Beware the allure of ethanol investing

Ethanol investing is full of minefields, and despite ethanol becoming a major source of US fuel supply, that has not translated into gains for the ethanol investors.

I am a fan of ethanol. The addition of corn ethanol to our US fuel supply chain has had a significant impact in keeping gasoline prices way lower than they otherwise would have been, and has paid for the subsidies many times over. But that has not translated to gains for ethanol stocks, which are down on the order of 50% over the last year according to the Camino Energy index, and it won't change anytime soon.

As the bellwether US ethanol pureplays are finally down to earth, and my predictions have come to pass. Two years ago ahead of Verasun's (NYSE:VSE) IPO, I blogged an analysis saying I thought Verasun should trade in the $3 to $8 range, depending on the margin, PE, and growth assumptions. The bankers and the market thought I was nuts, treating VSE and Aventine (NYSE:AVR) which listed near the same time as technology style growth stocks. The company listed at several times my target range, and then traded way up from there. But as I had predicted, the margin pressures from a range of commodity price movements and the relatively low barriers to entry for capacity additions came to bear. But the fall is probably not over.

I stated then and reiterate now that ethanol companies are basically small refiners with potentially worse economics. And refiners traditionally trade at single digit PEs, and single digit PE. Worse, refiners don't always do well when commodity prices rise or their markets grow fast, as the spreads they make their margin on are often affected as much by relative capacity contraints as the raw commodity prices themselves. In fact, fast moving commodity prices in either direction in either refined products or feedstocks can sometimes bode ill for refining profits, depending on what's happening in capacity.

VSE now trades under $5. Right in the middle of range I predicted it should. And the PEs for VSE and AVR are finally down in the range close to the independent refiners group I follow, Valero (VLO), Sunoco (SUN), and Tesoro (TSO). BUT. And there is a but. The TEV/EBITDA multiples for VSE and AVR, which are way down, are still 2-3x those of the refiners, and the PEG ratios are still richer as well. This likely means more room to fall, or at least languish.

The next wave of venture backed ethanol companies, mostly cellulosic, are beginning to break ground on pilot plants, and given the penchant for certain ethanol crazed venture investors to IPO deals when windows open, it is likely we will see some of these soon. And it is likely that they will be sold to the market the same way, as high growth stocks based on great technology and macro conditions justifying stratospheric PEs on unsustainable margins. Then they'll hit their first commodity cycle, the margins will compress, the bloom will come off the rose, the multiples will come down, and the investors who bought and held post IPO will get crushed.

We've seen it before and we'll see it again. Try not to get caught this time.

Neal Dikeman is a founding partner at Jane Capital Partners LLC, a boutique merchant bank advising strategic investors and startups in cleantech. He is the founding CEO of Carbonflow, founding contributor of Cleantech Blog, a Contributing Editor to Alt Energy Stocks, Chairman of Cleantech.org, and a blogger for CNET's Greentech blog.

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About the author

    Neal Dikeman is a founding Partner at Jane Capital Partners LLC, advising the technology and venture arms of multi-national energy companies in cleantech. While at Jane Capital, he has cofounded superconducting technology company SC Power Systems, Inc. (now Zenergy Power plc), and wireless technology startup WaiterPad POS Systems, and he is currently involved in launching a new venture in carbon credits. Dikeman edits and writes the Cleantech Blog, where he has written extensively on biofuels, solar, and global warming.

     

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