Energy Storage: Q-2 2012 Review and Analysis
While I jumped the gun last week and published my third quarter outlook for the energy storage and vehicle electrification sectors early, it's worthwhile to take a look back and see how my tracking list of companies performed over the last quarter and examine the past to see what the tea leaves in the bottom of the cup portend for the coming quarter. So without further delay I'll present my price performance table for the second quarter that ended on Friday.
Q-2 was a dreadful quarter for Maxwell Technologies (MXWL) and ZBB Energy (ZBB) as their prices fell by 64% and 41% respectively. While the declines were precipitous, they were also one-off events and I believe both companies are trading at very attractive prices for investors who want to position their portfolios for the mean reversion upswing that usually follows fast on the heels of a painful downturn. My long-term tracking charts for both companies show distinct bottoms forming and I believe they're both likely to trend up for the rest of the year.
It was also an ugly quarter for UQM Technologies (UQM), Valence Technology (VLNC) and Tesla Motors (TSLA). While I believe UQM is attractively priced, I'm convinced that Valence and Tesla are only seeing the beginning of storms that are likely to get more severe through the summer and fall months.
The following table tracks several key financial metrics for the companies I follow. Today I'll try to explain why I track this data and show how I use peer group comparisons to identify stocks that are either overvalued or undervalued. If you want to understand the balance of this article, you should pay close attention to the table instead of simply blowing past the data and focusing on the words.
The first metric I consider when analyzing any company is working capital adequacy. I see development stage companies that don't have at least twelve months of working capital as problem children because as sure as the sun will rise tomorrow, they'll be going back to the market for more money within a few months. The two companies with the worst working capital positions are A123 Systems (AONE) and Tesla. Both had less than six months of working capital at March 31st, even after adjusting A123's numbers for a recent $50 million toxic debt offering, and both will look truly dismal when their June financial statements are released in early August. Wunderlich Securities recently cut its price target on A123 to $0.50 and I think they're being generous. Absent a major turnaround, I expect A123 to follow the path blazed by Solyndra, Beacon Power and Ener1. While Tesla has a couple more financing rounds left in its bag of tricks, I don't expect the terms to be particularly generous to existing stockholders because the execution risks are so massive and so immediate.
The second financial statement metric I key on when trying to distinguish overvalued from undervalued is the difference between a company's market capitalization and its book value. That number is a good proxy for the value the market puts on a company's technology, customer base and other intangibles that don't show up on the balance sheet. When the market premium is a low or negative number, it indicates either opportunity or risk. When market premium is an objectively high number, it's a sign of extreme price risk – much like a robotic voice screaming "Danger Will Robinson, Danger!"
Turning to the table, A123 is trading at a modest discount to book value that doesn't fully reflect the risks it will face over the next six months as it tries to recover from a simple calibration error that gave rise to roughly $70 million in warranty costs and inventory write-offs. A123's cash needs will be huge and the best they could do in their last financing round is a death spiral note that's payable bi-monthly and convertible at 85% of market. Possible future product offerings in the micro-hybrid and aviation markets aren't even interesting because neither is soon enough or large enough to materially improve A123's operating results over the short-term.
Next on the list is Valance technology, which has had a deficit in its stockholders' equity for years. A bad capital structure has finally caught up with Valence and it will probably lose its Nasdaq listing sometime in July. Valence's LiFePO4 battery technology is proprietary, but it's not all that different from A123's proprietary LiFePO4 battery technology. With both companies needing major equity infusions, I see more risk in Valence than I do in A123 because the market values its technology, customer base and other intangible assets at a $167 million premium to A123. Frankly I just don't see a good reason for the discrepancy.
The only company in the table with an obviously low market premium is Exide Technologies (XIDE) which trades at a 35% discount to book value because the market has grown weary of exaggerated losses flowing from a multi-year business restructuring that's finally coming to an end. Once the bleeding stops, I expect Exide to perform very well.
On the extreme bleeding edge of the market premium spectrum we have Tesla which trades at a silly level of 21.4 times book value while every other company I follow trades at three times book or less. That valuation excess is solely attributable to the Hype Cycle, which seems to be running its course. Over the last two years Tesla has been driven higher and higher as the delivery date for its first Model S cars drew nigh. The long anticipated event finally happened a week ago Friday and the Model S drew spectacular reviews from the automotive press. Despite the good news, the price fell by 7% last week.
The reason is simple. The market expected the deliveries to go off without a hitch and it expected rave reviews. So there was no "good" left in that news. Now, however, the business dynamic has changed. Instead of sounding like a politician and focusing on how good it's going to be, Tesla will have to begin dealing with day-to-day business realities like actual reservation conversion rates, actual production problems and actual manufacturing cost overrruns. While I suppose Tesla could be different from every new manufacturer in the history of business, I see very little in the way of unexpected good news that could lift its stock price while Tesla's business of making electric cars is entering a target rich environment for sequential disappointments that could crush its stock price. This is not a favorable risk reward dynamic for investors who care about their portfolio value.
The thing I like best about the market premium metric is that it lets an investor assemble a hierarchy of opportunity to compare the different companies in a sector. The following table is a simple example that excludes several outliers and shows market premium as an absolute number, and as a relative number compared to book value, my "BS to Book ratio."
I'm not a fan of electric cars because the entire sector has been mercilessly over-hyped while the real economic costs and illusory environmental and national security benefits are just now coming to light. If I did want to make an EV investment that had a good chance of significant appreciation instead of an outsized risk of loss, I'd pick UQM and Kandi Technologies (KNDI) over Tesla. Kandi is profitably selling low cost transportation for the masses in China, a country that's striving to raise living standards for all of its people. Kandi has a healthy working capital balance and a low BS to Book ratio. UQM is still reporting modest losses, but its balance sheet is strong and its BS to Book ratio is one of the lowest in my tracking group. The risk-reward dynamic for both companies is quite favorable because the potential for additional price deterioration is modest while the potential for future price appreciation is substantial. In other words, they're both polar opposites of Tesla.
The same kind of analysis holds in the middle range where Axion Power (AXPW.OB), ZBB, Active Power (ACPW) and Maxwell carry market premiums that range from $14.3 million to $72 million and have BS to Book ratios of 2.0 or less. A blog like this one is not a good place to slice and dice the respective technical strengths of four companies that are focused on different products that have different applications that don't really compete with each other. But all four of them are one or two solid announcements away from market premiums in the $200 to $400 million range which A123 and Maxwell both carried at some point in the last twelve months.
When you're betting on trees to grow, you don't pick the tallest one in the forest because it's the one most likely to get struck by lightning. You don't pick the diseased trees because of their high mortality risks. Instead you pick healthy young trees that have modest mortality risks but are poised to enter a period of sustained growth. For my money all four of these mid-range companies have that kind of significant growth potential for this year, and through 2015 and beyond.
Disclosure: Author is a former director of Axion Power International (AXPW.OB) and holds a substantial long position in its common stock.