Last week, Jefferies & Co. held its Global Clean Technology Conference. Unsurprisingly, the tone wasn't as optimistic as in previous years, with cash and funding worries top of mind. Nearly two months ago, I discussed some tangible signs pointing to looming problems in the industry. However, despite all the gloom, it seems as though several firms (and investors!) are expecting the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act [ARRA] to provide the industry with a lifeline. But will this really be the case?
For one thing, the major environmental spending programs in the ARRA are relatively targeted (i.e. smart grid, storage, clean transportation) and, although a broad range of companies could benefit from measures such as an extension of the production tax credit, direct government cash payouts will not be forthcoming for all.
What's more, it now looks like Obama's plan for a cap-and-trade system, which would have provided a major boost for clean power, will be scrapped. This is something I discussed a little while ago: while I do believe a cap-and-trade program will one day be part of the the U.S. environmental regulatory landscape, it's a very tough sell at best - and political suicide at worst - in the midst of an economic slump that is leaving millions of unemployed in its wake. Whether environmentalists like it or not, the general public still sees greenhouse gas regulation as a negative-sum affair.
Can the ARRA single-handedly prevent the sector from going through a massive shake-out that will see many of the smaller firms wiped out or taken over? That's highly unlikely. Like any industry, alt energy's lifeblood is financing, and no legislation can fully make up for dysfunctional capital markets. At this point in the game, with many world governments having declared their unconditional support for clean energy, there's still one key ingredient missing: it's the banks, stupid! (At least according to Vestas' CEO in the interview below)
Given the slow pace at which normal credit conditions are returning and enduring doubts about the viability of many banks, I don't expect a broad-based rally in alt energy / cleantech stocks on the back of the ARRA this year. While certain select stocks will most certainly do well, the potential beneficiaries of the ARRA have by now mostly been identified.
Those who expect a rapid return to the days when cleantech stocks outperformed just by virtue of being cleantech stocks are in for a nasty surprise; a general rally in equities, if it does occur in 2009, might pull the good (i.e. operating profits, free cash flows, high current ratios and low total debt levels) alt energy firms up but will leave the sketchy ones behind. This is a new era, and investors are a lot more risk-conscious than they used to be.