August 20th, 2012 | Shanghai Daily Consolidation overshadows debt-laden solar firms
AS solar panel prices continue to march lower, Chinese solar companies are struggling with heavy debt loads, triggering expectations many will be forced to seek a new infusion of funds through takeovers or mergers.
Suntech Power Holdings could be liable for hundreds of millions in new payments after it disclosed a potential fraud by a partner, while peers such as LDK Solar, JA Solar Holdings Co, Trina Solar and Yingli Green Energy Holding Co are also feeling pressure.
With prices for solar panels barely covering the cost to build them, dozens of small Chinese solar companies are believed to have shut their doors, and equity investors have fled the sector, sending share prices of the US-listed Chinese companies down more than 85 percent since early 2011.
Most of the Chinese solar companies will be able to stay open only if government lenders continue to keep lines of credit open despite forecasts of several more quarters of red ink.
“Solar as an industry is going to continue to grow,” said Brian Salerno, portfolio manager for Huntington EcoLogical Strategy ETF. “However, my belief is that for most of that time it’s going to be profitless prosperity.”
Solar analysts have identified LDK Solar as also having one of the country’s most stretched balance sheets, with debt and other liabilities of US$6 billion versus cash and equivalents of just US$244 million.
JA Solar listed its debt and other liabilities at US$1.5 billion versus cash on hand of US$676 million at the end of the first quarter.
Trina Solar’s debt was a more modest US$1.08 billion versus cash on hand of US$490 million, while Yingli reported debt of US$3.44 billion versus a cash position of US$675 million at the end of the first quarter.
Suntech, which has the largest panel manufacturing capacity, may be on the hook for US$690 million in collateral related to the possible fraud, and it also has a US$541 million convertible bond payment in early 2013.
The company, which previously said it was in violation of some loan covenants, listed total debt and other liabilities of US$3.58 billion, versus abut US$474 million in cash on hand as of March 31, according to a filing with the US Securities and Exchange Commission.
The Chinese government has provided billions of dollars in credit lines and other support to its solar industry through state-run banks, prompting the US government to impose import duties earlier this year after some US manufacturers filed a trade complaint.
Though analysts and solar competitors outside of China have long viewed government bank credit lines as a major funding advantage for Chinese solar makers, that support has encouraged the industry there to overspend on new factories, leading to a glut of panels on the market.
Obtaining a clear picture of the Chinese companies’ debts can be difficult, analysts said, since debts they often listed as short-term liabilities are perpetually rolled forward, essentially making them long-term facilities.
“Trina is probably the best-positioned. The cost structure is great, and they don’t have as much debt as other vendors,” said Ben Schuman, analyst at Pacific Crest Securities.
Nearly every solar company has been losing cash because of the low panel prices, and policymakers in Beijing said last year they wanted to see a healthier industry development, with a smaller number of large, strong players.
Whether that consolidation will be spurred by Beijing or the debt-holding banks remains unclear.
“That’s the million-dollar question,” said Schuman. “I don’t know if it’s really even a question of ‘if’ or ‘when,’ it’s more a question of how. Is this going to be forced consolidation, or a bailout of the debt by state-owned enterprises?”
Banking on the best
Analysts said that at least for now, Beijing was not likely to let its leading solar players collapse.