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Quo Vadis, Cleantech investors?

16 April 2021 Brian Arcese, Portfolio Manager at Foord Asset Management, Singapore

Renewed global commitment to the environment has ignited much investment chatter, driving stocks in the cleantech and renewables space to ultra-high valuations. Investors seeking long-term alpha (beating an index) or just positive returns should proceed warily given the valuation risks in this sector.

The 2020 COVID-19 pandemic initiated a great reawakening for climate change issues amidst a renewed focus on the green agenda by global governments. In the US, newly inaugurated President Joe Biden has made swift changes. He has cancelled the Keystone XL pipeline, re-joined the Paris Agreement and plans to ban new oil and gas leases on federal land.

Even coal-reliant China has now pledged to achieve carbon neutrality before 2060. It also expects to lower its CO2 emissions per unit of GDP by 65% from the 2005 level by 2030, increase the share of non-fossil fuels in primary energy consumption to 25% and bring its total installed wind and solar power capacity to more than 1.2 billion kilowatts.

Meanwhile, Europe is leading the world in terms of committed capital expenditure. The European Green Deal is pushing for net zero emissions by 2050, earmarking at least €1 trillion of public green energy funding.

With the added push from other developed economies driving their own initiatives, investment in cleantech infrastructure should grow into the trillions of dollars—mostly funded through public-private collaboration—to de-carbonise the global economy.

Clean technology and renewable energy are poised to be the biggest areas of global capital allocation. The sector should offer investment opportunities in the areas of renewable sources such as solar and wind, green hydrogen (as an alternative for natural gas) and infrastructure investments to support electrification.

However, this does not mean that opportunities will translate into outsized returns. It is easy for investors seeking outsized returns to get caught up in the hype. Investors seeking long-term alpha (beating an index) or just positive returns should be wary of lofty valuations in the clean tech sector. For example, a market leader in offshore wind power is trading at an exceptionally expensive multiple of 47-times 2021 earnings per share (47x 2021 EPS).

There are nevertheless still some opportunities in better valued companies. For example, we own Quanta Services in the Foord Global Equity Fund. Quanta is a US leader in the construction and maintenance of electric grids and trades on a much lower multiple of 21x 2021 EPS. While not exactly cheap, it is still far more affordable than some of the most prominent companies.

Investors should also consider how companies diversify their earnings. For example, Quanta will benefit from upgrades needed to generate green energy via wind, solar or hydrogen. Many traditional US and European utilities, such as Scotland’s SSE Plc and California’s Edison International—both owned at times in the Foord | 2

Global Equity Fund—are forward thinkers and leaders in the transition to green energy. These companies offer a similar exposure to renewables at a fraction of the valuation of bigger players. At the time of writing, SSE and Edison are on 17x and 13x 2021 EPS, respectively.

Cleantech and renewable energy trends are on the right side of history and seem like a clear investment play. They should offer opportunities for investors seeking to make a difference or appreciable investment growth. But the strategy needs long-term investment—speculation and trend-following will guarantee neither outcome.

Investors must diligently assess investments for long-term returns by analysing their long-term earnings prospects. They should invest only on a deep understanding of the market and valuations, instead of just blindly following market sentiment.

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