Revenue increase breaks downturn for many Taiwan solar makers, but does it signal a turnaround?

20. November 2012 | Industry & Suppliers, Markets & Trends, Investor news | By:  Tim Ferry

October’s earning reports were a pleasant surprise for Taiwan’s solar industry, which rebounded 7.5% month on month (MM) on the back of robust gains by wafer makers and certain cell makers.

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NSP’s Lu points upstream to polysilicon pricing as a cause for optimism.

Overall, Taiwan’s wafer makers accounted for the bulk of industry gains, surging over 50% in October, and the island’s biggest wafer maker Green Energy Technology (GET) alone saw revenues rise 66%. Taiwan’s cell industry disappointed with 2% overall revenue declines, but two out of three heavyweights – Gintech and Neo Solar Power (NSP) – gained 11% and 2% MM, respectively.

The news is welcome relief for the industry, halting what had been a five month slide in revenue for most makers and is largely attributed to higher shipments to Japan and China, as well as the U.S., even as European demand remains sluggish.

Attractive FITs in Japan, and a search for carbon-free alternatives to nuclear power following the Fukushima disaster have transformed Japan into one of the world’s premier destinations for solar energy. Meanwhile, the U.S. ITC final ruling on import duties on Chinese-made cells caps months of uncertainty in the market, likely leading to higher demand in the U.S. as postponed installation projects resume.

Gintech company reps say antidumping tariffs are "definitely" behind some of the increase in the U.S. market, but also note that "the market itself is growing very fast in Q4 in the U.S." The U.S. typically sees rising demand at year’s end as installers rush to complete projects. Gintech says that Japan and the U.S. now account for 50% of the company’s orders, and that it now ships less than 20% of its product to Europe – down from earlier months.

Swean Lin, executive vice president for wafer-maker GET notes that rising demand from China – both for its domestic and export markets – also played a role in rising revenues for Taiwan’s solar industry.

Meanwhile, Maxim’s Chew predicts that China’s domestic installations will rise from 1 GW in 1H12 to around 4 GW in 2H12, while Taiwan has long been seen as the go-to solution for Chinese solar makers looking to circumvent U.S. anti-dumping tariffs by outsourcing.

Market turnaround

Industry insiders are nevertheless hesitant to attribute this month’s gains to a turnaround in the market.  For one, October’s gains follow the worst month for solar revenues in 2012 – September – when industry revenues collapsed 32%. "It was easy to get the increase," admits GET’s Swean Lin. "Due to our poor performance in September, the (revenue) baseline was too low." 

Gintech and NSP both saw substantial revenue declines in September and the industry remains 26% off August’s levels. The contrast looks even worse year on year: Motech’s October 2011 earnings of over NT$1.3 billion were whittled to less than half by October 2012, at about NT$600 million, while as recently as July 2012, Gintech earned over NT$1.4 billion, yet retains its industry-leading position in October with little more than NT$800 million in revenues. Maxim’s Chew says that October’s tepid rise "reflects depth of 3Q12 slowdown."

Also, as both wafers and cells both saw price declines of 9% and 8%, respectively, the revenue gains were based on higher shipments at the expense of margins. Maxim’s Aaron Chew estimates that wafer shipments rose 64% compared to a 52% rise in revenues, while cell makers shipped 6% more cells for a 2% loss. For some makers, the difference was even starker.

Gintech shipped 50% more product in October MM, but saw only 11% revenue gains. The company attributes this to a short term rise in its less profitable OEM business.

With OEM production, wafers are shipped to Taiwanese cell makers for processing, and then shipped back to the customer, with the cell maker being paid only for the processing. So, while OEM shipments are lumped into total shipments, they actually bring a far lower rate.

Gintech says that OEM manufacturing usually makes up between 20 to 30% of its total production, but October’s rate was "higher." The company attributes the uptick in OEM orders to a key U.S. customer with a one-off rush order and is not indicative in any long term strategy change.

"We still aim at keeping the ratio at 20-30% in the long run," the company rep notes, adding that it will continue to be selective about the orders it accepts to ensure maximum margins.

Gintech regained its crown as Taiwan’s largest solar cell maker in October after losing it to erstwhile leader Motech for September. NSP holds on to number two for the fifth consecutive month, and Gintech and NSP between them account for 48% of the industry’s revenue totals. Former industry leader Motech fell from first to third place with a 22% drop in revenues.

Still, players are cautiously optimistic. NSP’s Lu points upstream to polysilicon pricing as a cause for optimism. "Poly is our signal for the rest of the supply chain," he says. Polysilicon has touched new lows of US$15.99 as of November 19, 2012, meaning that many of the world’s polysilicon makers are operating at below cash-costs.

Will this force capacity rationalization in upstream poly and price rebounds throughout the supply chain? Or will poly makers continue to maintain production in light of the high cost of mothballing – and then restarting – capacity in the chemically complex polysilicon industry? Lu is hopeful this condition might lead to capacity rationalization. 

A slowly shifting supply and demand dynamic is another cause for optimism. With demand rising from Japan, China and the U.S., "Right now you see everyone’s shipments have picked up, so the pricing environment has actually stabilized," says a Gintech rep. "Or at least the rate of decline is moderating."


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