Electric vehicle maker BYD (HKEx: 1211; Shenzhen: 002594; OTC:BYDDF) has been zipping in and out of the headlines this past week, including its latest announcement that it will open a manufacturing plant in Brazil to service the BRICS country and the broader Latin American market. The company’s EV business, a major factor that attracted billionaire investor Warren Buffett as a major backer, also got good news from Beijing this week with word of a major government drive to boost new energy vehicle buying.
Despite those positive moves, the company still has yet to received its first major overseas order, though it has certainly set up many pilot programs. Such programs make good headlines, even though they result in very limited actual business. And those programs receive far less attention when they end in failure, which is what recently happened to a high-profile trial in a city near Los Angeles.
Despite the rocky road these last few months, investors seem to be turning bullish on BYD once more after a prolonged slump for its stock due to tumbling profits and poor performance for its older gas-powered car and battery businesses. The company’s shares have more than tripled over the last 2 years, and are up more than 20 percent this year as optimism returns to its EV business.
In its latest piece of upbeat news, BYD announced it will open its first factory in Brazil, with an investment of about $90 million and 450 workers. (company announcement) Operations will begin next year at the plant, which will have an initial capacity to produce 1,000 electric buses each year. BYD made a similar investment announcement for a plant in nearby Argentina in 2011. (previous post)
The bigger news that got investors excited came earlier this week when Beijing announced a major drive to promote EVs through strict quotas for government vehicle buying. Under those quotas, China will require that new energy vehicles account for 30 percent of all government vehicle buying by 2016. (English article) Beijing has also announced a wide range of other new incentives recently, including cheap or free licenses for such vehicles and low tax rates.
China has announced similar incentives in the past, though few have had much effect among the broader consumer market. The mandating of such high quotas for government vehicle buying looks a bit more promising, as it relies on non-negotiable directives rather than financial incentives. But governments can always find ways to get around such quotas, for example by buying cheap electric motorcycles or other cheap low-tech EVs to meet their government targets.
Anyone looking for a better indicator of the longer-term viability for BYD’s EV business would be better to focus on the company’s international programs, which are truly market driven. A company spokesman recently told me BYD is on track to deliver around 4,000 electric buses this year, though it may have to delay some deliveries due to constraints in its manufacturing capacity. The company has 3 pilot programs going in California, and a number of programs in Western Europe and other markets scattered around the world.
But its drive into California also received a major setback earlier this year when the city of Long Beach canceled a high-profile pilot program for the company’s buses. That program had been the subject of previous controversy over accusations of labor law violations, though the spokesman said the cancellation was due to lack of funding rather than labor or technology issues.
Loss of that contract highlights the very real possibility that some or perhaps even many of BYD’s overseas pilot programs could end without any big orders. We’ll have to wait and see if and when any of the pilot programs finally results in one such big order, though I’m sure BYD will make sure that everyone knows when that finally happens.
Bottom line: A string of positive developments could help maintain a rally for BYD stock, but the real sign of long-term viability for its EVs will be a big order from one of its global pilot programs.
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.