First Solar releases 3Q early after CEO departure

AP News
Posted: Oct 26, 2011 10:56 AM
First Solar releases 3Q early after CEO departure

First Solar surprised investors for the second time in as many days Wednesday, releasing its third-quarter earnings a week early after the sudden departure of its CEO sent the company's stock plunging 24 percent Tuesday.

If the early release was intended to halt the stock's slide, it was a shrewd decision. In the first hour of trading, shares rose 14 percent, cutting the previous day's losses in half even though the results from the third quarter demonstrated mostly how tough the market has become for U.S. solar companies.

First Solar's net income rose 11 percent, to $196.5 million, or $2.25 per share, from $176.9 million, or $2.04 per share, a year earlier. However, this year's net income got a $10 million bump thanks to a reduction in income tax expenses.

Even then, profits were well below Wall Street expectations of $2.59 per share, according to a poll by FactSet. And analysts have been lowering their expectations throughout the month.

The nation's largest solar company sharply reduced its per-share guidance as well, as was expected by many after the departure of CEO Rob Gillette. But it was clear that the bad news was not quite as bad as many investors had expected.

Revenue rose 26 percent, to $1 billion, matching Wall Street expectations.

The company released a little more information about Gillette's exit compared with Tuesday, when it would only say that he was "no longer serving" as CEO.

Founder Mike Ahearn, who has stepped in as CEO, said the board "believes First Solar needed a leadership change to navigate through the industry turmoil and achieve our long-term goals."

Gillette was just the latest high-ranking executive bidding farewell to First Solar.

The president of operations and its utility systems chiefs also left in recent months.

The solar sector is being hit hard by the economic downturn in the U.S., which has squeezed funding for alternative energy projects, as well by as blistering competition from China.

Making matters worse, the collapse this year of Solyndra LLC, which received a half-billion in loan guarantees, has put a spotlight on the entire industry. Solyndra was one of three solar companies to seek bankruptcy protection within two months, and now GOP critics are seeking an end to solar loan guarantees for the industry.

First Solar is not the same, however, because as rough as the market has been, the Tempe, Ariz. company has been profitable. That does not mean it is not being squeezed.

The company now anticipates earnings of $6.50 to $7.50 per share, down from previous guidance of between $9 and $9.50.

It expects that operating income will total $650 million to $760 million, compared to estimates of $871.7 million.

The company said it is cutting capital spending and will use the savings to invest in new markets, sales and research and development. First Solar is increasingly focused on emerging markets.

Ahearn said Monday that the company will "re-focus our strategy and commit our resources to solving the pressing energy that exist in much of the world."

First Solar remains a powerhouse in the industry and many experts gave the company the benefit of the doubt after a volatile week.

"We continue to remain confident that the company will be a long-term winner in the solar space," Kaufman Bros. analyst Jeffrey Bencik said.

First Solar maintains some of the lowest costs in the business and it has the scale that others do not.

The speculation over the reason or reasons for Gillette's exit goes on, ranging from a dispute over the handling of a California solar farm or pending layoffs as the company tries to slim down. Others have speculated that First Solar may be for sale.

Everyone is awaiting a Nov. 3 First Solar conference with analysts and investors who are eager to know more about what is happening in the head office.

"We feel the stock will remain toxic until clarity is given," Jefferies analyst Jesse Pichel said. He downgraded the company to "Hold" from "Buy" and dropped his price target to $47 from $125 per share before the surprise earnings announcement. Bencik also downgraded First Solar to "Hold" from "Buy" and dropped his target to $50 from $125 per share. Citi analysts maintained a $70 price target for the company and rated it as "Neutral/High Risk."

Shares leaped $6.14 to $49.41 in early trading.