U-turn may put Tesla on bumpy road

But some analysts believe delisting could ease pressure on Elon Musk’s electric car venture

Elon Musk.
Elon Musk.

But some analysts believe delisting could ease pressure on Elon Musk’s electric car venture, writes Alan Tovey.

It took Elon Musk only 60 characters to radically change the direction of Tesla.

His tweet on Tuesday that he was considering taking the company private, and had secured funding to do so at $420 (R5,719) a share, sent the stock surging, as investors salivated over the potential $72bn (R980bn) deal.

Big questions remain unanswered by Musk or Tesla. Who will fund a buyout? How would the new structure work?

Musk has at least been clear about his resentment of life on the public market.

He has fought running battles with speculators who have made Tesla America’s most shorted company.

About a quarter of Tesla shares are on loan to traders who will profit if the share price falls.

Musk referred to this in a blog issued after his initial tweet, referring to “distracting, wild swings” in the share price and “perverse incentives for people to try to harm what we’re all trying to achieve”.

Tesla has faced what Musk called “production hell” as it tried to increase the rate at which it built Model 3 cars.

The affordable vehicle is intended to bring battery-powered motoring to the masses, but mass production has proved more difficult than Tesla anticipated, as it failed to hit self-imposed targets.

The celebrations of short sellers as he fell short have riled Musk.

Even some of those investors who believe in Tesla’s mission are viewed as a problem by its co-founder.

Providing them with quarterly reports places “enormous pressure on Tesla to make decisions that may be right for a given quarter, but not necessarily right for the long-term”, Musk complained.

Some sympathise.

Ross Gerber, a vocal investor in Tesla, raised concerns that “last quarter Tesla went to extreme lengths to hit their numbers, losing money flying equipment in from Germany”.

“I am sure Elon was sitting there thinking, ‘Why am I doing this to make Wall Street happy? I could have hit the numbers a month later and no one would care’.”

Musk is evangelical about electric cars and a more sustainable future powered by solar energy. Such ambitious and distant goals are rare in a public company for good reason.

Musk’s critics have been quick to claim that the real reason to go private is that it simply cannot fund itself much longer by tapping Wall Street shareholders and bond markets.

Tesla said it had burnt through $700m (R9.5bn) in its most recent quarter. This was less than $900m (R12.3bn) last time round, but the company has gone through $8bn (R109bn) in four years and racked up debt approaching 10bn (R136bn). It is yet to make an annual profit.

Critics say Tesla can’t maintain such spending and will need to raise new funds.

That could prove difficult on public markets given the state of its balance sheet.

At current rates, Tesla could be out of cash next year.

Jefferies analyst Philippe Houchois said: “While the quarterly earnings de-stressed the short-term outlook, Tesla did not reassure that profitability can support organic funding of investments in products and manufacturing capacity.

“Tesla will need additional capital to fund these or risk being caught with a narrow and ageing product range within two years.”

The Tesla range is small compared with traditional car makers.

It offers only the low-cost Model 3, the saloon Model S, and SUV Model X.

A new sports car is coming, along with a truck.

By industry standards Tesla is tiny.

It is the world’s biggest-selling electric car marque, but that achievement has been registered by selling fewer than a quarter of a million cars in total.

By comparison, Volkswagen Group, the world’s largest carmaker, sold more than 10m vehicles last year across all its brands.

Core sales at BMW, with which Tesla competes more directly at the more expensive end of the market, were 2.09m in 2017.

Tesla needs to make a wider range of cars and more of them if it is to survive, according to most seasoned industry observers.

It will need dealerships too, and more charging stations.

Estimates put the overall cost at $30bn (R408bn) over the next decade.

Competition is increasing too – Tesla has pioneered the electric car market, but now the big names are moving in on its territory fast.

More competition could also put pressure on Musk’s plans for profitability.

Some observers suggest Tesla might be better off seeking a safe haven by merging with an established carmaker.

Yet for Musk, it seems independence is more valuable than anything.