Monday, June 28, 2010

Converting to Solar

Financial bubbles, not unlike supernovas, leave reminders of their explosions throughout the market Universe.
A bubble in alternative energy, and particularly Solar stocks grew quietly in 2006-2008 and burst pretty much in tandem with other bubbles such as the one in housing.

What were boom times have turned into dark times for solar companies, as competition is fierce and subsidies have been subsiding. Many of these companies are Chinese, so the Yuan’s recent revaluation has become a new concern.

But solar companies did take advantage of the demand for their stocks during the boom to raise capital and finance their activities, Solar panels may be shiny, but they don’t manufacture themselves.

During the brief boom, a very popular financing option for solar companies was issuing convertible bonds. Their stocks were on a tear, so the companies (wisely) decided to give up a bit of their potential stock upside for some cheap (low coupon) financing.

And so they did.

Fast-forward two years later and these convertibles are “busted”. That is, the market price of the underlying stock is so far away from the equivalent conversion price, that the convertible component of the bonds is practically worthless.

Nonetheless, they are still bonds, still pay a coupon and (fingers crossed) will repay principal at maturity. Now trading at discounts to par, the yields are enticing and these bonds have the added attraction in that a good portion of the total yield will come in the form of capital gains, which for many taxpayers implies a lower rate and pushing the taxable event a bit out into the future.

Here’s a table of some of the solar convertibles out there. Like always click to make it bigger.

With the exception of Trina Solar, whose convertible is in the money, the others are pretty much straight bonds now, so the main issue is whether or not they will be able to pay. In general, the prospects of that are not bad, since most of these companies are not excessively leveraged and could tap the markets for equity or new debt when time comes to roll over.
(As always do your own due diligence, and your mileage will vary).

Even Evergreen Solar, which appears to be the most vulnerable on the list, has a positive tangible equity in its books. Of course, ESLR has yet to make a profit, so keep that in mind.

My personal favorite is LDK Solar, which has been reporting profits and whose convertibles have a put provision that can shorten maturity by two years. Trading around 85% makes for a 26% yield in less than a year, if you exercise that put. Not very liquid, but if I managed to find some (and I did), they can’t be that scarce.

Energy Conversion Devices is another that looks “overlooked”. The company took a huge (non-cash) write-off recently, which affected the stock and general perception very unfavorably (some analysts consider their technology outdated). But there are believers and the company recently did some private debt/equity swaps with the convertibles (below the strike price, obviously). Although such an action is dilutive (and not great news) for stockholders, the more of those they do, they better chance bondholders have of collecting ultimately.

Of the others, JA Solar would seem to be the least risky and Suntech Power, the best value.

So, there you have it, a “green” alternative to my previous oily suggestions. May the daystar shine radiantly on your portfolios,


  1. Good article. I am having a hard time finding these bonds on my brokerage account at Charles Schwab. What dealer have you found to have the largest array of junk bonds?

  2. Hello Publio,

    I bought these at schwab. You have to call for junk bonds 877-563-7818 (fixed income).