For Vivint Solar (NASDAQ:VSLR), the bull case seems easy to make. VSLR stock isn’t cheap on an earnings basis, but it’s not supposed to be, at least not yet.
Vivint Solar’s residential installations will take time to bear fruit. However, management’s estimate of future profits suggests that VSLR stock can rise meaningfully from its current share price of $5.45. Meanwhile, solar demand is only likely to rise going forward, suggesting VSLR should have substantive upside potential.
But the bear case on Vivint Solar stock seems reasonably easy to make as well. Historically, the solar industry has been a black hole for investors. Plus, the company’s costs are rising, and profitability appears a long way off.
VSLR stock doesn’t look like it’s worth the risk. But investors more optimistic on solar might see things differently.
Reasons to Buy VSLR Stock
There are several reasons to strongly consider Vivint Solar stock. Near-term earnings don’t look all that impressive: adjusted net loss per share in 2018 was $2.38, notably worse than 2017’s $1.58. But those figures include huge losses attributable to non-controlling interests i.e., the funds investing in Vivint Solar’s investment credits.
After backing out those losses, VSLR is close to profitable. And analysts, on average, are expecting the company to become profitable within the next two years.
But the long-term nature of Vivint Solar’s contracts means the company is trading near-term profits (and cash flow) for out-year benefits. The company’s measure of “net retained value per share” estimates the total value of existing assets, less debt. That figure continues to rise, climbing from $6.61 at the end of 2016 to a current $9.20.
Investors should be somewhat skeptical about that figure. Companies generally will have a more positive view toward their own futures, after all. But even a discount from the $9-plus figure still suggests that VSLR stock is reasonably priced, if not cheap, around $5. Meanwhile, the net-retained-value figure should grow over time as solar demand continues, spurred in part by regulations in California and elsewhere.
While VSLR’s demand should rise, competition may not do the same. Vivint Solar remains behind Sunrun (NASDAQ:RUN) in terms of total installations. But it does seem like Tesla (NASDAQ:TSLA) unit SolarCity is fading as a competitor. Per Tesla’s 10-K filings, SolarCity deployed 523 megawatts of solar energy generation in 2017, and just 326 MW last year. In contrast, Vivint’s installations rose, showing notable strength in the second half of the year.
The Case for VSLR
There’s a lot to like about VSLR stock. The industry is growing. Market share gains could be on the way. SolarCity is scuffling, and Vivint has partnered with Home Depot (NYSE:HD), after Tesla walked away from its deal with the home-improvement retailer last year.
VSLR’s earnings should improve in the near-term. Debt might be a concern, with the long-term total at $1.2 billion. But Vivint has proven able to refinance by securitizing existing installations. This includes the largest ever such deal, which closed in June.
So Vivint should be able to grow its business. It should be able to finance that business. The numbers can be confusing, owing to the different financing deals. Plus, there’s the fact that 20-year leases may not be profitable for some time to come. Still, the numbers seem to work and, if solar growth accelerates, so too should Vivint Solar stock.
The Risks Facing VSLR Stock
At the same time, Vivint Solar stock seems like anything but a slam dunk. The solar sector has been around for a century. Despite this, the number of solar companies that have made consistent profits for investors seems close to zero. VSLR itself trades well below its highs from earlier this decade. It originally planned to sell itself to SunEdison, but canceled the deal; SunEdison headed into bankruptcy not long after.
RUN did hit an all-time high earlier this year. Solar cell manufacturer First Solar (NASDAQ:FSLR) traded sideways in recent years. But overall, this has been a difficult sector, with tariffs and subsidies leading to pricing volatility. This dynamic created problems for manufacturers and installers alike.
In that context, there’s an obvious question as to whether Vivint Solar’s model is just too tough. Its business is, and will remain, labor-intensive. Financing depends on investors’ willingness to buy into securitizations at low interest rates.
Interest rates have stayed low this decade, but they may not do so forever. Change the discount rate on future cash flows that VSLR uses to calculate net retained value per share from 6% to 8%. When you do that, the net retained value per share of VSLR stock drops to $6. That’s a much lower margin of safety and suggests smaller potential gains from these shares.
Low natural gas prices are an issue, as they affect energy rates and could potentially impact the pricing advantage of installed solar. Tesla’s solar roof may not materialize any time soon, but other companies are looking to build similar models. Naturally, this could undercut the need for Vivint Solar’s systems. Battery storage is another key potential growth catalyst for VSLR stock, but Vivint’s partnership with Mercedes-Benz has fallen through, leaving the company potentially behind on that front.
$5 Is Cheap, But VSLR’s Road May Be Too Tough
Since plunging after the SunEdison deal fell through, VSLR stock actually has been a reasonably good investment. It’s possible that industry strength and continued retained-value growth will keep that trend intact.
But there are an awful lot of obstacles in the company’s path as well. VSLR can move quickly in either direction, based on external worries. New tariffs from China could spike the cost of solar panels, making the business model unprofitable, or close to it. Regulations can change. Subsidies can be added or withdrawn. There are myriad factors beyond Vivint Solar’s control which can affect Vivint Solar stock.
Investors who believe in solar and are willing to take on the risks of VSLR very well might see rewards. But the industry’s track record and installation-space uncertainty make me believe that VSLR’s road is a little too tough. At the end of the day, this is a low-margin and capital-intensive business. That’s a difficult way to make money in any industry.
As of this writing, Vince Martin has no positions in any securities mentioned.