TSC Ratings provides exclusive stock, ETF and mutual fund ratings and commentary based on award-winning, proprietary tools. Its "safety first" approach to investing aims to reduce risk while seeking solid outperformance on a total return basis. Investors trying to capitalize on a potential green-energy boom should consider buying shares of First Solar ( FSLR), the solar module maker that's best positioned to benefit from an economic recovery. The company's shares are down 1.8% this year, less than the 10% decline of the S&P 500 index. Analysts expect First Solar's profits and stock price to wane through June, presenting a buying opportunity for savvy long-term investors. The stock might seem expensive now, but keep an eye on it in the coming months: The shares could fall into bargain territory. Analysts and market commentators predict the thin-film giant to face added pressure this year from competitors who use cheaper crystalline silicon in their products. It's a relevant argument, but keep in mind that First Solar is the industry's cost leader at about $1 a watt. And it expects to cut production costs to 90 cents a watt by next year. We expect First Solar to outperform its rivals, including Suntech Power Holdings ( STP), Canadian Solar ( CSIQ), JA Solar Holdings ( JASO), Evergreen Solar ( ESLR) and China Sunergy ( CSUN). Suntech Power, China's largest maker of solar-power modules, posted a greater-than-expected fourth-quarter loss, and Chief Executive Officer Zhengrong Shi in January laid off workers and suspended a plan to hire more employees after canceling the company's effort to expand beyond the current 1,000-megawatt annual capacity. Still, Suntech Power and other Chinese solar companies might benefit from a government-sponsored subsidy program, which has spurred shares in recent days. In the U.S., the U.S. Energy Department has made more than $2.6 billion available to states through its Energy Efficiency and Conservation Block Grant program, part of the federal stimulus package. First Solar has $792 million of cash and minimal debt, reflected by a debt-to-equity ratio of 0.13. Fourth-quarter revenue doubled to $434 million, beating the electrical equipment industry average of 11%. Earnings also doubled to $1.61 a share as its operating margin remained strong at 37%. Although margins and profitability are likely to deteriorate in the quarters ahead, First Solar has an advantage over up-and-coming competitors. As an American company, it's more likely to benefit from President Barack Obama's plans to boost the economy through green-energy initiatives. Smaller rivals might struggle to compete as tight credit markets make it difficult to finance projects.
First Solar has the size, financial ammunition and strategy to exploit stimulus opportunities in the months ahead. The company plans to double its production capacity this year. It aims to generate more than 1 gigawatt of power a year, which is more than an average-sized nuclear power plant, according to the company. The cost of the refined silicon used by competitors won't stay cheap forever. When prices rise, First Solar's cadmium telluride technology will give it an advantage that will help boost its margins. Despite cost concerns, First Solar is going after market share. As the industry expands, the companies with the biggest market share will outgrow smaller players with better profit margins. Although there are a number of competing technologies and many questions to answer, consider the lesson of previous technology booms: It's the best company, not necessarily the best technology that wins. Based on that reasoning, I'm optimistic about First Solar.