Elon Musk’s Tantrum and Tesla’s Financial Challenges
It is nothing short of extraordinary that within the space of a decade, Elon Musk, founder and CEO of Tesla, was able to accelerate Tesla’s stock market value from near zero to a level comparable to the values of GM and Ford. What is also extraordinary is that Musk lost his temper during Tesla’s May 2018 conference call with industry analysts following the company. Instead of politely answering the analysts’ questions, as is the norm for these calls, he instead dismissed some questions as “bonehead” and “not cool.” What was that all about?
The underlying reason for Musk’s behavior, I suggest, stems from investors’ impatience with delays in the production schedule of the much-anticipated Tesla 3, Tesla’s large and growing need for capital, and recent short selling of Tesla’s stock. Musk’s goal for Tesla 3 production has been 5,000 cars per month. According to Bloomberg, the current production rate is approximately half of that, although in its June shareholder meeting, Musk claimed that the weekly production rate had increased to 3,500.
The analysts’ questions about Tesla’s need for capital had merit. According to data compiled by Bloomberg, Tesla had spent approximately $3.9 billion in the previous 12 months, has large future expenditures on the horizon, and has cash holdings at the end of March that were about $2.7 billion. Still, at the June shareholder meeting, Musk indicated that he was not expecting that Tesla would need to raise additional capital later in the year.
Tesla is now facing a classic textbook problem to manage its growth.
Finance textbooks speak about the challenge of managing growth when there is a spurt in sales in excess of how much cash the company can generate internally. Tesla is now facing a classic textbook problem to manage its growth.
The Wall Street Journal describes how Musk took to Twitter to defend his remarks, saying that the answer to analysts’ question about capital requirements could be found in a previous letter he had sent to shareholders. However, he also tweeted that the analysts whose questions he dismissed were from firms who were shorting Tesla’s stock.
Musk’s warning to the short sellers of Tesla’s stock is that they will soon be burned, as “flamethrowers” arrive. It sounds like he’s taking the short selling of Tesla stock a bit personally.
Markets are tough to predict. Who knows, Musk’s prediction might be right. Or it might be wrong. Time will tell. No matter what, here is what we can say.
He made it clear that revenue growth, not profitability, is the current priority.
Tesla’s management team does not know whether Tesla’s stock is fundamentally overvalued because, according to its CFO, they do not compute intrinsic value. In this respect, Tesla’s management is similar to many Silicon Valley firms during the early development phase, where the finance team focuses primarily on sources and uses of funds. Speaking in March, at a chapter meeting of FEI, Tesla’s CFO emphasized that his focus is to embed finance into the company’s operations, to increase efficiency, as the company seeks to grow by 80 percent a year, disrupting both the automobile industry and the energy industry. He made it clear that revenue growth, not profitability, is the current priority.
Tesla is a good company, with the admirable mission of combating global warming by changing human habits about transportation and energy consumption. The trouble is that Tesla’s stock might not be a good stock, when evaluated in strictly financial terms. It is fine for investors to hold the stock if doing so enables them to express their personal values. It is just that it would be better if they did so with their eyes wide open about the stock’s intrinsic financial value.