PV Crystalox Solar in 1 minute 56 seconds

Blood on the silicon streets

I don't know if hibernating PV Crystalox Solar can survive the down-cycle in wafer prices, but the market says it won't. The shares are outrageously cheap, but then again they might be worth nothing.

What it does:

PV Crystalox Solar (PVCS) manufactures silicon wafers used in solar energy systems, and the ingots from which they are cut. Due to falling wafer prices it costs PVCS more to produce wafers than than the current market price so it has mothballed its new wafer facility in Germany and cut production of ingots in England. Wafer production through subcontractors in Japan is at 40% of previous volumes.

Category: cyclical

Falling wafer prices are due to oversupply, particularly from Chinese manufacturers, and inconsistent demand as European governments cut subsidies known as feed-in-tariffs for solar power installations. Customers are renegotiating or reneging on contracts fixed at higher prices, and going bust. The best near-term hope for the industry is Asia, where feed-in-tariffs are being introduced. Meanwhile PVCS has renegotiated prices and volumes with its polysilicon suppliers and is selling surplus polysilicon. By shrinking production and cutting costs it expects to survive the next twelve months.

What needs to happen:

Prices need to return to a level at which PV can profit before it runs out of cash.

What could go wrong:

competition
PVCS may be in a precarious competitive position: A boom in solar panel installations has brought new entrants into wafer production including polysilicon suppliers like MEMC and REC and low cost producers in countries like China, where solar cells are increasingly made and 80% of PVCS' customers are located. The technology is also advancing and rivals are developing potentially more efficient materials, and methods of cutting wafers less wastefully from ribbons.

management
Chief executive Iain Dorrity joined the business in 1986 and owns 11% of the company, so he's experienced and has more to lose than any other individual should the company go bust.

company finances
PVCS has net cash, but it used up €32.2m of its €54.8m balance last year, which explains the drastic measures to conserve it. The company says its cash position had improved by March.

valuation
The shares are trading at about a third of net current asset value, a proxy for liquidation value, but the concern is, as PVCS battles for survival it might use up the cash that makes it appear so cheap.

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Verdict:

The Thrifty 30 does not hold PVCS, and I'm leery of adding a company which appears to face both cyclical and competitive pressures that might add up to extinction. I'll consider it again if the valuation remains compelling and the company shows signs of recovery.

Notes:

Comments

I've got PVCS in my net-net style model portfolio so I agree that they're outrageously cheap. They're in a tough spot at the moment as you say, but the upside is huge if things work out over time. However, yes they might be worth zero so I've hedged my bets with a sub-2% position so that I can still sleep at night.

Hi UKVI, I can understand why you have it in the portfolio - there are really two ways to play this one, wait until it's recovering when hopefully it will still be cheap or stick it in a massively diversified portfolio like the one you are creating.

I do like the idea of UKVI's massively diversified moon-or-bust portfolio. I sometimes toy with the idea of doing one with something like Halifax Sharebuilder, where it's cheap to take say 100 small positions (say £250 a position at £1.50 a trade), on the grounds that if they multi-bag you can forgive the frictional cost of selling, and if they go bust you don't have to worry about it! ;)

It looks like a conservatively run business compared to a lot of the companies in the solar sector. The cash on the balance sheet is being preserved to a certain extent and it was quick to cut production to minimise any extreme losses. Maybe this gives it the financial strength to outlast others in the industry who are struggling.

But as you point out they are providing a bit of a commodity product in a saturated market, which makes it hard for anyone but the lowest cost provider to deliver anything like decent shareholder value.

I'm also a bit perplexed about the production process, which seems to involve the shipping of the wafers from the UK to Germany and then on to the end-customers in Asia for different parts of the production process. Sounds a bit energy intensive for a renewable energy business!

Hi Prof, good point about the shipping. It seemslikely that Chinese/Asian manufacturers can not only produce them cheaper but are also nearer the growth market (at least for now, While Europe the European market is unpredictable and characterised by falling subsidies).

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