $100 in 2007 and again in 2008.

MEMC Electronic Materials Inc. (NYSE: WFR) has been the less-followed winner for its solar materials making, but its rise has been massive as well. After hitting a low of $1.44 in the past year, the stock closed out 2012 at $3.21. With shares around $6.70 now, this is a gain of close to 400% from the lows, and a gain of more than 100% so far in 2013. Keep in mind that MEMC peaked at $96 in late 2007, and this was a $17 stock by the end of 2008.

GT Advanced Technologies Inc. (NASDAQ: GTAT) shares are back up to $4.60, but we would caution that this one came public as one of the last solar players out there in late 2008. It makes equipment for solar panel makers and providers, and it does not fit the same historic pattern as it missed much of the 2007 and 2008 silliness. This stock is up 75% from its low of $2.61 from March 4, 2013. GT is also up just over 50% from its closing price of $3.03 in 2012.

If you want to see just how fast a good thing can come to a crashing end … SolarCity Corp. (NASDAQ: SCTY) is supposed to be the new kid on the block, and its shares hit a new all-time high of $52.77 just on Monday. After a double-digit drop, this one is back to $45. Do not feel too bad for those shareholders because, even after this last sudden drop, we have this 2012 IPO up a whopping 275% or so year-to-date from the $11.93 close for 2012.

The Guggenheim Solar (NYSEMKT: TAN) ETF is solar-focused and is still up 1.9% at $26.04 so far on Tuesday, but that is down from a high of $27.87 earlier in the day and up from a 52-week low of $12.60. Even after pulling back from the highs, this ETF is up a whopping 64% year-to-date from the closing price of $15.64 at the end of 2012. Trading volume has been elevated, and even exponentially higher of late. A reverse split has clouded the comparisons back to 2008 when this ETF was created.

There is also the PowerShares WilderHill Clean Energy (NYSEMKT: PBW) ETF, which has a more diversified angle of alternative energy, cleaner energy and conservation, rather than just being solar. This one just hit a new high of $5.87 for the year and shares are up less than 1% at $5.67 as of last look. Even after the pullback, this is up almost 38% year-to-date from the $4.08 close at the end of 2012. Keep in mind that this ETF was above $28 at the peak back to late 2007 and in 2008, but by the end of 2008 it back to less than $10 per share.

If this sounds as though we have the pom-poms out cheering on the solar rally, we actually want investors to consider the risks more than just chasing the gainers. Our first point to make is that when you see articles of this magnitude cheering a great recovery, then perhaps the easy money has already been made. If you want proof of how volatile and wild price moves are expected, an at the money straddle or spread using the June-2013 $55 strike prices in puts and calls would cost you about $8.25 if you tally up both prices. That implies that the stock would have to rise to above $63 or fall to under $47 before the bets pay off.

The solar sector moves have been impressive. Make that more than impressive. The problem is that we are in a different valuation world now compared to the bubbles of the past. The partial austerity-driven, tax-credit-expiration world we live in now and the tariffs (trade wars) have changed the landscape to the point that it seems almost incomprehensible that the old bubble days of 2007 and 2008 could return. Some of these companies will continue to go on to do great things in the years ahead. Other solar players may fade into the history books, even after we have seen many bankruptcies in this sector.

Some longer term questions remain. Will solar companies get to form master limited partnerships? Will they become utilities? Is a market cap of almost $5 billion for First Solar crazy, or is it cheap compared to 2007 and 2008? Is Solar City’s $3.5 billion market cap valuing it as the utility of the future? Is much of the volume being driven by short covering? Or is the volume being driven by ETFs influencing the sector?