Wal-Mart's new light bulbs have a dark side

The retail giant finally has LEDs at a price its customers can afford. That's a nightmare scenario for the supplier.

By StreetAuthority Oct 9, 2013 5:40PM
Wal-Mart store in Secaucus, New Jersey / Jin Lee/Bloomberg via Getty ImagesBy David Sterman

Many consumers are still ignoring the quickest way to lower their utility bills.

Swapping out all of your older light bulbs for new light-emitting diode bulbs can save hundreds of dollars in power costs. And the fact that these bulbs can last up to 25,000 hours means you're all set for the next decade.

This new technology has been a notable success story for Home Depot (HD) and its key LED supplier, Cree (CREE). You would think that Wal-Mart (WMT) would also like to have been a major vendor of this cutting-edge, cost-saving lighting technology. But the LEDs it sold from many manufacturers have always been a bit too pricey for Wal-Mart's rank-and-file shoppers.

Yet a little-noticed announcement from GE (GE) changes everything.
Wal-Mart's new Great Value LED lights, made by privately held TCP Inc., are priced under $10, which is crucial in two respects. It's a price point that lures many more consumers to make the change, considering these bulbs can now pay for themselves in terms of power consumption in just two or three years. And it's a nightmare price point for Cree, which appears hard-pressed to make profits at such a price.

At least that's the view of Piper Jaffray's Jagadish Iyer: "At a $10 price point, we see a big squeeze on profitability at least initially for the OEMs, as we have highlighted in the case of Cree, where we think its light bulbs currently carry negative gross margins."

For a bit of context, Wal-Mart is selling GE's dimmable 60-watt-equivalent LED bulb for just under $11 -- roughly $2 less than Cree's price at Home Depot.

A long climb back
Make no mistake, Cree deserves a huge amount of credit for stimulating demand in the LED market, which had been slow to take off in 2010 and 2011. The company pushed hard to hammer down its own costs, getting many of its bulbs below the $20 price point in recent years. That's why I thought this stock was so appealing back when it traded for $20 in early 2012.
Yet as Cree's shares have now rebounded sharply, investors may be ignoring the serious challenges ahead for the company. Simply put, industry production capacity is growing at a rapid pace, which will surely impact pricing and gross margins.

Across the globe, companies such as China's Yankon, Elec-Tech International, and San'an, Taiwan's Epistar, and South Korea's LG-Innotek and Seoul Semiconductor are ramping up production of "good enough" products that may not be quite as leading edge as Cree's LED products, but good enough to be long-lasting and meet low price points.

In effect, LED lighting is about to be hit by the "Wal-Mart effect," where price trumps all, leading industry margins to remain wafer-thin.

Gross margins at a peak?
Cree's fiscal fourth-quarter results (for the quarter ended June) were just shy of forecasts, and tepid fiscal 2014 guidance has led the EPS consensus to drop from $1.87 to $1.77 over the past 60 days. D.A. Davidson's Avinash Kant used the quarterly results as the basis for a ratings downgrade to "neutral" (lowering his price target to $65), noting concerns that slower than expected margin expansion and revenue growth leaves very little room for upward earnings revisions.

Analysts have been continually forecasting margin gains as Cree more fully utilizes its manufacturing capacity, but so far, that's just not happening.

Cree has been able to make major gains in terms of its manufacturing efficiency and overhead absorption, but ever-tougher industry pricing pressures keep the company from benefiting from lower costs.

Will margins ever rebound?
Despite those apparent challenges, many of which reappeared on the fourth-quarter conference call in early August when shares slumped below $60, they've rebounded once again to near the 52-week high of $76 as investors again focus on the positive traits of the LED lighting industry.

But at current prices, these shares are no bargain, trading for nearly 35 times projected fiscal 2015 profits. Yet it's fair to wonder if the rapid fresh price declines for LED light bulbs (led by Wal-Mart and GE) will make it impossible for Cree to deliver the margin growth that the most bullish investors are anticipating.

Risks to consider: As an upside risk, Cree has long been seen as a buyout candidate, and some of the recent share price strength is attributable to buyout rumors.

Action to take:
When shares of Cree were widely reviled in early 2012, shares traded for little more than 10 times forward earnings. Less than two years later, investors are now according a much richer multiple to this stock. As a result, Cree now faces a much higher hurdle. Investors may be in for a rude surprise if the company's profit margins remain stuck in neutral in coming quarters.

David Sterman does not personally hold positions in any securities mentioned in this article.
StreetAuthority LLC does not hold positions in any securities mentioned in this article.

More from StreetAuthority

Oct 10, 2013 9:21AM
Don't believe a lot of the LED light bulbs last that many hours.  I have bought LED light bulbs from Home Depot, Lowes, Menards, and Wal-Mart.  Not one of them had lasted as long as what is listed on the manufacture package.  I called the companies and they had me send the bulb(s) back to them.  I will wait until they can make bulbs that last.
Oct 10, 2013 10:23AM

I am not a Wal-Mart shopper, but I would never, ever, pay $11 for a light bulb !  I'll put those in the same category as a $2000 laptop, $150 jeans, $75 steak dinner or $400 bottle of wine.  And then I'll smile at the world since I am very

comfortable in retirement with plenty of money in the bank, freedom to live how I want, no mortgage on a large house, and a three year old car.  I didn't get there paying $11 for a light bulb !!!

Oct 10, 2013 1:20PM
To save energy, I turn off the lights when they are not being used. Remember that?  It's free. I also use the sun, more free light.
Oct 10, 2013 10:30AM
Most of my incandescent bulbs have been replaced, and the electric bill is lower-no kidding.  Nevertheless, it is very difficult for my old eyes to read by these bulbs, so where I sit and read, the lamp there has an old-fashioned  100 Watt bulb, and there are no problems.  Even my ophthalmologist agrees with me, and she is much younger than I.  These new bulbs have plusses and minuses.
Oct 10, 2013 9:27AM

"Long lasting!" my butt!


I took the bait...4,5 times...maybe more....not ONE of my LED's lasted much more than the standard bulbs they replaced.  MAYBE 6-8 months....maybe...in some of our most used lamps or closets.


Fool me once....you know the rest.  I have a cabinet full of good ole regular light bulbs now...in all wattages....most cost  $1 something for a 4 pack - it will be LONG time before I recoup the costs of those LED's that I overpaid for!

Oct 10, 2013 11:00AM
While it may be true that these bulbs are more efficient I do not agree that they provide adequate light.  I have not had one last the suggested time.  If it is truly a better mousetrap, the world will beat a path to your door.  We know these are worst because Congress had to outlaw the traditional light bulb.
Oct 10, 2013 11:17AM
Still like the incandescent for reading. 
Oct 10, 2013 9:41AM
I have only one question,  Where are the higher priced Cree light bulbs manufactured?
Oct 10, 2013 10:09AM
I bought some of these & they don't last, even a year.  They're a ripoff & a fraud.  Its false advertising to say they last 100,000 hours; they don't.  I used them in the bathroom.  They didn't last a  year.  They use them here, where I live, in the common areas & they're constantly burning out.  They're also dangerous, if broken, bec of the gas they emit.  The EPA is a bunch of beaurocratic nut jobs, that the US is wasting our tax $$$ on.

Lets do the math normal new low watt lights (curly light bulbs) you can get 8 60 watt for 11 dollars


about same price as one led bulb. so cost difference is $9.26 both say they will last about 4 years


one the curly uses 13 watts then other uses 9.5 watts


assume the bulb is on about 6 hours a day for 4 years that is 3.5 watts times 6*365*4 or 30 kilowatts hours of electrical power being used


at about 8 cents for a kilowatt hour this comes to a whopping $2.45 over the life span of the product


take additional cost $9.26 - $2.45 and you have lost about $6.81 by buying the LED's


that is a carbon tax of a lot as the worse coal burning plant produces just over 2 pounds of CO2 for 1 kilowatt. so we are talking 60 pounds of CO2 here (30 kilowatts) at a cost of $6.81 moving it up to tons means you are paying a carbon tax of $227 by using these bulbs


currently Great Britain has a $25 dollar carbon tax -- which will reach $38 a ton by 2019


So these LED bulbs have to drop in price to about $1.50 in order to be as good a deal as the curly bulbs.

Oct 10, 2013 11:05AM
When some one comes up with a way cut the electric usage in half for my stove, oven and heat pumps by making them more efficient, talk to me again. 
Oct 10, 2013 12:23PM
When Home Depot started selling LED bulbs about two years ago, it was after I'd just finishing adding a lot more insulation to our attic. We were on an energy-efficiency roll, so we bought a couple of LED bulbs and liked them because they put out a nicer, flicker-less, warmer-colored light than the "curly" bulbs, and put out a lot less actual heat than the "old style" filament bulbs. We then replaced about 30 light bulb with LED bulbs. The lighting effects are nicer, the light is bright, the bulbs come on instantly. There is far less heat produced for the AC to deal with, so the LEDs are a winner two ways on energy usage. Only one of the LED bulb has failed in two years, and Home Depot swapped it out with no hassle. My two cents worth...
Oct 10, 2013 9:45AM
From the article: For a bit of context, Wal-Mart is selling GE's dimmable 60-Watt LED bulb for just under $11.

Uhh, better make that 60-Watt EQUIVALENT LED Bulb, which hopefully, uses about 10-12 watts. Otherwise, that is either one helluva BRIGHT bulb, or one very inefficient LED.
Oct 10, 2013 11:25AM
I believe a lot of folks commenting are thinking of those squiggly/swirly looking CFL bulbs, not the LED's referenced in the article.
Oct 10, 2013 10:04AM
Aren't CFL bulbs still more cost effective than LEDs? Why would you buy the LEDs yet? Wait for the price to drop a lot more. It will.
Oct 10, 2013 11:23AM
oh right, better to use the 'curly fried' bulbs right? the ones with mercury in them, so when you drop them and they burst you need to call in a HazMat team to clean it up and leave your house so you don't get mercury poisoning!! sure! ain't technology grand? isn't it supposed to be BETTER than before and not cause absurd complications??!!  simply: if a liberal environMENTAList is pushing a product go with the opposite ones and you'll be safe! everything liberals touch is a failure, as this country is a good example of that!

good thing I've stocked up on the old fashion not-gonna-poison-you kind of bulbs! you know, the ones that don't cost 12 bucks each!
Oct 10, 2013 9:10AM

I read about one ingenuous fellow who, after the banning on the sale of incandescent light bulbs, was marketing them as 'heaters' to get around the sale as light bulbs. Brilliant.


But anyway, I don't give a sh** what Sprawl Mart sells or doesn't sell. I never go there unless I have no other option, even if it costs me more.

Oct 9, 2013 6:26PM
cree bulbs are high quality and        the light is same color  on all bulbs
Oct 10, 2013 11:56AM
it's part of walmart's new "buy american" policy. they won't want to pay any of the american company's crap but at least they can get a few headlines and some free advertising out of it while still paying hardly anything for whatever they sell.
Oct 10, 2013 7:44PM
Isn't it nice the government is forcing us to switch to the "new" bulbs.  After all they know what is best for all of us don't they. 
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