NEW YORK (
is often dubbed the solar industry bellwether, but it seems unlikely that the imminent release of its 2011 outlook will serve as another leg up for the solar sector.
First Solar will provide its annual outlook and guidance after the market close in a conference call on Tuesday, and the Street is whispering about a full year 2011 earnings number in the neighborhood of $9.
Barclays recently upped its full year 2011 outlook on First Solar to $8.80. The Street consensus currently stands at $8.60 for 2011 earnings.
First Solar outperformed the earnings expectations provided during last year's annual outlook call. The U.S. solar company pegged a high-end for 2010 earnings of $6.85 last December. In its recent third quarter earnings, First Solar upped the full year earnings to a high-end of $7.65.
With the whisper number for First Solar at the level of $9, anything short of that level may upend any investors expecting a catalyst from the Tuesday conference call.
Additionally, it's important to keep in mind that First Solar is already trading at the high end of a trading range that has been well established for its shares throughout the past year.
First Solar was up close to 2% on Tuesday morning to $139, and the $140 level has served as a typical ceiling for First Solar shares before a pullback -- though its high this year is $153. In the past five days, First Solar shares have gained close to 6%.
First Solar received a push late last week after the massive tax cut package making its way into legislation included at the last minute the expiring cash grant for solar and wind projects.
First Solar is on track to beat its 2010 earnings guidance; however, last year's annual outlook event didn't turn out to be a good indicator of the direction in First Solar shares.
First Solar shares slipped directly after the 2010 version of its outlook call, then rebounded by the end of December 2009 to the $140 level -- but proceeded to tank in early 2010 as fears about feed-in tariff cuts in Germany took the solar sector into a tailspin.
The solar sector now finds itself in the same exact position as it did then, with the debate ongoing about German political will and European demand slowing so much that the sector will be glutted with solar product. Therefore, even a First Solar outlook with limited upside won't budge the bears, and with First Solar shares already near the $140 mark, it may take a lot of embedded upside even for the optimistically inclined to rally First Solar shares much higher.
First Solar bears, indeed, are poised for the annual event.
Christine Hersey, analyst at Wedbush Securities, said that investors are expecting 2011 guidance well above $9, but the question is whether given the expectation there is a "next" catalyst for First Solar shares. The Wedbush analyst thought an announcement from First Solar about closing financing for one of its major solar projects, like Agua Caliente or the AV Solar Ranch One, could provide more pop than a 2011 earnings numbers that investors expect will raise the ante.
Theodore O'Neill, who is below $6 with his First Solar earnings forecast for 2011, said it's not hard to imagine First Solar coming out on Tuesday afternoon and proposing a situation greater than the Street expectation, but that won't make the uncertainty about how First Solar gets to that number in 2011 go away. "They have visibility that's better than most, but that is about the only positive I can find. And whatever they say, I think the number is more an aspiration than bankable, given the timing in the systems business."
First Solar disappointed investors in its third quarter report when it pushed back expectations for sale of the Agua Caliente project.
The analyst also noted that while First Solar will be able to provide a look into first quarter 2011 conditions, at this point with actual shipments underway, concerns about 2011 aren't really predicated on the market going south in the first quarter.
Trading in the solar sector was quiet on Tuesday.
-- Written by Eric Rosenbaum from New York.
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