Battery Investing for Beginners, Part 3; Resetting The Cheap vs. Cool Baseline


9.30.09 Cheap vs Cool John Petersen

I’ve been blogging about pure-play energy storage device manufacturers since July 2008. By mid-November I’d assembled a short list of thirteen pure-play public companies that accounted for almost 25% of the $30 billion global battery market. Frankly I was shocked to learn that major battery manufacturers like Exide (XIDE) and Enersys (ENS) that report billions in annual sales carried tiny market capitalizations when compared with far riskier technology development companies like Ener1 (HEV) and Valence Technology (VLNC) that would be little more than rounding errors on the big boys’ financial statements. As I focused on the obvious valuation disparities, it became clear that the market was paying huge premiums for companies that are developing cool energy storage devices and heavily discounting companies that manufacture objectively cheap energy storage devices. My belief at the time was that the cool companies were likely lose ground while the cheap companies were likely to gain ground. My original peer group comparison table follows (click on the image for a larger view).

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While the last ten months have been anything but normal, I revisited my valuation analysis in May of this year and showed that from November 14, 2008 through April 30, 2009, the cheap group appreciated an average of 56.5% while the cool group appreciated an average of 6.7%. I revisited the analysis again in August of this year and showed that from November 14, 2008 through July 31, 2009, the cheap group appreciated an average of 59.2% while the cool group appreciated an average of 21.42%. We all know that past performance is never a guarantee of future performance, but the theory seems to be holding up pretty well.

With it’s successful IPO last week, A123 Systems (AONE) dropped a $2.2 billion market capitalization rock into what was previously a $4.4 billion market capitalization pond. The ripple effect will be felt for months as analysts and investors perform detailed comparisons of the publicly traded energy storage companies in an effort to ferret out the bargains and identify the diamonds in the rough. Now that the initial volatility of A123’s IPO has passed, the market seems to be returning to more normal conditions, and we’ve reached the end of a calendar quarter, this seems like a convenient time to do a final comparison of market performance since November 14, 2008. It also provides an opportunity to conform the cheap and cool classifications to the tables I used in Battery Investing For Beginners, Part II and reset the baseline for future comparisons using yesterday’s closing prices.

The following table provides comparative price data for the pure play energy storage companies I track. It shows closing prices on November 14, 2008 and September 30, 2009; calculates the percentage of change since November 14, 2008; and shows current market capitalization of each company. It also provides comparable tracking data for the Dow, the S&P 500 and the Nasdaq Index. While I’ve included A123 in the cool sustainable group effective September 30th, I have not adjusted the historical performance of the group for the first week of trading in its stock (click on the image for a larger view).

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The following table summarizes the portfolio appreciation that a hypothetical investor would have realized over the last ten months if he had invested $1,000 in each company on November 14, 2008. It also presents comparable data for the broad market indexes.

Broad Market Indexes 25.09%
Cool Emerging Companies 4.30%
Cool Sustainable Companies 75.14%
Cheap Emerging Companies 54.73%
Cheap Sustainable Companies 121.02%
Chinese Battery Companies 126.24%

Equity markets are driven by a combination of greed and fear, emotional reactions that are frequently at odds with economic realities. Over the past few years, the cool companies have been driven by headlines that highlight opportunities while the cheap companies have been driven by headlines that highlight problems. Since headlines inevitably feed the greed and fear cycle, the cool companies were driven to objectively high valuation levels while the cheap companies were driven to objectively low valuation levels. If the last ten and a half months are any indication, the pendulum is moving back toward a more balanced position where the cheap group valuations will eventually reach a more reasonable parity with the cool group valuations. They still have a long way to go.

I have consistently argued that every energy storage decision in transportation, alternative power and the smart grid will boil down to a cost-benefit analysis. As long as the cost of storage exceeds the value of the stored electricity, waste will prevail. When the value of the stored electricity is higher than the costs of storage, the market will respond appropriately. While there is no doubt that the cool companies will have more business than they can handle, there is also no doubt that the bulk of the incremental sales revenue will flow to companies that serve the mundane needs of the average user, rather than the extreme needs of “power users.” It’s ultimately a choice between meat and potatoes or rainbow stew.

While I believe the cleantech revolution will result in rapid and sustained growth across the entire spectrum of energy storage companies, I remain convinced the best stock market performers will be manufacturers of objectively cheap energy storage products. Vinod Khosla is fond of reminding investors that “The most important thing to remember is economic gravity — the cheapest thing ends up w
.” Mark Twain once quipped, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.” Henry Ford didn’t make the best cars; he made the cheapest cars. Microsoft didn’t make the best operating system; it made the cheapest operating system. Xerox invented and then failed to commercialize more cool technologies than I can even begin to count. Examples of the fundamental economic reality that cost trumps coolness are too numerous to mention. When you cut through the energy storage hype and drill down to business fundamentals, I have to believe that investors who want market beating returns in the energy storage sector should be focusing on companies that make cheap products.

DISCLOSURE: Author is a former director Axion Power International (AXPW.OB) and holds a large long position in its stock. He also holds small long positions in Exide (XIDE), Enersys (ENS) Active Power (ACPW) and ZBB Energy (ZBB).


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