A123 Systems vs. BYD and Other Irrational Battery Investments

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John Petersen

Mother always taught me that if you can’t say something nice, it’s usually better to say nothing. While regular readers might question my ability to follow Mom’s advice, this is an article I had really hoped somebody else would write. The quick summary is that while the shares of A123 Systems (AONE) may be a reasonable investment at current prices, the shares of BYD Co. Ltd. (BYDDF.PK) are an irrational value proposition, the shares of Ener1 (HEV) are even worse, and the shares of Valence Technologies (VLNC) are beyond understanding. Since many readers find detailed tables more confusing than enlightening, I’ll use words instead of numbers to explain my reasoning. I’ll also assume that every company I mention has a great technology. Accordingly, this article will focus exclusively on the hard-core financial data and be far shorter than most.

To create a baseline for comparisons, I’ll start with Exide Technologies (XIDE) and Enersys (ENS), the two largest pure-play battery manufacturers in the world. During the twelve calendar months ended June 30, 2009, Exide was restructuring its operations and lost $113.1 million on sales of $2.9 billion. During the same period Enersys earned $67.5 million on sales of $1.7 billion. Exide’s current market capitalization of $552 million represents roughly 176% of book value and 19% of annual sales. Enersys’ current market capitalization of $1.14 billion represents roughly 157% of book value and 66% of annual sales. For the sake of simplicity, I believe a baseline market price standard of 2x book value and 1x sales is probably reasonable for established manufacturers of traditional battery products.

Until recently, it was almost impossible to establish a baseline for emerging manufacturers of advanced battery products. That all changed when A123 Systems (AONE) completed its IPO last month. After adjusting A123’s June 30, 2009 financial statements for roughly $400 million in IPO proceeds and $250 million in ARRA battery manufacturing grants, A123 had a pro forma stockholders equity of $823 million and potential annual revenue from existing facilities of roughly $233 million. Its actual revenue for the twelve months ended June 30, 2009 was roughly $72.1 million. Based on yesterday’s closing price, A123’s market capitalization of $2.35 billion represents roughly 3x book value, 10x potential sales and 33x trailing sales. As A123 uses its available resources to build new manufacturing capacity, its market capitalization to potential sales ratio should fall to roughly 2x potential sales. While I’m convinced that PHEVs and EVs are suboptimal uses for advanced batteries, I have no doubt that A123 will have more demand than it will be able to satisfy. Accordingly, I believe a baseline of 3x book value and 2x potential sales is probably reasonable for emerging manufacturers of advanced battery products.

BYD Co. Ltd. (BYDDF.PK) is a classic example of why it is never a good idea to make investment decisions based on simple questions like “What did Warren do?” Everybody knows that MidAmerican Energy, a subsidiary of Berkshire Hathaway (BRK.A), agreed to buy a 10% stake in BYD for $230 million in September 2008. At the time, BYD was generating roughly $4 billion in annual sales that included $1.6 billion in cell phone components (43%), $1.3 billion in automobiles (31%) and $1.1 billion in batteries (26%). For the first six months of 2009, auto sales more than doubled to $1.3 billion (55%), cell phone components remained flat at $780 million (33%), and batteries fell by a third to $281 million (12%). While it started out as a battery manufacturer, BYD is currently an automaker first, a cell phone manufacturer second and a battery manufacturer by default because it needs the batteries for its core product lines. With first half sales of roughly $2.4 billion, it would be hard to classify BYD as anything other than an established manufacturer of traditional products. BYD’s financial statements are available here. According to Yahoo! currency. the conversion factor between the U.S. Dollar and the Chinese Yuan is 6.8336.

So far, the one critical fact that seems to evade most commenters and investors is that MidAmerican’s purchase price worked out to $1.02 per share, or 1.2x book value and 0.5x sales. Overall, the MidAmerican purchase is exactly what one would expect from Messrs. Buffett and Munger, a solid value with good growth potential. Since the Berkshire announcement (the purchase didn’t actually close till July of this year), the share price of BYD has rocketed to $10.82 per share, which works out to 10x book value and 5x sales. At present, BYD has 2.275 billion outstanding shares and a market capitalization of $24.6 billion. These valuation metrics are out of line with the auto industry, out of line with the cell phone industry and out of line with the battery industry; proving once again that the value of an investment depends on your entry price. BYD was a great deal at $1.02, but it’s terrible for investors at $10.82.

Following Ener1 (HEV) over the last year has been a lot like watching a slow-motion train-wreck. Its final private financing round brought in $42 million of offering proceeds in 2007 and $31 million of warrant exercise proceeds in 2008. In the second quarter of 2009, Ener1 entered into a $40 million open market sale agreement that generated $5.8 million in proceeds during the second quarter and has presumably generated another $33 million since the end of June. When these fundraising activities are offset against operating losses, Ener1 has been treading water for a long time.

At June 30, 2009, Ener1 had a $1 million working capital deficit and $26.3 million in long-term debt, including $9.7 million in related party debt. After giving effect to $33 million in new financing, an $18 million investment to rescue a potential customer from bankruptcy and estimated third quarter losses of roughly $10 million, I expect Ener1 to report approximately $129 million in stockholders equity and about $4 million of working capital at September 30, 2009. Its current market capitalization of $758 million is roughly 6x estimated book value and 34x trailing sales. If you adjust Ener1’s book value to eliminate $14 million of intangible assets and another $48 million of goodwill, the ratio of market capitalization to estimated net tangible book value soars to 11x. On balance, I think Ener1’s report for the quarter ended September 30th will paint a very bleak picture.

While Ener1 was awarded a $150 million ARRA battery manufacturing grant in August, that award is wholly contingent on its ability to provide a like amount of matching funds. With no meaningful working capital, a major investment in a fledgling EV manufacturer that’s just emerging from bankruptcy and a large related party debt balance, I can’t see where the matching funds will come from. It’s certainly not a business picture I would encourage a client to take to market for a secondary offering.

Valence Technology (VLNC) carries a market valuation that never ceases to amaze me. For the last several years, Valence has relied on loans from its principal stockholder to support average losses of roughly $20 million per year. At June 30, 2009, Valence had $27 million in assets and $95 million in debt, resulting in a negative stockholders equity of $69 million. While Valence has recently inked a deal that will throw off up to $2 million per month in proceeds from dribble-out sales of its common stock, the expected proceeds will do little more than keep the company afloat until the next bi-weekly closing. Since Valence’s market capitalization of $190 million represents 9.5x trailing sales and the common stockholders are under water to the tune of $0.55 per share, all I can do is scratch my head.

DISCLOSURE: Author has small long positions in Enersys (ENS) and Exide Technologies (XIDE).


  1. Nice summary.
    These results demonstrate the devastating effect of the drug on which many investors are hooked…hopium. Ah, the financials may look bad, but imagine if the technology wins….
    Although some of these companies may be reorganized in the next two years, overall share price rationalization will likely take longer. Until it is clear to the investment market how the battery market will be structured, who the winners will be, such wild pricing is to be expected.
    In the interim it will be interesting to see whether the large incumbent manufacturers, e.g. Exide, can re-invent themselves. Most companies that ignore new technology too long die or waste away. Consider Polaroid, Univac, Woolworth. In contrast, IBM and Apple were successful turnarounds. GE is a work in process but will likely succeed.
    It would be interesting to have your analysis of Exide and Enersys. Are they making the right moves for long term viability?

  2. Both Enersys and Exide have subsidiaries that make lithium products. So far their experience has been that customers walk in thinking they need the extraordinary performance of lithium and ultimately decide that advanced lead acid is better suited to their needs which turn out to be relatively mundane.
    Since the turn of the millennium, the level of R&D in the lead-acid sector has skyrocketed and the results obtained from using new materials in combination with time-honored chemistry have been close to magic. There will be applications that need the extreme performance of lithium and others where the costs of lithium can never be justified. In the end, investors will come to understand that it’s a huge sector opportunity and there is no single best solution.

  3. Finally a rational look at the advanced battery market. I did the same math myself a while ago, but after reading too many ill-informed commentaries about this market, I almost started questioning my math. Thank you for restoring my confidence 😉

  4. OneAhead, there are a lot of people who hear the EV speeches, read the global warming articles, see what Warren bought and immediately jump to the conclusion “this will be huge” without first taking out their calculator and figuring the value of one-third of one-billionth of huge.

  5. I am really not sure that your contention Warren Buffet invested in BYD solely because it was a battery company. I thought he found it attractive as a battery company because they had a huge jump on every battery company in the world with an in-house staff of over 2000 engineers conducting research on batteries and because they also produced many types of all electric vehicles both cars and trucks. This coupled with official Chinese government policy of supplanting all gasoline powered motor vehicles with all electric vehicles within the next 10 years is the ultimate reason for Warren’s investment. The batteries are a means to an end. Why invest an any start-up battery company when a well established well capitalized one in an emerging market with huge potential already exists? Maybe at this point in time the Chinese really do have a jump on the rest of us and so why not take advantage of that apparent fact?

  6. I can think of dozens of good reasons for MidAmerica’s investment in BYD and would certainly never discount its prospects for future growth. However stocks that gain 1000% in one year almost never repeat the trick and the vast majority fall back to a more rational level when day to day business realities sink in. I wouldn’t presume to say what the fair value of BYD is, but a price north of $10 strikes me as a sucker’s bet.


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