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Solar Stock Losers: Jim Chanos Takes Aim at First Solar

Chanos' comments are always high profile, and his comments were relevant, however, it should be noted that his attack on First Solar was a reiteration of a bearish argument that has been made many times before about First Solar. If everything Chanos said was true, it was the fact that it was Chanos saying it and making the case against First Solar with all the bearish weight he brings to bear.

Wedbush's Hersey said of Sohn's departure and the executive departures more generally, "That's not why I have a sell on the stock."

Chanos pointed to the insider selling pattern at First Solar, which has been reported extensively over the past few years, most notably in the cases of First Solar Chairman Michael Ahearn, as well as the Walton family, heirs of the Wal-Mart fortune, who hold a significant insider stake in First Solar. Several additional First Solar executives have been insider sellers of shares, something that insider sales watchdogs have tracked closely, as well as bearish First Solar analysts including Gordon Johnson of Axiom Capital.

Wedbush's Hersey concluded, "My view of First Solar is based on competitive positioning. First Solar is poorly positioned with subsidies in Europe moving to the rooftop and it's not as competitive there, having built large ground mount systems, and competitors are lowering cost and moving up efficiency."

The negative comments made by Chanos about the solar industry and alternative energy more generally, are also a reiteration of the reasons for the bearish to be bearish on solar stocks. Chanos comments were all relevant, but not a new case to be made based on material information never before discussed among the bearish.

Chanos noted that solar stocks ran up on the Japanese nuclear crisis, but this rally ignores the fact that solar cannot be a replacement for baseload generation as the technology currently stands. Chanos noted that nat gas and coal remain significantly cheaper, and also alluded to the austerity budgets in Europe where the largest solar incentives have existed. If these are all reasons to be skeptical of the recent enthusiasm for solar stocks, Chanos was far from the first bear to sound the alarm bells, though he's certainly the most famous.

Auriga's Bachman said that Chanos was on the money in noting that a comparison between baseload generation and intermittent generation can't be made, and this won't change until there is a technological breakthrough in energy storage for intermittent sources. He also noted, though, that the nuclear crisis has led countries like Germany, where the focus had been on bringing down subsidies for renewables, to be interested in extending subsidies and bringing more renewable energy online even if it can't replace baseload generation. "Even if we know we can't replace baseload, we can reduce dependence on it," the analyst added.

The Auriga analyst said that the post-nuclear crisis rally was never going to be anything other than a short-term rally in solar, and while the First Solar headlines dominated on Thursday, the real issue for solar remains resolution to the subsidy policy discussions in Italy, the second largest solar market in the world.

"Despite the near-term nuclear disaster rally, solar is in a holding pattern here until there is clarity in Italy, and we don't have it yet," Bachman said.

Reuters released a report on Thursday quoting an Italian industry minister as saying that the soon to be revealed solar subsidy changes will focus on a monetary cap on solar incentives, as opposed to a cap on installations. However, this has been the expectation for weeks, and the key is at what monetary level and based on what formula the Italians cap the money available to support solar projects. Reuters did say an announcement could come by April 20.
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