Tag Archives: Renewable Energy

David Einhorn: Nice Q4 letter but E.On as a long pick ? Really ? C’mon !!!

As this has turned out to be a very long post, a quick “Executive Summary”:

David Einhorn has published that German utility E.ON is one of his major new long positions. Based on what I have written in the past about E.On, I do think his summary investment rational has some serious flaws,  mainly:

  • buying management’s “spin” that the recent share price decline was only caused by uncertainties about nuclear provisions
  • assuming a quick and very benefitial (for E.ON) solution for nuclear liabilities

To me it looks like that he tries to come up with some short term, rather risky “bets” in order to make good on his horrible 2015 performance as quickly as possible.

As a new shareholder in Greenlight Re I have to seriously rethink if I want to stay invested, however as a German tax payer I might also be biased in this case.

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Energiedienst Holding (CH0039651184) revisited

Almost exactly one year ago, I looked at Energiedienst Holding, the Swiss/German Hydropower utility.

That was my summary from last time:

The current system for renewable energy in Germany (selling renewable electricity into the market at any price with the consumer paying the difference) is hell for “traditional” utilities including hydro power.

The German utilities have maybe underestimated the extent of renewable production, otherwise they could have done the exactly same thing themselves. Now however, the are in a kind of “death grip” between having to run their expensive black coal and gas plants for peaks and the artificially low electricity prices. Combined with unfavourable natural gas delivery contracts, especially for E.on the air will remain quite thin.

So unless something changes significantly, German utilities (including Energiedienst) will need a long long time to adjust capacity and change their business models.

So the first questions is of course: Did something change ?

Well, firstly, the stock price of Energiedienst dropped a further -25% form around 38 CHF to currently around 29 CHF. So just from the pure valuation point of view, the stock clearly looks cheaper:

P/B 0.86
P/E 12
EV/EBIT 12
EV/EBITDA 7
Div. Yield 5.1%.

Energiedienst released preliminary numbers for 2013 today. At a first look, it doesn’t look pretty. EPS came in at 1.99 EUR per share, the third consecutive decline since the peak at 2.70 EUR in 2010.

Looking further into their preliminary numbers, I was especially surprised by this:

  2013 2012 change in %
EBIT in Mio. € 79 99 -20%
EBIT Segment Deutschland in Mio. € 53 56 -6%
EBIT Segment Schweiz in Mio. € 27 43 -38%

Profit in Germany was only slightly lower, but we see a big drop in Switzerland which is surprising. In the text they mention that they took a special charge for long-term electricity purchases in the first half-year so one can assume that this has to do with the Swiss business. So not surprisingly, Free Cash Flow looks better than earning:

  2013 2012 change in %
Free Cash Flow in Mio € 79 83 -5%
Bruttoinvestitionen in Mio. € 44 57 -23%

This results in a total net cash balance of 146 mn EUR at year-end or 4.40 EUR per share which is almost 20% of the current market cap. So “cash adjusted” P/E is around 10. Additionally, they announced some kind of strategy change and review, however without any real details

OK, so we do have a relatively cheap but declining business, why bother ?

First, at least to me it looks that Electricity prices have at least for now stopped their free fall as those two charts show:

I am clearly not an expert on electricity prices, but with the currently mild winter (or no winter at all), I would have expected a further drop but that doesn’t seem to happen at least for now.

Political environment

Since last year, again some things have changed. We have now the “GroKo” in Germany, the coalition between the two large parties, conservative (CDU) and Social democrats (SPD). Interestingly, the boss of the junior party SPD, Sigmar Gabriel, has taken over the responsibility for Energy.

As I described a year ago, under the current system, mostly retail clients have to pay a surcharge in order subsidize above-market prices offered to the owners of solar and wind power plants. Many large companies are not subject to this “tax”.

The surcharge is increasing every year, both because of lower wholesale prices and additional capacity. However, pressure is building up against this system from many sides. Clearly, the established utilities are fighting against this as hard as they can and threaten to switch of expensive gas-fired power plants which are essential for net stability. But now, also the EU commission started to look into the exceptions for large companies already in December.

Also the core voters of the SPD are mostly lower-income recipients which are most effected by increasing electricity prices along rising rents. So Sigmar Gabriel, the SPD energy minister has to do something in order to stop further retail price increases or he will have no chance of winning the next election. Some ideas were already floated, mostly a limitation of future renewable capacity and lower rebates in the future. The concept drew a lot of critic from all side, although some parts, especially the requirement for direct marketing of renewable power doesn’t seem to be that bad.

In parallel, the bankruptcy of wind energy “pioneers” like Prokon shows that even under current high transfer payments, the big boom in new renewable energy seems to be mostly over and I guess investors will be much more careful in the future.

On top of that, the big utilities are taking out a lot of conventional capacity in Germany, party also in order to increase the pressure on the politicians.

So without being an expert in those issues, it looks like that the “tide might be turning” at some point in time in the future with regard to electricity prices or at least that they are not falling that much more. But this is clearly my own opinion and cannot be supported by a stringent theory or facts.

But why Energiedienst ?

As I have written before, the big traditional utilities like RWE, EON etc. have a lot of other problems, like too much debt, nuclear liabilities, pensions, problematic foreign subsidiaries etc. Even Verbund, thy Austrian Hydro Power utility has a lot of issues with Italian and other foreign investments. Energiedienst, on the other hand does not have those additional issues.

Energiedienst still looks more expensive than its peers:

Name P/E EV/T12M EBIT EV/EBITDA T12M P/B Dvd 12M Yld – Net Net D/E LF
             
ENERGIEDIENST HOLDING AG-REG 11,8 10,2 5,9 0,8 5,2 -7,8
VERBUND AG 9,4 9,8 4,8 1,1 3,8 70,5
RWE AG 108,3 7,2 3,0 1,5 7,4 77,9
MAINOVA AG 15,4 50,5 23,3 2,3 2,4 76,4
E.ON SE 12,2 8,2   0,7 8,3 45,2
ENBW ENERGIE BADEN-WUERTTEMB 51,0 13,0 6,1 1,4 3,1 43,0
LECHWERKE AG 21,7 21,6 14,7 3,1 2,8 -55,8

They do not jump out of this comparison table as the “super cheap” utility. But if we look at Lechwerke in comparison, a comparable, regional, Hydropower utility in Bavaria owned by RWE, sometimes quality is honored with very rich valuations.

In my opinion, the quality of Energiedienst, especially in comparison to EON, RWE & Co is not reflected in the share price. Clearly they suffer as well from current electricity prices and they are not a growth stock, on the other hand, as a hydropower generator without variable input cost, they will benefit the most from increasing prices.

The downside at the current level is in my opinion relatively protected, unless they do something really stupid with their net cash. This is in my opinion the key issue to watch going forward. Energiedienst will generate a lot of cash as reinvestment requirements will be rather limited. If they owuld actually start ti buy back shares, this couldbe a nice surprise but there is no indication that they willdo so.

I am aware that buying a German utility stock now is a pretty contrarian play and many people will say EON and RWE are cheaper and could more speculative upside or not to invest in utilities at all. My focus however is more on the downside, where I think Energiedienst is much better protected than the big, indebted players. So overall, I think the “full” risk/return relationship of Energiedienst is better.

Summary:

An investment into Energiedienst is clearly a bet on constant or higher electricity prices based on potential political changes, so it is rather a “special situation” investment with regard to potential regulatory changes from the current, unsustainable status quo. What I like about this bet is that to a large extent this will be driven by political actions which will be either uncorrelated or even negatively correlated to the overall economic situation and hence, to the rest of my portfolio.

My return target over 3 years would be the annual dividend of currently 5% plus a stock price increase of ~30% which would indicate a target P/E of 13-14 at current Earnings (ex then cumulated cash).

So for the portfolio, I will initiate a 2.5% position for the “special situation” bucket at ~29.50 CHF / 24.50 EUR per share.

Energiedienst Holding AG (ISIN CH0039651184) and German electricity prices

I started my small 2013 utilites project with E.On 2 weeks ago. Instead of working through the list of German utilities I wanted to focus on Swiss listed Energiedienst Holding AG first.

Energiedienst is a slightly unusual stock. It is listed on the Swiss stock exchange, but its balance sheet is in EUR. The company basically runs a number of big Hydro power plants along the Rhine River plus some smaller Hydro Power plants in Southern Germany and Switzerland as this map shows:

Market cap: 1.3 bn Swiss Francs
P/B 1.1
P/E 12.0
EV/EBITDA 7.1
Dividend yield 2.3%

From a simple valuation point of view, Energiedienst does not look overly attractive, however one should mention that they do have net cash which is quite uncommon for utilities.

The company is majority owned by German ENBW (67%) plus a company called “Services Industriels de Genève (SIG)” which bought a 15% stake in 2011 from ENBW (remark: ENBW itself is in quite big trouble because of the Nuclear exit in Germany).

Business model

In addition to the Hydro plants, Energiedienst owns a distribution network with around 750 tsd clients in Switzerland and Southwestern Germany. The focus is clearly Germany with more than 80% of sales there. Energiedienst produces around 25% of its energy itself, the rest is bought in the market.

The interesting point is that their own electricity production is almost 100% Hydro power. Hydro power, in contrast to power from fossil fuel, is more or less a pure fixed cost business. You build the hydro plant, depreciate and that’s it. If electricity prices go up, you earn more, if they go down you earn less. You don’t have to worry about oil or coal prices. On the flip side, hydro power depends on the amount of water available, so in dry years you can produce less or more in wet years which introduces some uncertainty.

But in any case, a Hydro Power “pure play” is more or less a “bet” on electricity prices. In order to check this theory, I let’s look at EDHN’s share price (in EUR) against 1 year forward prices for German electricity (as a comparison, I plotted E.on as well):

edhn eon 12m strom

I find it fascinating that over the past 2.5 years, Energiedienst more or less directly followed German power prices. We can see that E.on is much more volatile and most likely exposed to general stock market fluctuations.

Just for the complete picture a history of German wholesale electricity prices since 2007:

electricity since 2007

It is interesting to see that German power prices seem to be at the lowest level since the beginning of this time series in 2007. After the surprise phase out of nuclear power after Fukushima and the corresponding propaganda from E.on & Co, one might have expected exploding electricity prices. But it looks like that the new supply of alternative energy plus maybe reduction in consumption led to a dramatic decrease in electricity prices.

Digging deeper, I found for instance this German publication from 2011 which confirms the point, that the subsidized renewable energy will lower electricity prices in general. So for a renewable hydro player like Energiedienst, the subsidies to solar and wind have the “perverse” effect of lowering the profit of this very cheap type of electricity significantly.

The “trick” is that the electricity distributors have to buy the renewable electricity at fixed subsidized prices, but have to sell it at current market prices into the German electricity exchanges. The difference then gets charged to consumers. According to the paper, the electricity price clears at the level of the most expensive supplier. The mechanism for the renewable providers however introduces practically a big source of potentially extremely cheap electricity as it gets sold at market prices no matter how low they might be and “unelastic” to the actual demand.

Due to the low interest rates, subsidized wind parks and solar plants are still attractive investments despite the price for electricity being at multi year lows and demand being rather weak.

So the low prices are not a result of low demand, but mostly of subsidized renewable energy which will be sold as long as the price is higher than zero.

Zero hedge just had a post in its usual style, claiming that the falling energy prices are a harbinger for falling stock prices. That is correct for utilities but other than that it is just a result of the mechanism described above.

Summary:

The current system for renewable energy in Germany (selling renewable electricity into the market at any price with the consumer paying the difference) is hell for “traditional” utilities including hydro power.

The German utilities have maybe underestimated the extent of renewable production, otherwise they could have done the exactly same thing themselves. Now howver, the are in a kind of “death grip” between having to run their expensive black coal and gas plants for peaks and the articificially low electricity prices. Combined with unfavourable natural gas delivery contracts, especially for E.on the air will remain quite thin.

So unless something changes significantly, German utilities (including Energiedienst) will need a long long time to adjust capacity and change their business models.

Warren Buffet seems to be much more clever: If you can’t beat them, join them. I think this is the reason why his US utility is investing so much into Solar and Wind.