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5 Ways to Trade Total's SunPower Gamble

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- European oil giant Total (TOT) is offering to take a 60% majority stake in U.S. solar company SunPower (SPWRA), paying $1.3 billion to $1.4 billion.

Total will begin a tender offer for up to 60% of SunPower's class A and class B shares at a price of $23.25 a share, a 46% percent premium over the April 27 closing price of SunPower's A shares and a 49% premium over the closing price of the B shares.

SunPower shares soared by 35% on Friday, from a Thursday closing share price of $16.21, to $22.07 -- though still short of the Total offer which values SunPower shares at $23.25.

SunPower officials described the deal as a transformational investment that will help fund projects across the board from the largest utility scale deals to smaller commercial and residential projects as it seeks to install as much as 10 gigawatts of solar over the next half decade. SunPower pointed to Total's credit strength and financing relationships across a global footprint of 130 countries.

Of course, the deal could spark the proverbial wave of consolidation across the solar sector, analysts predict. Furthermore, for a sector of publicly traded stocks that has suffered from an existential crisis founded on endless cycles of subsidy risk from key European markets, the Total deal was viewed as a major endorsement for solar stocks, at a time when solar stocks are once again facing weak market conditions.

Case in point, in a negative footnote to the big Total news, was SunPower's forecast of first-quarter earnings of 15 cents a share, the low-end of its previous guidance and below Wall Street's consensus view of 19 cents. SunPower sees revenue of $450 million in the first quarter, shy of the average analysts' view of $510 million.

The huge premium offered by Total for SunPower shares comes after a one-year period during which SunPower shares have been close to flat in trading. SunPower went public in 2005 and in its first day of trading rose from its IPO price of $18 to above $25, compared to the $23.25 offered by Total for a 60% stake. SunPower shares rose as high as $130 in 2007, and were still trading at the $40 mark at the outset of 2009 before declining to the current range, which over the past year saw SunPower shares move as low as $10 and as high as $20.

Shares of the largest solar companies, including the U.S. companies First Solar (FSLR) and MEMC Electronic Materials (WFR), which both have big project businesses like SunPower, rose by 7% after the close. By Friday, MEMC was still up by 6.4% but First Solar, the most richly valued company in the solar sector, only gained 1%.

The Chinese solar leaders Yingli Green Energy (YGE), Trina Solar (TSL), and Suntech Power (STP), also shot up quickly after the closing bell by between 5% and 7% on Thursday, but by Friday the gains were smaller than some second-tier Chinese solar stocks, like Hanwha SolarOne (HSOL) and China Sunergy (CSUN).

Right after the SunPower deal was announced there was likely short-covering, and some of the second-tier Chinese solar stocks, at valuations as low as 5 times earnings, were likely to receive a bump on the premium Total is paying for a solar company, yet there may be more to the sustained gained in MEMC and Hanwha SolarOne than just cheap valuations.

Chinese solar cell vendor JA Solar (JASO) rose by more than 6% on Friday, and analysts noted that JA Solar is one of the most highly shorted names in the solar sector as a percentage of its float -- more than 28 million shares short, according to the latest Nasdaq data, of an 83 million float share total. The move up in solar stocks and big move up in JA Solar reflects the fact that shorts see "Big Oil" coming in to the solar sector and that has increased the takeout risk, leading to short-covering.

The euphoria across solar from the SunPower deal led Jefferies analyst Jesse Pichel to coin a new term: PV Oil Equivalent (PVOE). Integrated oil and gas companies may be encouraged to acquire PV companies.

For investors grappling with the implications of the SunPower deal, and not yet able to comprehend PVOE, here are five ways to think about trading solar in the wake of the surprise wedding between Big Oil and SunPower.

Stock quotes in this article: TOT, SPWRA, FSLR, WFR, STP, YGE, TSL, JASO, SOL, LDK 

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