Tesla a Bright Spot in Still Dim, but Improving Electric Car Industry

Photo of Nissan Leaf S courtesy of evworld.com

Photo of Nissan Leaf S courtesy of evworld.com

Anyone watching the still slow but improving progress of the electric car industry may have seen the Bloomberg Businessweek story on the “Tale of Two Electric Car Makers: Tesla Soars, Fisker Flops” (http://www.businessweek.com/articles/2013-05-08/a-tale-of-two-electric-car-makers-tesla-soars-fisker-flops). Tesla Motors not only produced a profit in the first quarter, as advertized, but also increased its guidance on sales for the year, from 20,000 to 21,000 cars. TSLA revenues were up 83 percent year-over-year to $562 million and the stock is soaring (see below).

While the article outlines supply chain and battery issues and other “kinks in its processes” Tesla needs to iron out, their stock is soaring and the outlook looks good. The contrast was provided by Anaheim, CA-based Fisker Automotive, which is laying off employees and hiring bankruptcy consultants, the article reports. Another electric car maker, Los Angeles-based CODA Automotive, recently filed for bankruptcy protection and announced it was “focusing its business strategy on the growing energy storage market,” according to a company filing.

For more positive electric car news, the BBC posted an article this week on the Nissan Leaf (http://www.bbc.com/autos/story/20130509-leaf-charges-into-mid-life) as it “charges through mid-life.” The Leaf, billed as “the first truly global mass-produced electric vehicle,” now includes the Leaf S, a lower cost model “designed to lower the barrier of entry to EV ownership.” One of the cost cutting moves was to move its assembly line from Japan to another Nissan factory in Smyrna, TE.

The BBC put the Leaf through its paces and managed to get 75 miles from a full charge, right about in line with Nissan estimates. Competitors mentioned in the article include the Toyota Prius PH-V and Ford C-Max Energi, both plug-in hybrids.

If anyone out there is charged up about the electric vehicle market, and knows of a small cap stock play in this market, please let us know. Meanwhile, we’ve been following a few small caps, plus Tesla to see how their stock is moving. We’ve also added a new company, Car Charging Group, to our list.

Palo Alto, CA-based Tesla Motors (Nasdaq: TSLA, http://www.teslamotors.com/) manufactures the Tesla Roadster, the Model S and other electric vehicles and electric powertrain  components. It’s way too large for our small cap blog focus, but just as a reference, the last time we looked at Tesla last February 20 it was trading at $38.90 with a market cap of $4.4 billion. As we mentioned, TSLA stock has been on a huge roll. It closed May 15 at $84.84, up $1.60 for the day. Its 52-week trading range is now $25.52-$97.12.

Santa Rosa, CA-based ZAP (OTC: ZAAP.OB, http://www.zapworld.com/) makes a variety of all-electric vehicles including trucks, motorcycles, shuttle buses and sedans and was formerly known as ZAPWORLD.COM. When we last checked on Feb. 20 its stock closed at $0.08 with a market cap of $24. ZAAP closed May 15 at $0.14, up 3 cents for the day, with a market cap of $42 million. Its 52-week trading range is $0.06-$0.27.

San Diego-based Maxwell Technologies Inc. (Nasdaq: MXWL, http://www.maxwell.com/) was formerly known as Maxwell Laboratories. The company manufactures ultracapacitors that are energy storage devices and power delivery systems for use in transportation, automotive, IT and industrial electronics.  MXWL closed back on Feb. 20 at $10.01 with a market cap of $292 million. It closed May 15 at $6.36, up 11 cents for the day, with a market cap of $185 million. Its 52-week trading range is now $4.90-$11.08.

Miami Beach-based Car Charging Group (OTCQB: CCGI, http://www.carcharging.com/) caught our eye with the announcement March 12 that it was acquiring EVPass, a company building destination charging networks for EV charging. CCGI  is also in the business of building charging station networks and has been busy making more acquisitions. Earlier this month, CCGI announced it had acquired 350Green LLC. CCGI closed May 15 at $1.34, up 4 cents for the day, with a market cap of $70.8 million. Its 52-week trading range is $0.60-$2.


Does the ‘Car of the Future’ Have a Future? Tesla Says Yes

Does the “car of the future” have a future? That’s the question Time magazine asks as the end of its recent story on electric cars that ran under the headline “Electric-Vehicle Acid Test” (http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,2134523,00.html). While more and more battery-powered and hybrid vehicles are being introduced and prices continue to be slashed, sales continue to disappoint. Nonetheless, Cadillac, Fiat, Ford and Honda have announced that they will launch new all-electric vehicles this year.

Auto analysts say the biggest hurdle electric cars face is range, according to Time. Pure electric cars like the Nissan

Photo courtesy of Motortrend.com

Photo courtesy of Motortrend.com

Leaf list a range of about 80 miles before it needs a recharge, which can take hours. The Tesla Model S electric car boasts a range of 265 miles, although that’s currently the source of much debate, based on a kerfuffle kicked up by New York Times reporter John Broder’s test drive (http://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/10/automobiles/stalled-on-the-ev-highway.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0&pagewanted=print). When Broder reported that the Model S failed to live up to the range claims,  among other issues, Tesla founder Elon Musk took offense and offered other reporters a similar test drive to prove Broder was misleading readers and failed to fully recharge the batteries. Incidentally, Tesla reported its fourth quarter/year end results Feb. 20 and reconfirmed its guidance that 20,000 Model S vehicles will be sold this year and, in what was a new outlook, said the company will be profitable in the first quarter of 2013, not later in the year as they had guided investors earlier.

There’s little debate the fact that electric and hybrid vehicle prices are being slashed considerably. The lease price of the Nissan Leaf, which was about $449 per month in 2010, is now $139 monthly. Time reports that General Motors executives say the cost of next year’s Chevrolet Volt “will be thousands of dollars cheaper than last year’s.”

So how does a small cap investor play the electric and hybrid vehicle market? Here are a few randomly chosen options:

Palo Alto, CA-based Tesla Motors (Nasdaq: TSLA, http://www.teslamotors.com/) manufactures the Tesla Roadster, the Model S and other electric vehicles and electric powertrain  components. It’s too large for our focus, but just as a reference, the last time we looked at Tesla last September 19, 2012 it was trading at $31.05 with a  market cap of $3.3 billion. It closed Feb. 20 at $38.90, down $0.38 for the day with a market cap of $4.4 billion. Its 52-week trading range is now $25.52-$40.

Santa Rosa, CA-based ZAP (OTC: ZAAP.OB, http://www.zapworld.com/) makes a variety of all-electric vehicles including trucks, motorcycles, shuttle buses and sedans and was formerly known as ZAPWORLD.COM. Most of its business at this point is with government or military customers. Its stock, which traded for 20 cents last March 13, 2012 with a market cap of about $45 million, closed Feb. 20 at $0.08, no change on the day. Its market cap is now $24 million and 52-week trading range is $0.06-$0.21.

San Diego-based Maxwell Technologies Inc. (Nasdaq: MXWL, http://www.maxwell.com/) was formerly known as Maxwell Laboratories. The company manufactures ultracapacitors that are energy storage devices and power delivery systems for use in transportation, automotive, IT and industrial electronics.  MXWL closed back on March 13, 2012 at $18.69 with a market cap of $522 million. MXWL closed Feb. 20 at $10.01, down 48 cents for the day. Its market cap is now $292 million.

Mary Lisanti: Continued Corporate Earnings Growth in 2013 (When the Federal Government Resolves the Budget)

Mary Lisanti is president and portfolio manager of AH Lisanti, an investment management company currently focused on small cap growth companies. She is a 33-year veteran of small cap growth research and investing. For the first 12 years she was a small cap analyst and strategist on Wall Street. During the past 18 years, she has managed small cap portfolios at premier asset management companies. As CIO of ING Investments LLC, (1998-2003) she was responsible for building the active equity management team, and assets under management in her area grew from several hundred million to several billion dollars. Prior to ING, Mary was at Strong Capital Management as Senior Portfolio Manager for both the Small Cap Growth and Mid Cap Growth Strategies and was Managing Director and Head of the Small/Mid Cap team at Bankers Trust Company. Mary was named Fund Manager of the Year in 1996 by Barron’s. She was named #1 small cap analyst in 1989 by Institutional Investor’s All-Star Research Team. In addition, she was ranked #2 and #3 in 1987 and 1986 respectively.


I had the pleasure of talking to Mary just before the New Year’s holiday at her office near Rockefeller Center.  We had first met in the late 1980s when she was interested in a technology company that proposed the radical idea of a keyless car ignition or computer security system using a fingerprint.  Interesting how what seemed futuristic now seems almost as old hat as, well, men on the moon.

JA:  How are you feeling about the year ahead?

ML:  Undecided.  I’ll give you some positives and some negatives.  One big positive is that corporate profit growth will still be decent.  Corporations are at very high profit margins, but when you break down what’s going on, there’s no reason they shouldn’t go higher.  Virtualization – the use of cloud computing, and other aspects of today’s high tech should help them cut costs.  For that trend to stop, two things would have to happen: a long period of negative revenue growth, accompanied by fast-rising wages.  Neither of those things is happening.

That will be a positive for the market.  Corporate profits are growing 8-10% and we believe that can continue, and that is widely dispersed across the board.  Small caps can grow even more,we believe, although again there will be wide dispersion in individual results.  This will be a classic stockpicker’s market.

The biggest negative for the market is that we cannot seem to govern ourselves.  That weighs on multiples.  That’s why, four years into this recovery, multiples are still low, particularly when you take into account where interest rates are and how  GDP growth, although below trend, continues to chug along at 2% or so.  In that scenario, logic would have it that multiples would be in the range of 18-19, but they are not.  Why not? I believe it is because of our inability to govern. Politicans are behind the curve;as they usually are, in addressing our structural issues to bring the long term deficit issues under control. Will they address the longterm issues or not?  If they do so now, it will require only modest changes to entitlements and spending. The extent to which we address those issues will affect the performance of the market going forward.

It is psychologically important to multiples: if you can slow the growth in spending at least a bit, you give people more confidence.  In the Clinton years they managed to slow the rate of growth in spending, and Clinton left office with a surplus.  I believe we will spend most of 2013 arguing about entitlements and other budget issues.  Next year it will be the Democrats saying no to entitlement reform, just like this year it was Republicans saying no to taxes.  I don’t know how much it is possible to get done, because it is being done in a fishbowl and from ideological positions that don’t accommodate compromise.

If they do not get something done, I fear that US debt will get downgraded again.

JA:  And would any of the DC politicians feel responsible if that happened?

ML:  I do not believe so, no.  Politicians, in my opinion, are in the business of passing the blame.  If there were another downgrade, it would affect President Obama’s legacy, and I don’t think he wants to be the president who oversaw two debt downgrades in his time in office.  Both sides will have an incentive to compromise and hopefully they will.  The biggest risk to all of us, and to the market, is that the dollar loses a bit of its luster as the currency of last resort.

When you look at Japan and China and Europe, they are getting their act together with regard to being attractive places to invest and could even potentially be attractive as reserve currencies in a few years.  My biggest concern is that we permanently change corporate behavior: if you have a climate of uncertainty for long enough you make people afraid.  Business overall has been clear with Washington that the uncertainty is damaging.  R&D tax credits, farm and agriculture bills, accelerated depreciation – Congress has been handling these as though they were annual issues, and they’re not.  They affect multi-year planning.  When the R&D tax credit was put in place in the early 1980’s, it was in place for 4.5 years.   That would be better—it would give businesses the ability to plan longer term..

These and other things are casualties of this ideological warfare in Washington.

JA:  What do you see as strengths in 2013?

ML:  It is an enormous positive that housing is recovering, and the recovery should continue, assuming Washington does not cut the mortgage deduction..  Unemployment is declining, although it is declining too slowly.  And we have cheap sources of energy.  . A number of industry sources believe that we will be energy independent in the next decade or so, which is a huge positive for our manufacturing competitiveness.

When you look at these things, once we make it through this budget and debt-ceiling problem, things look a lot better.

Governments all over the world have been spending money to fix the problems that caused the recession, and odds are that things will not fall apart again soon.  Over the past several years, we have had a major issue every year that has “terrified” us: last year it was the potential breakup of the Euro and Greek debt default, and this year it was the budget crisis in the U.S. Beyond the budget crisis, I do not see an issue that has the potential to scare investors as much as these two issues have. We should enter a period of more “normalcy,” where macro issues take a backseat to fundamental issues, and that change should allow multiples to increase. But belief in a more stable future will come slowly.

JA:  What should we look for in 2013 when we look at investments?

ML:  As small cap growth investors, we look for earnings growth.  But one of the great positives in this market is that there are many ways to make money in the market.  When I came into the business in the late 1970s, you could make get 7-8% returns several ways.  You could make money with yields –- those companies with no earnings growth offered very high dividend yields, say about 7%; those companies with earnings growth offered more modest dividends, say 2-4% dividends and 4-5% annual growth in earnings.  Growth stocks offered  very little in the way of dividends, but you could get capital appreciation as earnings would increase 10% to 15%.annually. Then, as we moved through the great bull market of the 1980’s and 1990’s, we got to the point where dividends were out of favor and capital appreciation was the only way to make money.. Now dividends are back and once again there are multiple ways to make decent returns in the stock market, depending upon one’s tolerance for risk..That is very, very positive for the equity markets.

JA: How about sectors?  Any of special interest, or any you would avoid?

ML:  There are good companies in every sector.  I would not recommend the utilities, but there are very good opportunities in materials, energy, consumer products and services, industrials and financial services,  In most of these the small caps usually have something unique about the way they do it, or the technology they apply to it.

Tech spending is not forecast to be up much in 2013.  There will be winners and losers.  We need to keep in mind that the corporate world is moving toward Software as a Service, which allows them to stop buying perpetual licenses, and to pay as they use software.  They are going from buying licenses and maintenance contracts, and now are basically paying just for what they use.  Same with cloud computing.  So they are going from spending $20,000 on software and a server to paying $1,000 month.  So even though tech spending is forecast to be close to flat, the companies that will be winners will have SaaS and cloud computing.  These trends will hold down spending.  It’s hard to see how the semiconductor companies are going to prosper in that environment, unless it is the specialty chipmakers who are specialized in populating ever-smaller chips with ever-larger amounts of circuitry for tablets and smart phones – or those companies that are specialized in the ability to manage the signals for those tablets and phones.  But other than those two, I don’t see a lot of growth there.  And I would be careful about traditional license-oriented software companies.  .

JA: What about healthcare companies?

ML:  Interesting.  It’s hard to guess how ObamaCare will play out.  There are some longterm secular trends in healthcare that are worth keeping in mind.  Keep your eye on the value proposition: better, faster, cheaper, more automated.  One of the most interesting areas is the second generation biotechs.  Think about AIDS, for instance.  Over the last 25 years it has become a livable disease – that is, we haven’t cured it, but we can make it possible to live with it, and to do well, not just to survive for a few more months.  Now the industry is working to make cancer livable in the same way; there are whole new classes of drugs that enable people to live with cancer, and not to just be blown away by it in a short time.  Possibly we are spending the same amount of money making cancer livable as we used to, but now we’re spending it over a longer period, and not all at the end of life.  Diabetes monitoring, for instance – the closer we get to continuous glucose monitoring, the better for diagnosis and treatment; One of our investments is Dexcom (DXCM), which has a promising technology for that.  All those big diseases are interesting, and medicine is getting its arms around them too.

JA: How about healthcare IT?

ML:  It has historically been mostly about billing and insurance, but now the future is to move on to quality of care.  Since we have had health insurance as a society, the focus has been on what you might call “industrial metrics,” such as how many patients you can process.  Now the quality of the outcome is more important, and best practices are more important.  There will have to be penalties for readmissions of the same patient.  Mobile apps for monitoring things like blood pressure, glucose, heart problems and blood gases – these things are going to become standard practice over the next 5 to 10 years.

JA:  You mentioned the impact of technology on industry.

ML:  There are lots of new beginnings now, along with outmoding of old things.  Software as a service and the use of the cloud – this is the biggest piece of cost to cut.  If you can cut your IT costs you have overall better margins, and better processes too.  And industrial automation is interesting too.  The first generation of automation concentrated on, for instance, lasers to cut steel.  Now automobiles are being made with lighter materials, so new lasers are needed, lasers to cut nonsteel materials.  Aerospace is an interesting area for this.  Two things that are driving aerospace are new materials that lower weight and cost, and a continuing cutback on oil-based materials.  There is a bit of a renaissance going on in aerospace.

One of our investments is IPG Photonics (IPGP) for the new lasers needed to deal with new lighterweight materials.  Another is Polypore International (PPO), which is making the membranes needed for new electric vehicles like the Chevy Volt and the Nissan Leaf. By the end of 2013, they are expected to be supplying membranes for 24 models of cars.  That goes back to the fact that fuel efficiency standards by 2025 will be at 54.5 mpg.

Another of our investments is Aspen Technology (AZPN), which basically supplies SaaS for factories and plants.  If you are a refinery, for instance, you are required by law to take your systems down every so often for maintenance and test for a number of things such as safety and pollution.  Doing that manually is difficult; it can be done, but it is hard, and if you are global it is harder.  Aspen automates all of that, and they are in a field by themselves basically.

JA:  And energy?

ML:  The shale revolution will be a big job creator, and the move toward natural gas for vehicles is important.  Fleets will be moving to Compressed Natural Gas (CNG), and we believe the infrastructure will be built out for CNG refueling.  Federal Express, UPS and the other big fleets will be the drivers.  We are interested in Westport Innovations (WPRT) for the CNG engines.  And we are watching Clean Energy Fuels Corp (CLNE) for the CNG supply chain, but big oil will be the installer.  We also believe solar will become economical to use, with panels on the roofs, for instance, of warehouses, and power being sold back to the grid when it is not needed.  Between the increased supply of natural gas, shale energy, coal, oil and renewable, we can get to be energy independent.

JA:  How about housing?

ML:  Housing is fascinating.  What happened with housing is what happened with autos.  Now after a period of low sales, we probably need as a nation to do some catching up.  We could need 1.7 million new housing starts for a couple of years.  That would double the current rate.  The Echo-boomers (who used to be called Generation Y) are starting to buy houses; their demand for houses is growing at 5% per year, and will grow at 10% per year soon.  My personal opinion is that this housing cycle will be a long one, similar to what we saw after the housing collapse in the mid 1970’s. In the first few years, we will see a catchup in pricing, but after that we believe housing prices will probably go up a couple of percentage points per year. If they implement the rules on mortgages that are being talked about, the housing market will become a lot steadier and more stable, more like the Texas market, where they tightened the downpayment requirement and favor 30-year-fixed mortgages.  That will be positive for the housing market and for consumer confidence.

There is nothing better for consumers than to have their biggest asset become more valuable every year.  Three years ago if you hadn’t already lost your job, you were still afraid you might lose it.  Your 401(k) and your house were devaluing.  This recovery is more like the late 1970s than the 1990s.  People got burned in the mid-70s and it took a long time to feel better.  When we are operating at full potential, we should have 3-1/2% to 4% GDP growth, and that will come eventually.

JA:  And in 2013?

ML:  I think GDP this year will be 2-1/2% overall because of federal and state problems, but corporate GDP growth will be a good bit better than that, assuming there is a budget deal at some point.  The first half of the year if we watch the government argue about spending, it could be a bit of a damper on growth.  If we regain faith that the politicians will be able to compromise and come up with some answers, the market will go higher.  Having our debt downgraded shook everyone’s confidence.    So the market is at 12-13 times earnings as a result.

If we get a budget deal we could get much stronger investor confidence, but in the short term, our ability to govern ourselves is the big issue.  Once that is resolved, the market will lift.

JA:  Thanks, Mary.

For AH Lisanti:  For financial intermediary use only.  Not for use with investing public.

The information provided should not be considered a recommendation to purchase or sell any particular security.  It should not be assumed that any security transactions, holdings, or sectors discussed were or will be profitable, or that the investment recommendations or decisions we make in the future will be profitable or will equal the investment performance discussed herein.  The views expressed reflect those of the portfolio manager as of 12/31/2012.  The portfolio manager’s views are subject to change at any time based on market and other various conditions. The performance reflected herein is not representative of performance of AH Lisanti individually managed accounts or comingled vehicles that AH Lisanti advises.


Random Notes on Electrical Vehicles, EV Charging Networks, the Housing Market…

Random notes that caught our eye:

  • A JD Power & Associates study of electric vehicle ownership suggests sales are still hampered by their high cost and a disconnect between the car manufacturers and potential buyers on a return on investment in EVs, according to the Los Angeles Times (http://www.latimes.com/business/autos/la-fi-mo-autos-electric-vehicle-costs-20121108,0,4965785.story). Overall, sales of electric vehicles are an “almost immeasurable portion of auto sales,” the article notes. Nissan Leaf sales are down 16 percent this year, Tesla Motors has delivered “less than 300 vehicles,” Mitsubishi, which makes the i-MiEV mini-car, has sold less than 500; Honda has leased only 48 of its electric Fit and Coda is not commenting, according to the article. The crazy thing is the study suggests the potential savings from driving an electric car “could be significant.” The study shows that EV owners report an increase in their electricity bill of $18 a month to recharge their cars compared to $147 they typically pay for a month of gas.

    Coda EV photo courtest evworld.com

  • Californians will be the beneficiaries of the nation’s most comprehensive electric vehicle charging network. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) this week approved a $100 million, four-year proposal from NRG Energy (NYSE: ERG) that allows NRG’s subsidiary, eVgo, to build the network, which will also include fast chargers that give drivers 50 miles of range in 15 minutes. The network, called a “public-private partnership” by NRG, will be made up of at least 200 public charging stations stretching from the San Francisco Bay area, south to San Diego County. NRG will also guarantee that at least 20 percent of the stations are in low income areas. The project is expected to generate more than 1,500 jobs and a total economic benefit of $185 million.
  • Amid all the noise about the “fiscal cliff,” some interesting observations in the New York Times Nov. 11 (http://www.nytimes.com/2012/11/11/your-money/fiscal-impasse-now-takes-center-stage-for-investors.html?ref=business): Most forecasters don’t believe there will actually be a drastic tumble. The consenus among “Blue Chip Economic Indicators is that the economy will…grow modestly in 2013.” Also, James W. Paulsen, chief investment strategist at Wells Capital Management suggests that “like the European Debt crisis this year, the cliff might turn out to be a series of chronic problems that are dealt with sequentially, not as a single financial disaster.”
  • There’s good news from the labor markets (slowly but surely improving), consumer confidence (“at a five-year high”) and the housing market (“clear signs of a rebound”), according to the same NY Times story.
  • Also in the NYT, a report from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (a 34-country group including every major industrial nation) titled “Looking to 2060: Long-Term Global Growth Prospects:” more old people proportionately to the overall population mean reduced growth over that term, particularly in China. As China’s population ages “India and Indonesia will overtake China’s growth rate in less than a decade.” GDP in China will grow at a rate of 2.3 percent a year from 2030-2060 (little more than the 2 percent expected in the US) while Indonesia will grow by 3.3 percent and India by 4 percent.
  • Another study, this one by the National Research Council and commissioned by the CIA, suggests that “climate change is accelerating” and Hurricane Sandy is just a taste of “what can be expected in the near future.” John H. Steinbruner, the study author, said, according to the New York Times’ John M. Broder, that “humans are pouring carbon dioxide and other climate-altering gases into the atmosphere at a rate never before seen.”

‘Try It, You’ll Like It’ Is Hope of Non-Profit Group Backing Plug-In Electric Vehicles

Much has been made about the relatively weak sales of electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles, particularly the Chevrolet Volt. The Volt received good reviews for its pep, its seamless operation and design when it first debuted in December 2010 (http://www.nytimes.com/2010/12/26/automobiles/autoreviews/26volt.html?pagewanted=all). But then it was priced at $41,000 (before a $7,500 federal tax credit) and initially sold in only six states (California, New York, New Jersey, Texas, Connecticut and Michigan) and Washington, DC. By last March, General Motors announced it would suspend production of the Volt for five weeks because inventory had built up faster than sales.

Many electric car/plug in hybrid advocates have suggested that the real reason car buyers are not choosing these

Chevy Volt photo courtesy about.com

vehicles is that they haven’t driven them. To that end, a nonprofit group called Plug In America has organized National Plug In Day on Sept. 23, a celebration taking place in 60 U.S. cities that allows people to drive these cars. Cars available for driving include the BMW ActiveE, Chevy Volt, Coda, Fisker Karma, Honda Fit EV, Mitsubishi iMiEV, Nissan Leaf, Plug In Prius, Tesla Roadster and Toyota Rav4 EV.

On Sept. 18, Pike Research issued a report tracking factors like age, race, gender and income, among other determinants, that indicate the likelihood of a North American consumer to buy a plug in electric vehicle (PEV). One of the most important indicators is geography and the report concluded that that state with the highest PEV sales for the remainder of this decade will be California. The report, titled “Electric Vehicle Geographic Forecasts,” notes that PEV sales “roughly correspond to population but other factors, including demographics, socioeconomics and public policy have a strong influence as well.” The report including an executive summary is available for free at the Pike Research website.

We last covered a random variety of small caps related to the PEV and hybrid automobile markets, including battery companies, last March.  Here’s a look at what has happened to these stocks in the meantime.

Santa Rosa, CA-based ZAP (OTC: ZAAP.OB, http://www.zapworld.com/) makes a variety of all-electric vehicles including trucks, motorcycles, shuttle buses and sedans and was formerly known as ZAPWORLD.COM. Most of its business at this point is with government or military customers. Its stock has been on a gradual downturn since it sold for 90 cents in early 2011. It sold for 20 cents last March 13 with a market cap of $45.25 million. ZAAP closed Sept. 19 at $0.13. Its market cap is now $38.7 million.

Waltham, MA-based A123 Systems (Nasdaq: AONE, http://www.a123systems.com/) makes lithium ion batteries based on its proprietary Nanophosphate technology. It stock was a high flier back in the fall of 2009 when it traded for about $26 but those days are long gone. Last March 13 the stock closed at $1.69. AONE closed Sept. 19 at $0.32 cents. and market cap is now $54.4 million.

Austin, TX-based Valence Technology Inc. (Nasdaq: VLNC, http://www.valence.com/) manufacturers energy systems based on another phosphate-based lithium ion technology. Its products are used in a variety of applications in addition to all-electric vehicles, such as wheelchairs, robotics and remote power devices. VLNC stock has come way down in value from $5 in 2008. Last March it traded for 88 cents and its market cap was $150 million. VLNC closed Sept. 19 at $0.019 with a market cap of $3.2 million. It is currently facing a variety of class action shareholder lawsuits.

San Diego-based Maxwell Technologies Inc. (Nasdaq: MXWL, http://www.maxwell.com/) was formerly known as Maxwell Laboratories. The company manufactures ultracapacitors that are energy storage devices and power delivery systems for use in transportation, automotive, IT and industrial electronics, as well as microelectronic products including single board computers and high-density memory and power modules for satellites and spacecraft applications. Last March 13 MXWL stock was trading near the top of its 52-week range at $18.69 with a market cap of $522 million. The stock took a hit when management cut back on its revenue guidance in August. MXWL closed Sept. 19 at $8.54, down 31 cents for the day. Its market cap is now $249 million.

San Carlos, CA-based Tesla Motors (Nasdaq: TSLA, http://www.teslamotors.com/) manufactures the Tesla Roadster and other electric vehicles and electric powertrain  components. Its market cap of $3.3 billion puts it out of our smallcap focus but its stock hit a 52-week high of $36.29 March 12, which put the stock up more than 30 percent in the past five months. By Sept. 19 it had dropped down to $31.05.

EVs and HEVs: Mushy Veggies or the Hope for the Future?

“Like mothers who push healthy food at skeptical children, carmakers insisted that despite the mushy-veggies taste of smaller engines and hybrid everything, Americans will learn to love gas sippers and drive them without shame.” (from coverage of the New York Intl Auto Show by the NY TIMES: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/04/04/automobiles/autoshow/04SHOW.html?hpw)

Now while it’s clear that automobile writers may be wondering where the muscle cars went (and choosing to write about ever-clunkier-looking crossovers and sport utility vehicles),  it turns out the first mass-market pure EV is hitting the showrooms in Japan, and auto buyers are taking to it like the proverbial duck to water: http://finance.yahoo.com/news/Japanese-start-buying-apf-3281658505.html?x=0&sec=topStories&pos=1&asset=&ccode=.  It’s a 4-seater from Mitsubishi called the i-MiEV and it costs about $30,000 after tax and other incentives.  The car is rated for 100 miles between charges, and can be charged in as little as 30 minutes at a turbo-charged charging station (no, there are not very many of them).  See this article from AutoBlogGreen: http://green.autoblog.com/2010/04/02/mitsubishi-aims-for-sub-30-000-price-tag-on-u-s-i-miev/

i-MiEV from Mitsubishi, Japan's first mass-market EV

At the same time, Nissan announced that its new EV, the Leaf, will be in showrooms by December, and they have started taking orders.

We’re anxiously awaiting the Tesla IPO announced earlier this year (http://earth2tech.com/2010/01/29/tesla-ipo-electric-car-startup-files-for-100m-public-offering-finally/), and that offering, when it happens, may herald the first true US EV “muscle car” public company.

For the smallcap investor, there are ways to invest in the EV as a passenger-car trend, both by investing in cross-border companies and by investing in companies that make parts and pieces of EVs.  One hint at the broad influence that EVs will have if they are widely accepted (and we assume they will be) is written between the lines in an announcement by Ford and Microsoft, and released on the first day of April.  It deals with a cooperative agreement between the two companies as to a program called Hohm (a combination of the place you live and a measure of electrical energy), which may help EV owners calculate the cheapest and most efficient ways to re-charge their cars, considering that charging a car is likely to double the energy usage of some homes. http://www.greencarcongress.com/2010/04/hohm-20100401.html?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+greencarcongress%2FTrBK+%28Green+Car+Congress%29

Also mentioned in that announcement are Ford’s plans to introduce 5 new electric vehicles over the next few years, the first of which is the electric Transit Connect, which was shown at the Chicago Auto Show earlier this year, and which will start being delivered in the 4th quarter of 2010.  The Transit Connect is a co-product of Ford and Oak Park MI-based Azure Dynamics Corp* (TSX: AZD and OTC: AZDDF; http://www.azuredynamics.com/), and while it has been announced as a commercial vehicle, there seems a strong likelihood that some portion of the Transit Connects that hit the roads will find themselves serving at least partly as family vehicles.  It’s worth noting that the Transit Connect (which will be available in gas-powered and EV versions) was named North American Truck of the Year for 2010: http://www.northamericancaroftheyear.org/.  AZDDF and AZD shares closed Thursday at $0.26, with average volume of well over 800,000 shares a day in Toronto.   

Privately held Norwegian company, Think Electric, announced last week that it will begin selling its Think City, a mini-sized urban vehicle, in New York City and other US cities: http://www.thinkev.com/Press-Material/Press-releases/THINK-to-begin-selling-city-electric-car-in-New-York.  Think’s US cars will be built in Elkhart IN, near the operations center of its battery supplier and significant partial owner, Ener1 Corp (Nasdaq: HEV; http://www.ener1.com/), which has been the recipient of a hefty federal stimulus award for its own battery operations.  HEV shares closed at $4.40 vs a 52-week high of $7.90 on Thursday, for a market cap of $550 million and daily average trading of  nearly a million shares.  One could own Think indirectly through HEV shares.

Think City EV (in a bubble)

I attended a presentation last month by Henrik Fisker, founder of venture-backed Irvine CA-based Fisker Automotive, which has announced a plug-in electric luxury sports car, the Karma, and is taking orders for it now.  Fisker Automotive has been awarded more than $500 million in federal stimulus loans conditioned on the company’s posting adequate investment matching funds.  While Fisker is privately held, a small minority of its shares are owned by its strategic partner, also based in Irvine CA, Quantum Fuel Systems Technologies (Nasdaq: QTWW; http://www.qtww.com/).  QTWW shares closed at $0.67 on Thursday, vs a year-high of $1.77, with average trading volume climbing toward 2 million shares a day, and a market cap of just under $100 million.  While it seems obvious given the high level of venture capital that has been invested, that Fisker will eventually go public, no plans have been announced to date.

The cloud that hangs over the EV and HEV industries is some worry about whether the car-driving public will give up their gas-powered cars.  Hybrids (there really are very few EVs yet available) as a percentage of sales dropped year-to-year in March: http://blogs.edmunds.com/greencaradvisor/2010/04/march-us-hybrid-sales-rise-18-percent-but-lag-overall-vehicle-growth.html, although the figures are not complete since not all hybrid makers reported.  The Prius still leads the pack with 53% of hybrid sales last month. 

It could be that the EV will attract a more willing audience than the technologically complex dual-system hybrids.  Standard-looking cars like the Tesla and Fisker will be needed to establish that EVs are not glorified golf carts, a moniker still thrown at some of the smaller ones, and once the big car companies are putting EVs in their showrooms that will help as well.  For now, the electric Transit Connect by Ford and Azure Dynamics looks to be the first of those big-name cars in the US, probably followed by their Japanese brethren from Nissan and Mitsubishi.

*client of Allen & Caron, publisher of this blog

EVs Anyone? Yup, Where Can I Plug In?

The New York Times ran an article that I suspect few people read, because it was in the middle of section 1 opposite a bunch of desperate retail ads for SALES-SALES-SALES, but it points at the soft spot of the move toward electric vehicles (EVs): how to get them charged when you are not at home (http://www.nytimes.com/2009/12/02/business/energy-environment/02electric.html?_r=2&partner=rss&emc=rss).   Henrik Lund, a professor of energy planning at Aalborg University in Denmark, puts his finger on it: “There is a psychological barrier for consumers when their car is dependent on a battery station.” 

Better Place plug-in -- sleek and easy

In this article, Palo Alto CA-based, privately held Better Place is teaming up with the largest Danish electric utility to put charging stations up across Denmark, and they have $100 million to spend doing it.  Kudos, but it is grid electricity, and it tries the imagination to think of grid plug-ins every few miles on the huge US Interstate Highway system.  Works for Denmark though.

We have relatively few EVs on the road today, and one of the big reasons is just that: how do you get them re-charged?  That is not to say that the EV movement is not taking off — it clearly is, but it is taking off from a different runway, so to speak.  Just to be clear, yes we are aware of Tesla, Fisker, Th!nk Electric, and several other small companies with slick-looking EVs and HEVs, but they are not very common yet.

Ford Transit Connect EV will be shown at the Chicago Auto Show Feb 2010

If you look at the recent announcements from Ford Motor Company (NYSE: F) and Oak Park MI-based Azure Dynamics* (TSX: AZD and Pink Sheets: AZDDF.PK; http://www.azuredynamics.com/), one of the most high-profile EV announcements in recent months relates to delivery vans: the super-successful (in Europe) Ford Transit Connect: http://www.fordvehicles.com/transitconnect/.  Point being that this EV is designed for vans that have routes to drive, especially urban routes with lots of start-and-stop traffic — very little open-road driving, so the mileage to “empty” is not an issue.  There should be thousands of these puppies on the road when they show up in select Ford showrooms in 2010.

In fact, from a non-scientific scan of the market, it appears that most of the pure EV announcements (not all, but most) relate to commercial vehicles.  Look at Kansas City-based Smith Electric Vehicles, whose website says they have led the EV market for 80 years (http://www.smithelectricvehicles.com/) — all the vehicles they show are commercial vans and trucks.  Makes sense, of course, because they all go back to the same place every night and can plug in.  Smith announced at the end of October that they will introduce a postal delivery vehicle: perfect application.

The much-heralded but perhaps under-funded commercial vehicle from Anderson IN-based privately held Bright Automotive is also clearly aimed at a barn-stored commercial user who can bed down vehicles next to a plug every evening.  http://www.brightautomotive.com

Same with Torrance, CA-based Enova Systems* (NYSE Amex: ENA; http://www.enovasystems.com), which creates drivetrains for hybrids and pure EVs for some of the largest commercial-vehicle manufacturers in the world (Freightliner, Laidlaw, First Auto Works of China).  The funding — partly because of tax breaks and stimulus money — is in commercial vehicles.

But back to the NYT story.  In order for ME to turn in my one-horse-open-shay for an EV, I have to be able to drive on the open road without worrying about finding a plug for my car to recharge.  I’ve pushed cars that ran out of gas, and it’s no fun, but at least there are gas stations pretty much all over the place.  Without that infrastructure , there is some nail-chewing about driving an EV.

Apparently there are some jurisdictions that are trying to pioneer the infrastructure for EVs.  There has been a fair amount of attention paid to privately held Campbell CA-based Coulomb Technology (http://www.coulombtech.com/), which has been signing deals with a variety of municipalities, most recently Houston, according to their website.  They are conducting demonstrations with stand-alone charging stations, but most of the ones they are installing today seem to be grid-connected — which probably doesn’t cut it for my drive through the Catskills.  There was a demo of interest  in Washington DC this year, where Coulomb worked with San Diego-based privately held Envision Solar (http://envisionsolar.com/) and New Castle PA-based Axion Power International* (OTCBB: AXPW.OB; http://www.axionpower.com).  The product was a pretty slick-looking, no-emissions, solar-powered charging station with inexpensive longlasting PbC batteries to make it work when the sun don’t shine.  Sounds good, looks good, is good — but how many miles of highway would have to be served in order for the Clampetts to get from the Appalchians to Beverly Hills?

This morning there was an announcement that Nissan will introduce an EV with a 200-mile range — in 2015 (http://www.reghardware.co.uk/2009/12/02/nissan_super_battery/ ).  They will use a lithium nickel manganese cobalt oxide cathode (say that five times fast).  But something that’s 5 years out has little effect on people who are considering buying a car today.

Nissan Leaf, due in showrooms in 2015 or so

The big lithium-ion battery companies — Ener1 Inc, A123 Systems, and Johnson Controls/Saft — all seem interested in grid-connected battery applications.  That is, they are interested in storing electricity generated in nonpeak hours for peak distribution (very helpful, by the way, but no help for my car).  But I have not read anyplace of anyone wanting to install lithium-ion batteries in solar car-charging stations out in BFE; they’re too expensive, and they might get wet (which is a no-no for lots of exotic batteries).  Ener1 Inc is Nasdaq: HEV; http://www.ener1.com.  A123 Systems is Nasdaq: AONE; http://www.a123systems.com.  Johnson Controls is NYSE: JCI;  http://www.johnsoncontrols.com/

Axion Power’s supply agreement with Alpharetta GA-based Exide Technologies (Nasdaq: XIDE; http://www.exide.com/) looks like a candidate, with the carbon-based PbC technology, to provide an affordable, long-lasting battery for a charging station.  And the Advanced Lead Acid Battery Consortium has a lot of information on souped-up lead-acid batteries that work-better-last-longer, but still have the same killer problems of short life and low rechargeability that makes them dowdy wallflowers at the EV prom.

All told it may be up to the Coulombs, the Better Places, the Envision Solars, the Axion Powers, the Exides to come up with the ideas and demos for charging stations (and they have).  But like the Interstate Highway system itself, a good way to get EVs on the highways would be for the federal government to puts a priority on charging stations.  More stimulus, anyone?

Please do your own diligence before investing in any stock.  We do not recommend stocks — we just write about interesting companies and interesting developments.

*client of Allen & Caron, publisher of this blog.