Your Cash for Their Clunkers WSJ.com 10/18/11
Here's some investment advice: When looking for tips on green technology plays, steer clear of the stock pickers located at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. They've made a habit of investing your cash in their clunkers.
Following on Solyndra's great success comes Ener1 Inc., a lithium-ion battery maker also promoted by the White House. President Obama gave the company's subsidiary, EnerDel, a shout out in August 2009, in a speech in which he announced $2.4 billion in grants "to develop the next generation of fuel-efficient cars and trucks powered by the next generation of battery technologies."
EnerDel snagged a $118 million grant, and Vice President Joe Biden toured one of its two Indianapolis-area factories as recently as January, citing it as proof that government isn't "just creating new jobs—but sparking whole new industries."
He didn't say profitable industries. Ener1 was founded in 2002, went public in 2008 and has never turned a profit. In August, it restated its earnings for fiscal 2010 at a $165 million loss—nearly $100 million more than previously reported. On September 27 it ousted its CEO, and its share price yesterday was 27 cents—a 95% decline from its 52-week high of $5.95 in January. Nasdaq is threatening to delist the stock, and Ener1 disclosed in a mid-August filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission that it is "in the process of determining whether the company has sufficient liquidity to fund its operations."
Ener1 attributed its financial restatement to the bankruptcy earlier this year of Norwegian electric car maker Think, in which Ener1 had invested, and with which it had signed a contract to supply batteries. Think had a long history of financial troubles and was hardly a safe investment.
Then again, Ener1 had to rely almost exclusively on Think after it lost its bid to supply batteries to Fisker Automotive, a battery-powered car maker which received a $529 million U.S. taxpayer-backed federal loan guarantee in 2010. Fisker chose to buy its batteries from a company called A123 Systems, itself the recipient of a $249 million U.S. Department of Energy grant (announced at the same time as Ener1's grant).
It's hard to sell electric car batteries when the market for electric cars is so small. Electric cars are expected to make up less than 1% of car sales by 2018, but that hasn't stopped the feds from financing a glut of battery makers. Some 48 different battery technology and electric vehicle projects received federal money as part of the Administration's August 2009 announcement, including such corporate giants as Johnson Controls and General Motors.
Current estimates are that by 2015 there will be more than double the supply of lithium-ion batteries compared to the number of electric vehicles. This government-juiced industry is headed for a shakeout, taking taxpayer dollars with it.
That may include Indiana state tax dollars. In recent years the Indiana Economic Development Corporation has offered Ener1 up to $21.1 million in performance-based tax credits and $200,000 in training grants. A spokeswoman for the state agency said Ener1 hasn't used the training money and that the tax credits were conditioned upon jobs created. She said the agency isn't at liberty to divulge Ener1's use of the tax credits. The company had promised the combination of federal and state money would allow it to create 1,700 new jobs in Indiana by 2012, and 3,000 by 2015. At last count, Ener1 employed 380 in Indiana. The company didn't return a call seeking comment.
There's no pleasure in Ener1's troubles, but there is a lesson: Better to leave commercial financing decisions to private investors and bankers who are likely to take more care with their own money. Politicians write the press releases first and worry about the taxpayer losses later.