A123 vs. BYD and Other Irrational Battery Investments

by: John Petersen

Mother always taught me that if you can't say something nice, it's usually better to say nothing. While regular readers might question my ability to follow Mom's advice, this is an article I had really hoped somebody else would write. The quick summary is that while the shares of A123 Systems (AONE) may be a reasonable investment at current prices, the shares of BYD Co. Ltd. (BYDDF.PK) are an irrational value proposition, the shares of Ener1 (HEV) are even worse, and the shares of Valence Technologies (VLNC) are beyond understanding. Since many readers find detailed tables more confusing than enlightening, I'll use words instead of numbers to explain my reasoning. I'll also assume that every company I mention has a great technology. Accordingly, this article will focus exclusively on the hard-core financial data and be far shorter than most.

To create a baseline for comparisons, I'll start with Exide Technologies (XIDE) and Enersys (ENS), the two largest pure-play battery manufacturers in the world. During the twelve calendar months ended June 30, 2009, Exide was restructuring its operations and lost $113.1 million on sales of $2.9 billion. During the same period Enersys earned $67.5 million on sales of $1.7 billion. Exide's current market capitalization of $552 million represents roughly 176% of book value and 19% of annual sales. Enersys' current market capitalization of $1.14 billion represents roughly 157% of book value and 66% of annual sales. For the sake of simplicity, I believe a baseline market price standard of 2x book value and 1x sales is probably reasonable for established manufacturers of traditional battery products.

Until recently, it was almost impossible to establish a baseline for emerging manufacturers of advanced battery products. That all changed when A123 Systems (AONE) completed its IPO last month. After adjusting A123's June 30, 2009 financial statements for roughly $400 million in IPO proceeds and $250 million in ARRA battery manufacturing grants, A123 had a pro forma stockholders equity of $823 million and potential annual revenue from existing facilities of roughly $233 million. Its actual revenue for the twelve months ended June 30, 2009 was roughly $72.1 million. Based on yesterday's closing price, A123's market capitalization of $2.35 billion represents roughly 3x book value, 10x potential sales and 33x trailing sales. As A123 uses its available resources to build new manufacturing capacity, its market capitalization to potential sales ratio should fall to roughly 2x potential sales. While I'm convinced that PHEVs and EVs are suboptimal uses for advanced batteries, I have no doubt that A123 will have more demand than it will be able to satisfy. Accordingly, I believe a baseline of 3x book value and 2x potential sales is probably reasonable for emerging manufacturers of advanced battery products.

BYD Co. Ltd. (BYDDF.PK) is a classic example of why it is never a good idea to make investment decisions based on simple questions like "What did Warren do?" Everybody knows that MidAmerican Energy, a subsidiary of Berkshire Hathaway (BRK.A), agreed to buy a 10% stake in BYD for $230 million in September 2008. At the time, BYD was generating roughly $4 billion in annual sales that included $1.6 billion in cell phone components (43%), $1.3 billion in automobiles (31%) and $1.1 billion in batteries (26%). For the first six months of 2009, auto sales more than doubled to $1.3 billion (55%), cell phone components remained flat at $780 million (33%), and batteries fell by a third to $281 million (12%). While it started out as a battery manufacturer, BYD is currently an automaker first, a cell phone manufacturer second and a battery manufacturer by default because it needs the batteries for its core product lines. With first half sales of roughly $2.4 billion, it would be hard to classify BYD as anything other than an established manufacturer of traditional products. BYD's financial statements are available here. According to Yahoo! currency. the conversion factor between the U.S. Dollar and the Chinese Yuan is 6.8336.

So far, the one critical fact that seems to evade most commenters and investors is that MidAmerican's (MDPWK.PK) purchase price worked out to $1.02 per share, or 1.2x book value and 0.5x sales. Overall, the MidAmerican purchase is exactly what one would expect from Messrs. Buffett and Munger, a solid value with good growth potential. Since the Berkshire announcement (the purchase didn't actually close till July of this year), the share price of BYD has rocketed to $10.82 per share, which works out to 10x book value and 5x sales. At present, BYD has 2.275 billion outstanding shares and a market capitalization of $24.6 billion. These valuation metrics are out of line with the auto industry, out of line with the cell phone industry and out of line with the battery industry; proving once again that the value of an investment depends on your entry price. BYD was a great deal at $1.02, but it's terrible for investors at $10.82.

Following Ener1 (HEV) over the last year has been a lot like watching a slow-motion train-wreck. Its final private financing round brought in $42 million of offering proceeds in 2007 and $31 million of warrant exercise proceeds in 2008. In the second quarter of 2009, Ener1 entered into a $40 million open market sale agreement that generated $5.8 million in proceeds during the second quarter and has presumably generated another $33 million since the end of June. When these fundraising activities are offset against operating losses, Ener1 has been treading water for a long time.

On June 30, 2009, Ener1 had a $1 million working capital deficit and $26.3 million in long-term debt, including $9.7 million in related party debt. After giving effect to $33 million in new financing, an $18 million investment to rescue a potential customer from bankruptcy and estimated third quarter losses of roughly $10 million, I expect Ener1 to report approximately $129 million in stockholders equity and about $4 million of working capital at September 30, 2009. Its current market capitalization of $758 million is roughly 6x estimated book value and 34x trailing sales. If you adjust Ener1's book value to eliminate $14 million of intangible assets and another $48 million of goodwill, the ratio of market capitalization to estimated net tangible book value soars to 11x. On balance, I think Ener1's report for the quarter ended September 30th will paint a very bleak picture.

While Ener1 was awarded a $150 million ARRA battery manufacturing grant in August, that award is wholly contingent on its ability to provide a like amount of matching funds. With no meaningful working capital, a major investment in a fledgling EV manufacturer that's just emerging from bankruptcy and a large related party debt balance, I can't see where the matching funds will come from. It's certainly not a business picture I would encourage a client to take to market for a secondary offering.

Valence Technology (VLNC) carries a market valuation that never ceases to amaze me. For the last several years, Valence has relied on loans from its principal stockholder to support average losses of roughly $20 million per year. At June 30, 2009, Valence had $27 million in assets and $95 million in debt, resulting in a negative stockholders equity of $69 million. While Valence has recently inked a deal that will throw off up to $2 million per month in proceeds from dribble-out sales of its common stock, the expected proceeds will do little more than keep the company afloat until the next bi-weekly closing. Since Valence's market capitalization of $190 million represents 9.5x trailing sales and the common stockholders are under water to the tune of $0.55 per share, all I can do is scratch my head.

DISCLOSURE: Author has small long positions in Enersys (ENS) and Exide Technologies (XIDE).