Speculation mounts over Sharp’s action plan

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The media frenzy over the precarious financial situation of one of Japan’s iconic corporate brands and a major PV module producer, Sharp Corporation has raged all week as an expected financial bailout led by Mizuho Financial Group and Mitsubishi UFJ Financial Group loomed. On Thursday, September 27, Sharp issued a short statement confirming it had secured both immediate and near-term funding amounting to around US$4.6 billion.

However, media speculation had also focused on what Sharp was expected to announce in regards to restructuring its operations to initially gain the support from its banks and near-term policies to return to profitability.

A closer inspection of the mainstream media’s pure speculation centred on Sharp’s PV business operations, something that PV-Tech first brought to light back in mid-August.

Nothing new or revealing was found, though some had connected several obvious dots. These included the underperforming solar business both Sharp’s conventional c-Si business and its newer a-Si thin-film operations.

The dots were joined by speculating that Sharp would extend the announced consolidation of its PV manufacturing operations in Japan, by closing its module assembly plants in the UK and the US.

Anyone that has covered technology manufacturing sectors will know that Japanese firms have typically consolidated overseas operations before making similar-sized decisions in relation to domestic operations and therefore the thrust of reporting was historical in its speculation.

The dots were also connected in relation to Sharp’s thin film operations which also include the JV with Enel in Italy. The speculation was that Sharp would have to exit its manufacturing partnership and figure-out whether it should stay in the thin film market at all.

Yet again though, no actual real insight into what Sharp will actually do was revealed.

However, PV Tech became aware from several sources as well as from local media channels in Wrexham, UK, that Sharp had cut the number of manufacturing shifts at its c-Si module plant in the city with workers temporarily and permanently laid-off.

A single sentence response from Sharp over the developments at the plant, simply said that the company had no plans to close the plant down. Obviously, the statement didn’t address the issue of production being curtailed.

In the weeks that followed, discussions with some key UK-based installers revealed that few were finding installer customers requesting Sharp modules, a trend that had been growing over the last year due to the highly competitive pricing environment.

It was also noted by others in the UK market that Sharp was pushing its PV kits direct to installers, yet on a like-for-like basis showed little competitive advantage. A similar scenario was mentioned in relation to Panasonic, although the views express were more critical of Panasonic’s inability to compete on price. 

Interest in the European market could easily be waning for Sharp and Panasonic, more so due to competitive issues and the short-term needs and opportunities in selling their products in a domestic market that is set to boom.

Losing a little face in the UK and European markets would seem a better option than losing a lot of face in their own domestic market, should they not control sufficient market share over the coming few years.

What we do expect to be revealed by Sharp is a more detailed restructuring plan, especially now that the banks have approved emergency funding. How much that funding was based on Sharp delivering a convincing plan to the banks or whether the funds issue was more focused on other issues is unclear.

Until Sharp actually produces those plans for public consumption the speculation in the media will simply continue. Indeed, the impression has been from some media centres is that the speculation so far handed-out has been undertaken to push Sharp to reveal plans as soon as possible. This suggests we should not have to wait long?

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