Can Fuel Cell Stocks Learn to React Reasonably Around News?

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Two days ago, on Tuesday, the CEO of Plug Power Inc. (NASDAQ: PLUG) said that the company had signed a new contract with a global automaker and that details would be forthcoming in two or three weeks. Investors could not wait, though, sending the stock price up nearly 43% for the day.

The news also lifted shares of FuelCell Energy Inc. (NASDAQ: FCEL) and Ballard Power Systems Inc. (NASDAQ: BLDP) by about 28% and 18%, respectively. But none of the three stocks hit a new 52-week high. That happened two weeks before when Plug Power announced a sale of 1,700 fuel cell-forklifts to Wal-Mart Stores Inc. (NYSE: WMT).

A week after the Plug Power announcement, FuelCell said it received a $2.8 million federal contract to complete a demonstration project. On the trading day, for every dollar in that contract FuelCell’s market cap rose by $14.

Ballard Power is the company that makes the actual fuel cells that Plug Power and FuelCell Energy integrate into their own end products, so it makes some sense that Ballard should tag along behind the other two stocks.

It turns out, however, that Plug Power’s CEO misspoke on Tuesday. The contract with a global automaker had already been disclosed on March 13 when the company reported quarterly results. That sent the stock plummeting on Wednesday, dragging FuelCell Energy and Ballard Power along behind.

As one research firm has pointed out, these are all “casino” stocks, where the action is what matters, not the direction. Anyone looking for a long-term investment in the fuel cell makers is going to be seriously disappointed before too long.

The big moves in Plug Power’s stock on Tuesday and Wednesday, in the real world, might have moved the stock a few percentage points. But a jump of 42% one day and drop of nearly that size the next day is a signal that there is nothing real about the share price of either Plug Power or its cohorts.

We tried to put a fair value on the stocks earlier this week. It is only a guess, of course, but it is probably no further off than any other guess. Which is to say, who knows what these stocks are worth today or what they will be worth in a year or two? Like everything else, they are worth whatever someone will pay for them.

But who are those someones? Trading these stocks is like playing high-stakes poker — everyone at the table knows how to play the cards; what the winners know is when to bet, when to fold and what their opponents are most likely to do.