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4 U.S. Solar Stocks: Which Will Shine Brightest?

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FSLR Data Debate Point: There have been 11 upward revisions to EPS in the past 30 days on FSLR, by far the most of the four stocks profiled here. MEMC Electronic Materials is second, with 4 upward revisions to EPS.

Key Earnings Themes:

Eliminating Surprises: Last quarter, First Solar surprised investors with the revelation of what it called a "manufacturing excursion" that affected 4% of its capacity. In plain English, it was a manufacturing problem with First Solar's much-touted advanced thin film manufacturing process, leading to warranty claims. Many analysts thought the warranty issue -- in particular since First Solar took almost a year to reveal it -- was the reason for the post-earnings selloff. No one seems to be expecting a repeat of the warranty issues given First Solar's manufacturing prowess, but it's certainly an earnings surprise item to watch, and for First Solar investors to hope is a thing of the past.

Management Tone: First Solar had a reputation under Michael Ahearn of being overly conservative in its outlook. After last quarter's earnings, some analysts were still making the case that First Solar was too sober in its outlook given its earnings performance. A few weeks ago, First Solar released the type of bullish news about 2011 that made it seem to some solar watchers that First Solar had taken a page from the Chinese solar company playbook. First Solar put out a press release stating that it had already received orders for shipments of 380 megawatts above expectations in 2011. First Solar didn't name the clients doing the ordering, or provide any pricing. It is also the first time in the history of First Solar as a public company that it has issued a press release citing anonymous future orders.

Was the 2011 order release a sign that First Solar might be taking a more aggressively optimistic stance headed into 2011?

Project Focus:The split between First Solar's module sales into the open market and the modules it reserves for its project pipeline has been a major issue since it began making pipeline acquisitions. However, it seems that headed into this earnings call, there is more focus than ever on the project outlook for 2011, as the German "pull-in" of 2010 is expected to end, or at least markedly slow down. Expectations for a slowdown aren't limited to the German market. In the Czech market, a tax on solar power plant revenue should be an issue that First Solar is forced to address. The European situation makes for more pressure from the Street on First Solar to provide confidence about the pipeline headed into 2011.

In the past, though, First Solar has been anything but forthcoming about project details. The last three quarters in row the Street has received the same answer: First Solar says it won't focus on any individual project in its discussion, taking a portfolio approach that is de-risked project to project.

In any event, analysts may be looking for management's response to the Northrop Grumman appeal to the conditional use permit awarded to the AV Solar Ranch project, in the news of late, and an update on the financing and sale of the Agua Caliente project.

Here's the full tale of the earnings tape on First Solar:

Consensus EPS Estimate: $1.94 per share

Range of EPS Estimates: $1.44 to $2.26

Earnings Consensus Direction in Previous 90 Days: up by 19 cents

EPS Revisions up in Last 30 Days: 11

Previous Quarter EPS: $1.84 (outperformed Street consensus of 24 cents)

Consensus Revenue: $778 million

50-Day Moving Average: $142.97

Short Interest as Percentage of Float (Nasdaq): 21.6%

Gain or Loss on Day of Last Earnings: 9% decline

Lowest Share Price Since Last Earnings: $121.72 (August 20)

Highest Share Price Since Last Earnings: $151.39 (Sept. 29)
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