Chinese Solar Stocks Sell Off on Suntech Delay

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Doug Young

Solar investors are feeling decidedly bearish this week, bidding down shares in most major solar panel makers even as a few major names including Suntech Power (NYSE: STP), Canadian Solar (Nasdaq: CSIQ) and JinkoSolar (NYSE: JKS) tried to prime the market with upbeat news. But truth be told, the news from all 3 of these companies looks marginally positive at best, which clearly wasn’t enough for investors who have grown tired of the non-stop bad news from an industry that has been struggling for 2 years now due to massive oversupply.

Let’s start our solar day with a look at Suntech, which was facing a Friday deadline to repay more than $500 million in bonds, even though it lacked the cash to make the repayment. Suntech has been trying to renegotiate new terms for the bonds since last fall, and has just announced that a majority of those bondholders have agreed to an extension of the current March 15 deadline. (company announcement)

Suntech said that 60 percent of the bondholders have agreed to extend the March 15 deadline by 2 months to May 15 as everyone works toward a “consensual restructuring.” Suntech shareholders weren’t too impressed by this delaying tactic, with the company’s shares tumbling nearly 9 percent in New York trade after the announcement.

Everyone is clearly growing tired of Suntech’s stubborn founder Shi Zhengrong, who is doing everything he can to postpone an eventual restructuring of his company. That overhaul will inevitably force him to leave his company and also to hand over most of the 60 percent of its shares he controls. Now it seems we’ll have to wait until May for that to happen.

Meantime, Canadian Solar, a relatively healthy player compared to Suntech, has just reported results that look modestly upbeat though still nothing to get too excited about. Perhaps most significantly, the company reported its unit sales returned to an uptrack in the fourth quarter, when it shipped 404 megawatts of panels, up from 384 megawatts in the third quarter. (results announcement) But the fourth-quarter figure was still down from the fourth quarter of last year.

What’s more, the company’s revenue continued to decline sharply, its net loss continued to widen, and it gave weak guidance for the current quarter, all indicating a true turnaround is probably still at least a year away. The report didn’t do very much to help Canadian Solar’s stock, which tumbled 15 percent after the report came out.

Lastly there’s smaller solar panel maker JinkoSolar, whose chief executive also tried to make some upbeat remarks while attending the National People’s Congress taking place in Beijing. Chen Kangping forecast that the best managed solar panel makers could return to profitability as soon as the second half of this year, and that most companies that can survive 2013 should be able to become profitable again next year.

He added that his own company now has more orders than it can handle, echoing similar comments about a recent spike in demand from larger rival Yingli Green Energy (NYSE: YGE) 2 weeks ago. (previous post) Investors greeted Chen’s words with indifference, bidding down JinkoSolar’s stock by 10 percent.

All of this shows that investors are getting tired of industry executives’ repeated forecasts of recovery, even though such a recovery never seems to come. Look for shares to stay in the doldrums until one or more players finally returns to profitability, or until Beijing takes some stronger action to restructure the sector by forcing smaller, weaker players to either close or merge.

Bottom line: The latest sell-off of solar shares indicates investors are tiring of industry executives’ repeated forecasts of improvement that never comes.

Doug Young has lived and worked in China for 15 years, much of that as a journalist for Reuters writing about Chinese companies. He currently lives in Shanghai where he teaches financial journalism at Fudan University. He writes daily on his blog, Young´s China Business Blog, commenting on the latest developments at Chinese companies listed in the US, China and Hong Kong. He is also author of a new book about the media in China, The Party Line: How The Media Dictates Public Opinion in Modern China.


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