Lithium: Auto Industry Loves It, Feds Throw $$ At It

Last week  there were (at least) two articles that pointed out some important issues in the increasingly big business of electric vehicles.  Neither was front-page news. 

Sexy Tesla Roadster -- and you own part of it theoretically

One was the announcement that a small but widely heralded company, privately held, San Carlos CA-based Tesla Motors (http://www.teslamotors.com) , has gotten the signature of DOE’s Steve Chu and will harvest a bounty of $465 million in federal loans to throw its EV business plan into high gear: http://green.autoblog.com/2010/01/23/done-deal-tesla-doe-complete-loan-paperwork/.  As AutoBlogGreen’s Sebastian Blanco laconically points out, if you’re a citizen of the United States, “you’re officially an investor in Tesla Motors.”  Of course rumors of a Tesla IPO have floated around for quite a while, so you may be able to invest directly one of these days instead of funneling your cash through DOE.

Bolivia's lithium resources are vast -- and look like another world

And in the same week, a distinctly different type of news was purveyed by The Associated Press: Bolivia, which just re-elected Evo Morales as its leader, is unquestionably the Saudi Arabia of lithium, the prize mineral that Tesla and so many others are staking their futures on.  http://autos.aol.com/article/lithium-resource.  Out of the frying pan of oil and into the fire of scarce lithium deposits under dried-up lakes in the Andes?  Notice the sub-headline on the article: “Toyota secures lithium supply in Argentina.”  Argentina may not be a paragon of stability, but compared to Bolivia, it’s Gibraltar (remember that President Morales’s political party is called MAS: Movement for Socialism).  For a slide show of Bolivia’s lithium resources, go to http://www.nytimes.com/slideshow/2009/02/03/world/0203-LITHIUM_index.html (the photo above is from this slide show).

It was not long ago that Toyota’s ice-breaking Prius was a solo act, and most Americans thought of electric vehicles as glorified golf carts.  Now there is a dizzying array of EVs, HEVs, BEVs, PEVs, etc — and they  come with the brand names of virtually every carmaker in the world.   To some extent Prius is still the act to beat, though: http://www.dailytech.com/Honda+Goes+Back+to+the+Drawing+Board+to+Beat+Toyotas+Prius/article17501.htm

And if you think Tesla is pulling in a big fish, have a look at its archrival, Irvine CA-based Fisker Automotive, which secured $115 million in private equity funding this week, in order to allow it to harvest $528 million from DOE.  Basically that means the federal government is committing $1 billion to two very small companies with very pretty cars and very short track records.  And you, as a US citizen, are part of that bounty.

Sexy Fisker Coupe: Feds Have Put $1 billion into loans for Fisker & Tesla

In addition to your taxpayer-funded pending investment in Fisker, though, there is a way to put some Fisker equity into your portfolio, even though it is, like Tesla, privately held.   Irvine CA-based Quantum Fuel Technologies (Nasdaq: QTWW, http://www.qtww.com) owns a stake in Fisker that was said to be 21.9% in a financing document QTWW filed with the SEC about a year ago.  QTWW shares are trading at $0.89, down about half from its year-high of $1.77, and one assumes that the QTWW stake in Fisker has been further diluted in the meantime, because the Fisker financing mentioned in the previous paragraph was also released as QTWW news last week: http://finance.yahoo.com/news/Quantums-Affiliate-Fisker-prnews-2355193003.html?x=0&.v=1.  Smaller slice, but a much bigger pie.

But the distinctly uncomfortable feeling that comes with lithium’s presence in a series of US-unfriendly locations does not seem to be slowing anyone down.  The government of Taiwan makes it clear why this bandwagon continues to roll: according to their forecasts, sales of EVs will grow to 7.29 million units by 2018, of which 86% (or 6.26 million units) will be powered by lithium-ion batteries.  The line of thought leads directly to an increase in Taiwan’s support for Li-ion technology: http://www.greencarcongress.com/2010/01/moea-20100124.html?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+greencarcongress%2FTrBK+%28Green+Car+Congress%29.  What would a li-ion-powered EV sell for?  What if it were $30,000 per unit?  That would create a worldwide sales projection of  nearly $188 billion for that 2018 theoretical demand.  Hefty, hefty, hefty.

Please keep in mind that we do not recommend stocks; we simply write about companies that we find interesting.  Do your own diligence.

There are various flavors of lithium batteries, including the somewhat under-wraps “Ferrous battery” that China’s BYD introduced at the Detroit Auto Show.  From what we can tell, a Ferrous battery is a lithium iron phosphate battery, so President Morales can rest easy on that one.

There are many ways to invest in the EV movement, or in the lithium sweepstakes.  Most obviously there are the shares of the 3 leading lithium-ion battery makers in the US.  First to consider is Milwaukee-based Johnson Controls Inc (NYSE: JCI; http://www.johnsoncontrols.com/), but they are way too big for us to look at, and besides, they are very diversified.  In terms of pure plays in Li-ion, the two best-known (and bigtime federal funds recipients) are NYC-based Ener1 Inc (Nasdaq: HEV: http://www.ener1.com/), which has recently been screaming ahead, not only announcing car deals, but working with Japan’s ITOCHU on a series of futuristic li-ion applications involving buses and an advanced smart grid.  HEV shares are trading Monday at $4.76, vs a year-high of $7.90, so there are doubts out there in spite of the federal money fountain spewing dollars at them.  HEV has good volume of nearly 1 million shares per day, and a market cap that flirts with $600 million.

The second name that comes to mind is Watertown MA-based A123 Systems (Nasdaq: AONE; http://www.a123systems.com/), which started out making batteries for power tools and has graduated up and up to transport applications.  Since its IPO last year, the stock has always traded above its initial sale, and is trading today at $17.83, with a market cap of $1.8 billion and daily volume of about 2.5 million shares.  Smokin!

Less well known, but just as interesting is Reno-based Altair Nanotechnologies (Nasdaq: ALTI; http://www.altairnano.com/), which may well have more interesting IP than either of its larger peers, but, like the NY Jets, got knocked out of the SuperBowl, at least for this year.  Thomas Weisel initiated on Altairnano in December with an “overweight” rating, but the stock is sagging at half its year-high price of $1.55, trading today at $0.81, and in some danger of being delisted by Nasdaq as a result.   Market cap is about $85 million, and the shares trade pretty well at 400,000+ per day.  Worth a look.

If you want to place your bets outside of Bolivia, however, your options with regard to transportation are fairly limited.  You could start, however, by looking at a company that has, surprisingly, been marginalized among investors because its heritage is in old-fashioned lead-acid batteries.  That is New Castle PA-based Axion Power Inc* (OTCBB: AXPW; http://www.axionpower.com/.  AXPW owns patents on nanocarbon ultracapacitors used in lead-acid batteries in various ways, and is in partnership with one of the world’s largest batterymakers, Milton GA-based Exide Technologies (Nasdaq: XIDE; http://www.exide.com/).  There is good reason to believe that the AXPW-XIDE team may be a contender in the early hybrid-vehicle business, especially in European markets, where carbon-emission regulations come into play in a matter of months, as opposed to the US, where the timeline is longer (but the pair was named for a federal grant of about $35 million last year, and AXPW has received various other federal and state grants as well).  The name of the battery here is PbC, comprised of the chemical symbols for lead and carbon — and whatever the outcome, these batteries will be the low-cost choice for consumers and carmakers, costing a fraction of the more exotic lithium batteries.  AXPW is trading at $1.34 today, vs a year-high of $2.75, so it is off at a rate similar to many of its battery peers.  Market cap is about $80 million after taking into account its December financing, and the shares trade about 32,000 per day.  AXPW will be presenting at the Piper Jaffray conference the last week of February in NYC.

XIDE is trading at $8.30 on volume of 650,000 shares per day for a market cap of about $630 million.  Year-high on XIDE was $8.87.

Equally interesting in the non-lithium part of the world is San Diego-based Maxwell Technologies (Nasdaq: MXWL: http://www.maxwell.com/) .  MXWL delivered it 1-millionth largecell ultracapacitor this month (http://maxwell.investorroom.com/index.php?s=43&item=107), which gives it more operating muscle than most of its peers, and is on track to do about $100 million in revenue for 2009.  MXWL will also be presenting at the Piper Jaffray conference in NYC the week of Feb 22.  MXWL shares are trading at $16.63 at the moment, vs a 52-week high of $21.81.  Average daily volume is about 220,000 shares, and the market cap is $440 million. 

Clearly there are LOTS of players in this arena — we couldn’t possibly survey them completely.  If you use a news aggregator, you will be amazed at the quantity of news on lithium-ion batteries in particular, and on EV batteries in general. 

*Client of Allen & Caron, publisher of this blog

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One thought on “Lithium: Auto Industry Loves It, Feds Throw $$ At It

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