I won’t say I told you so, but I will make a prediction here:
Jan. 9 (Bloomberg) — VeraSun Energy Corp., the second- largest U.S. ethanol producer, has idled three distilleries as demand falls and prices fail to cover the cost of production.
Producers have been struggling to make profits amid fluctuations in corn prices. Pacific Ethanol Inc. today said it will suspend output at its plant in Madera, California. On Jan. 7, Aventine Renewable Holdings Inc. said it halted construction of its refinery in Aurora, Nebraska, for up to 180 days.
Vinod Khosla hasn’t been immune:
Last month, AltraBiofuels Inc., which counts venture capitalist Vinod Khosla among its investors, shut production at its plants in Cloverdale, Indiana, and Coshocton, Ohio.
Aventine’s shares have plunged 99 percent since June 2006, when the company held its initial public offering. Biofuel Energy Corp., whose biggest owners are hedge funds run by David Einhorn and Daniel Loeb, has lost 96 percent since its stock began trading in June 2007.
99 percent! Holy cow. I did think this was amusing:
“Back then everyone thought this was such a great thing,” Gomes said. “Most of the publicly traded guys went into substantial debt to build these plants and capitalize on the rush. Right now you just have too much supply.”
Everyone thought that? Au contraire. Here is an essay I wrote in June of 2006 warning about the dangers to investors in the ethanol industry:
That was in response to a gushing article the previous week advising everyone to stash away their life savings in this great new venture. Some of my comments in response – “many claims regarding ethanol are overblown”, “the underlying fundamentals (specifically of Pacific Ethanol) make it a very risky investment”, “ethanol companies are in the same boat (as dot-coms before their crash)”, “It is simply too easy to get into this business”, and “I don’t think the underlying fundamentals warrant the valuations placed on grain ethanol producers.” So I don’t think everyone thought this was such a great thing.
OK, I said I wouldn’t say I told you so. But here is my prediction. We have a mandated demand for ethanol, which means there will continue to be an ethanol industry. The government will not pull the mandate, because of the danger to Midwestern economies. So the producers that will remain standing in the long haul are those that are integrated. The company/coop that both raises corn and produces ethanol will outlast the others. When corn prices skyrocket, they will put non-integrated producers out of business. But the integrated guys will make money on corn in this situation.
It is analogous to the integrated oil companies. Pure refiners stopped making money when oil prices shot up way over $100 a barrel. Some were even pushed into bankruptcy. But the integrated guys, even though they saw refining margins disappear, made up for it on the oil prices.
It will be the same for the ethanol companies. The farmer’s coop that owns an ethanol plant has a better chance of surviving than the Pacific Ethanols of the world.
On a similar note, I just spotted this story:
The City of Albuquerque is quietly abandoning part of its push for a greener Albuquerque after finding that E-85 powered vehicles are not all they are cracked up to be.
The city found they cost more to run and to keep running.
Enchanted with the idea of going green, the city bought a couple hundred police cars.
The problem is all the green the city is spending to keep those cars running green.
Albuquerque police Chief Ray Schultz said, “We are looking at a couple different things with the E-85. One is the cost. The fuel efficiency, and some problems with fuel pumps.”
It is going to be interesting to see what happens if the mandate by the government is greater than the demand from consumers – which is where I think we are headed. This will in fact keep ethanol prices low even if gasoline prices start to recover.