Energy Business

Why Investors Are Throwing Shade on First Solar Stock

Paul Ausick

First Solar Inc. (NASDAQ: FSLR) reported fourth-quarter and full-year 2019 results after markets closed Thursday. For the quarter, the solar energy company posted a net loss per share of $0.56 on revenues of $1.4 billion. In the same period a year ago, the company said it had earnings per share (EPS) of $0.29 on revenues of $691,241. Fourth-quarter results also compare to consensus estimates for EPS of $2.72 on revenues of $1.75 billion.

On an adjusted basis, First Solar reported fourth-quarter EPS of $1.48. Adjusted EPS excludes a litigation loss of $363 million and a positive tax gain of $91 million related to the litigation loss.

For the full-year, the company reported revenues of $3.1 billion and a net loss per share of $1.09, compared to revenues of $2.24 billion and EPS of $1.36 in 2018. Analysts were expecting full-year EPS of $2.13 on sales of $3.43 billion.

In a separate statement, First Solar announced fiscal year 2020 guidance, including net sales in a range of $2.7 billion to $2.9 billion and EPS of $3.25 to $3.75. Analysts were forecasting EPS of $3.56 on sales of $3.37 billion.

None of that encourages investors. Then there’s this statement from CEO Mark Widmar:

First Solar, at its core, is a technology and module manufacturing company. Given the significant evolution of developing utility-scale PV projects in the United States, we believe now is an appropriate time to evaluate our options with respect to our U.S. project development business line.

Widmar went on to say that the company won’t talk about those options until something occurs or it is required by law to do so.

On the company’s conference call, Widmar highlighted the project development issues:

[C]hallenges related to our systems business over the last few months [have] had significant impact with respect to revenue and gross margin. These challenges related to both project sale and completion timing as well as higher expected costs due to adverse weather impacts.

According to Chief Financial Officer Alexander Bradley, delays in sales of projects in Japan and India, along with adverse weather effects, cost the company about $1.00 in EPS, of which $0.70 is related to timing.

Widmar noted that at the end of the third quarter, the company announced a transition to a third-party engineering, procurement, construction (EPC) business rather than continuing the practice of doing the work itself. He commented that the company “entered into the EPC business to enable cost-effective installation of our smaller form factor modules and to fill a capability gap in the [photovoltaic] PV market.” That need no longer exists, so First Solar is going to get out of the project development business and stick to its technology business.

Whenever a company tinkers with its business model to the degree that First Solar is, investors become nervous. That’s especially true when the tinkering coughs up a sharply lower revenue forecast.

That jitteriness was reflected in the company’s share price in Friday’s premarket. The stock traded down more than 16% at $49.60, near the bottom of a 52-week range of $49.06 to $69.24. The stock’s 12-month price target is $67.75.