Tom Lehrer is frequently credited with a quip that perfectly summarizes my feeling about the financial markets in the third quarter, "Apart from that Mrs. Lincoln, how did you enjoy the play?" During the quarter we were given box seats to classic political opera in two acts. Act One was set in Washington DC while Act Two moved to Europe so we could hear the same woeful songs in a different language. We all know the opera has to end with the immensely popular "Kick the Can Chorus," but we suspended disbelief, bought into the fear and held a massive liquidation sale. As a curtain call it looks like we've let our elected demagogues scare us into a new recession. Do you ever wonder if the system might work better if ballots included "None of the above" as an alternative and required the offices to remain vacant if nobody won a majority?
For the third quarter the Dow, S&P 500 and Nasdaq indexes were down an average of 13.1% and it was even uglier in energy storage where the best names in the business were beaten down by 35% to 50%. The following table summarizes the price performance of my tracking list for the year and the quarter ended September 30, 2011.
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It was a bloody time that's creating a great buying opportunity. While it's still a little early to buy the biggest companies in the sector, it's a wonderful time to do some homework, map out a strategy and prepare for the inevitable bottom.
For reasons I can't explain, several energy storage companies move in the same direction as the S&P 500, but react more violently to changing market sentiments. To illustrate the phenomenon, I've created a graph that compares percentage price movements for Johnson Controls (NYSE:JCI), Enersys (NYSE:ENS), Exide Technologies (XIDE) and Active Power (NASDAQ:ACPW) against the S&P 500 using 10-day volume weighted moving averages instead of daily prices.
While the pattern is less obvious over longer periods, the following graph that tracks the percentage price movements since April 1, 2009 shows that the pattern holds in both up and down markets, which means that buying storage at the next bottom should have a significantly greater upside potential than buying the broader market at the bottom.
The next bottom may well be the buying opportunity of a lifetime as energy storage emerges as an investment mega-trend and the market realizes that cool has no place in a sector where cost is the only thing that matters and the law of economic gravity rules. Core positions in Johnson Controls, Enersys and Exide Technologies are a must have for all serious storage investors. Depending on your risk appetite, more speculative companies like Active Power, Axion Power (NASDAQ:AXPW), Maxwell Technologies (NASDAQ:MXWL) ZBB Energy (NYSEMKT:ZBB) and perhaps Beacon Power (BCON) also merit serious consideration.
For the last three years I've cautioned investors that the media circus around plug-in vehicles and exotic batteries was a transitory phenomenon driven by ill-conceived ideology instead of common sense. The upcoming recession will force the government and the markets to recognize that plug-in vehicles are unconscionable waste masquerading as conservation and a luxury no nation can afford, much less afford to subsidize on a massive scale.
My last chart for the day compares the market capitalizations of my tracking list companies on September 30, 2009 and September 30, 2011. While Axion Power and Exide are stronger today than they were in the fall of 2009, most of the companies that lost a lot of market value have also lost a lot of ground.
The simple but undeniable reality is everybody wants better batteries but nobody wants to pay a premium price for them. The green in an ordinary consumer's wallet will always take priority over the green in his cocktail conversation. Manufacturers of objectively cheap products that can do the required work are certain to thrive over the next five years. Developers of exotic batteries for plug-in vehicles and other uneconomic applications are likely to follow the same tragic path as Ener1 (NASDAQ:HEV).
Disclosure: Author is a former director of Axion Power International and holds a substantial long position in its common stock.