Energy Business

The Rise of First Solar on an Awful Day Has Wall Street to Thank

Jon C. Ogg

It may sound impressive for a speculative solar power stock to be up on a day that the Dow Jones industrials and the S&P 500 are down by over 3% (almost 1,000 Dow points and over 100 points on the S&P 500). That’s the case for First Solar Inc. (NASDAQ: FSLR) on Monday. One positive analyst report and speculation from traders and investors are combining to help out when most peers have seen more than their share of pressure on a bad day for the stock market.

While some investors will be excited about an analyst upgrade, it is negating a very negative downgrade from a larger firm and is effectively wiping away some of the concerns that have been brought up outside of First Solar’s guidance. While this strategy shift inside of First Solar is far from the first instance of a model restructuring, it is easy to understand why investors would be spooked over a change to a company’s operations.

Raymond James upgraded First Solar to Outperform from Market Perform. Analyst Pavel Molchanov also set a $65 target price, which was close to 10% above the pre-earnings price of $59.32 and was nearly 30% higher than Friday’s close at $50.59. Molchanov’s upgrade is the first significant change in many years due to a strong investor sentiment around cleantech in general and a relatively attractive valuation at this time. While he admits that solar has become a commoditized business and that First Solar’s results are often lumpy, trading at just 6.5 times expected earnings offers an attractive risk-reward for investors.

Merrill Lynch’s Julien Dumoulin-Smith issued a two-notch downgraded that took First Solar down to Underperform from Buy. That is effectively a “Sell” rating, and the firm’s price objective was lowered to $54 from $64. This downgrade noted that the pressure from selling its systems business will offset module trajectory.

Dumoulin-Smith believes that there will be downside beyond 2020 earnings and that the lower cash will add pressure with no use of liquidity, even if the move toward 500W panels is positive. The call also noted that there is a negative skew to its longer-term estimates in outlying years.

Just on Friday, CFRA maintained its Hold rating on First Solar, but the firm cut its target to $55 from $62 after lowering earnings estimates. With revenues having run under expectations, the company was hurt by several factors, including a delayed revenue recognition of certain project sales and unfavorable weather conditions. That said, the firm noted that First Solar effectively is sold out through 2020 and is roughly two-thirds sold out in 2021 with another 2 gigawatts sold into 2022.

CFRA remains leery that First Solar will be able to sustain at least a book-to-bill of 1.0 through 2021 and sees a cash burn as an issue in 2020, along with execution risk as it changes its business model.

First Solar stock traded up 0.8% at $50.99 on Monday, after having opened at $48.27. It also hit a 52-week low of $48.03 on Monday, and that’s down from a multiyear high of $69.24.