TL;DR – As the first post on a short investment this is a bit longer and thorough than usual due to the required level of conviction. Key points of the thesis are as follows: (i) Tesla are not good operators and are not good at manufacturing cars which will hamper their ability to scale; (ii) Autonomous driving is a potential threat to all OEMs; (iii) Electric Vehicles have structural medium-term cost impediments; (iv) Tesla’s balance sheet is very weak; (v) Cash burn coupled with foreseeable capital intensity of growth means Tesla has high external funding needs for the foreseeable future; (vi) High rate of staff departures are a red flag; (vii) Tesla has corporate governance issues; and (viii) Tesla is overvalued.
Elon Musk is saving the earth and Tesla is his gift that will redefine transportation, energy storage and render fossil fuels useless. While this hyperbole highlights Elon’s status as a cult figure, it is not too far from the actual adoration that has been thrown towards Elon Musk by fanboys as Tesla rockets upwards to a $50bn valuation. Tesla is a hype stock, driven by sentiment.
Tesla has completely changed the trajectory of the auto industry
Let’s take a moment to define Tesla as it stands today – Tesla is a car company. They take things, put them together to make an electric vehicle (“EV”) and then sell it. This is primarily how they generate revenue today and for the foreseeable future.
Tesla has yet to dominate or fundamentally change the auto industry as their volumes still represent a miniscule share of the global market, however they have permanently altered the trajectory of the industry by making every other original equipment manufacturer (“OEM”) sit up and take notice.
While Tesla acolytes will have you believe that OEMs are stodgy slow moving conglomerates that are not prepared for the rapid shift to EV, this is not completely true. OEMs are not standing still. Other car companies are well aware of the fundamental shift away from internal combustion engines (“ICE”) and inevitable rise of EVs and have been consistently funding EV R&D driving a stacked pipeline of electrified cars.
As the first mover and with a strong brand associated with innovation, Tesla will remain the electric vehicle company for quite a while. The market will eventually converge as EVs become more mainstream due to OEMs incorporating EVs into their lineup. This will slowly erode the unique EV factor currently attached to the Tesla brand and they too will come to be seen as just another car manufacturer. Yet it shouldn’t be denied that the more enduring factor driving Tesla loyalty, the “cool factor” may drive customer stickiness for a while. After all, drivers in San Francisco prefer the Alcantara seats of a Model X to the leather of an X5 for a reason. In this way it is similar to another Silicon Valley darling, Apple. Despite being an innovative first mover it eventually saw the commoditisation of their core product, the smartphone.
But a key question remains as to how this loyalty will fare over time? While people are willing to part with $1,000 on the latest iPhone (a device they spend many hours a day on) at a premium to comparable devices, will people be as price insensitive to spend $50,000+ on Tesla mass market cars?
Production / Ability to scale
Myth: Just as Tesla has leapt ahead of OEMs and reinvented the car, it is completely redefining the paradigm of automotive manufacturing.
Reality: Making cars isn’t easy, just ask Elon. Also, maybe Toyota (you know the guys who perfected just-in-time and popularized kaizen / six sigma manufacturing) and BMW/Mercedes know a little something about how to run a production line…
The Elon Musk approach is revolutionary for the world. Taking a blank sheet of paper to established rules allows him to constantly innovate better solutions. The problem with this is that sometimes the way things are being done (and being incrementally improved) currently is actually best practice. Tesla is striving to be a vertically integrated car scale manufacturer. The gargantuan nature of this complex task cannot be underestimated and auto execs have questioned the ability of the Tesla model to scale. To consider the two approaches (traditional vs. Tesla) we need to dive into what actually goes on at Fremont, Tesla’s sole manufacturing facility.
New United Motor Manufacturing Inc. (“NUMMI”) was an auto manufacturing JV between GM and Toyota located in Fremont that opened in 1984 and closed in 2010 due to the potential bankruptcy of GM post-GFC. The 5.5m sqft building which was carried on the books at $1.3bn was sold during the recession at the fire-sale price of $42m to Tesla. A shrewd piece of business similar to the sharp purchase by Tesla of a $50m stamping press for $6m that it’s VP of manufacturing Gilbert Passin described as “happily scavenging” from struggling companies.
NUMMI was initially intended to be a mutually beneficial temple of lean manufacturing. A way for Toyota to tailor its Toyota Production System to the US market (different regulations, suppliers and unions) while allowing GM a chance to learn from Toyota’s manufacturing methods. As Toyota implemented its optimized manufacturing principles, NUMMI grew and by 1997 it had 4,844 workers and produced 357,809 vehicles – c. 74 vehicles / worker per year. By contrast, Tesla has approximately 10,000 workers at its Fremont facility and a stated initial capacity of 250,000 (let’s not discuss the feasibility of this number yet), implying a much lower worker efficiency ratio than other OEMs. This may be a contributing factor to Tesla factory workers not even having a spot to park when they arrive to work, as illustrated by this amusing Instagram. However, this metric is not an apples to apples comparison because Tesla is fundamentally different to other OEMs in two meaningful ways:
- Tesla is much more vertically integrated
- Tesla’s manufacturing line attempts to have an extremely high degree of automation
Vertical integration: A lot of stuff in a Tesla, is made by Tesla. While this may sound obvious it isn’t how many OEMs operate as a typical vehicle has many component systems that are sourced by specialty componentry suppliers including the transmission, interior, electrical, suspension, steering, braking and the list goes on. While Tesla does utilize component suppliers, they engineer and develop a number of components in house that other OEMs do not, with everything from cup holders to seats and even electronic circuit boards made under the Tesla roof. This stands in stark contrast to other OEMs as they focus on their core competency of bringing together components, assembling and building cars (similar to how Boeing / Airbus make planes). The tradeoff of in-housing components to balance quality, margins and production scalability is up for debate but one thing that is objectively true is that the Tesla approach introduces a much higher degree of complexity.
Automation: In what seems like a logical move, Tesla even tried to “electrify” the production line by utilizing robots for multiple steps in the process from fabrication to assembly. For example, stamping body part plates/panels and utilizing a robot arm to shift them into place is standard practice within the industry, but a critical point where Tesla went further is assembly. Bernstein research notes that a typical carmaker will only have 3 to 5% of final assembly (refers to installing the power train, seals, interior fitting etc.) automated. This is not for lack of trying, as the primary customers (auto industry accounted for c. 35% of total industrial robot supply in 2016) of the big 4 robotics manufacturers (FANUC, ABB, Kuka, Yasukawa) are undoubtedly trying to automate where it makes sense and working closely with robotics suppliers. Robots are highly effective for repetitive high-volume tasks (e.g. welding) but are not as effective when it comes to adapting to a different task once designed / programmed for a specific action. Therein lies the primary tradeoff of high cost automation vs. retaining flexibility in a human dependent production line. Auto OEMs have clearly determined that as of today, final assembly is not a part of the manufacturing line that makes sense to automate as humans are more effective. Musk took his blank sheet approach and decided to automate as much as possible. Tesla even went to the lengths of purchasing German manufacturing design specialist Grohmann, a company that used to be utilized by OEMs to help assist in improving manufacturing processes. Tesla has also deployed a massive number of Kuka units (high quality and expensive robots) across their Fremont floor. The capital intensity of this approach is immense and has rapidly accelerated Tesla’s cash burn as shown below:
Take a moment to consider the quantum of this capex. Over $3bn of capex in 2017 is high, but shouldn’t this be expected as they construct a new production line for the model 3 along with other Fremont plant improvements? Maybe, but this is not a greenfield project. Remember they paid $42m for the NUMMI plant and the above capex has been to build only the production line, with core infrastructure already in place. Despite this, the capex spend per unit of headline capacity is incredibly high compared to peers based on equity research estimates:
Even Elon stated on CBS when asked about whether the plant was over automated – “Yes, absolutely. We’ve got too many robots.” Here is the problem with course correcting from here… the exact reason managers carefully consider automation capex before deployment is that it can become stranded capital if ineffective. Automated lines and robots are difficult to redeploy and if ineffective and there could be two crippling consequences for Tesla: (i) Model 3’s rolling off the line that have defects due to robotics teething issues (that will either be sent to customers with issues causing headaches later or that will require time intensive quality control checking on the line); and (ii) The highly automated production line will be difficult to reconfigure for other models in pipeline (Model Y and others) hence payback on investment will be low.
Another principle that the Toyota way of NUMMI inculcated in its managers was the rule of no wastage as well as constant improvement. These were driving principles in establishing world class practices such as just-in-time (“JIT”) production. JIT saves a plant from having to store parts and reduces waste and inventory costs (leading to lower working capital and higher cash flow).
Whether the above Tesla approach is best practice for optimizing working capital is unknown, as well as whether it aligns with the Toyota just-in-time mantra.
Considering where Tesla is today we can surmise their production situation as follows:
- Vertical integration increases complexity and will make scaling difficult
- Automation has not been successful thus far, despite billions in capex. Tesla, which is on the currently entering the mass market segment, is at risk of: (i) Stranded capital; (ii) Production delays; and/or (iii) Production defects / product recalls
- Fremont / NUMMI is struggling to meet Tesla’s 2018 needs. It will not be sufficient to meet the Tesla 2025 vision. Greenfield sites are needed, with billions of capex needed to build them
Structural issues – Driverless cars on the horizon
Autonomous driving is on the horizon. While regulation and technological barriers will slow the inevitable likelihood of wide scale adoption – the structural shift to autonomous driving will impact Tesla and OEMs substantially. There are plenty of unknowns at this stage but two likely impacts of autonomous vehicles are:
- Less cars: The sharing economy increases utilization. Airbnb utilizes empty space like Uber utilizes dormant cars. In a future world where less people buy cars because they just use a ride hailing app, fewer cars will be needed to transport people from point A to point B as cars won’t be sitting in a garage unused for 90% of the week. Less cars = less sales for OEMs.
- Bigger customers: As autonomous driving is adopted, ride hailing apps won’t need to fund their main cost – drivers. They will have fleets of driverless cars to service customers. Companies like Toyota and Mercedes will then shift, instead of selling to millions of different individuals under a B2C model, they will suddenly be faced with large corporations as their primary clientele under a B2B model. Also, the margin contributors for many OEMs are the higher end models that they upsell (better engine, aesthetic body kit) to consumers however product mix would likely shift towards more basic models under a fleet purchasing scenario. In an already thin margin business with high capital intensity and cyclical demand, the auto industry faces another headwind – increased customer bargaining power.
Where are we today in autonomous driving? This is harder to ascertain given the multiple competing programs from manufacturers, some shrouded in secrecy while others are trumpeted to the public at trade shows. Misunderstanding of the landscape can be highlighted by the ridiculous headlines that were published a few months ago when many articles referenced a report by Navigant Research that stated Tesla was last among OEMs and startups within the autonomous driving space. You read that right… last. See below for a diagram from Navigant research
The methodology for this report is questionable when trying to rank the companies in the space who will be able to reach L5 capability but the authors clearly didn’t think to sense-check as some basic desktop research can undermine their “ranking”. It is absurd that Tesla ranks behind companies like JLR (who have next to nothing within the autonomous space) and Fiat Chrysler who beyond a partnership with Waymo have made absolutely no progress themselves. To define what the stages of autonomous development are please see the table below:
L5 is clearly the future that all players are striving to but products we have seen so far mostly are at L2 level, with Tesla/Waymo/GM making strides to achieve L3/L4 in the near term under controlled testing conditions. The ability of players to enhance their offering will likely be driven by three factors: (i) Hardware; (ii) Software; and (iii) Data. While OEMs along with GPU/Sensor suppliers are critical for the hardware part of the equation it is more likely that the software and data edge will determine the winner. Within software the players such as Google (Waymo) / Apple / Baidu are likely best placed given existing software development expertise and it appears Google have made a clear strategic decision to focus their efforts on developing an autonomous driving platform. Realising that there are plenty of OEMs and specialist manufacturers without software expertise, Waymo can be to auto OEMs what Android OS is to smartphone OEMs. Software will be the critical aspect that regulators will need to get comfortable with both from a safety and security aspect hence expertise and reputation will likely add some weight. The third factor is data – many players are constantly gathering data through trials however Tesla likely has a substantial edge in this area due to essentially having 100k+ beta units on the road constantly gathering real world data as each Tesla car rolling off the Fremont factory floor is connected over the cloud and feeds data back to the company.
Whether or not Tesla emerges as a key autonomous player is difficult to predict at this stage given the intensity and variety of competition but the overall shift is likely to have a material adverse impact for all OEMs if the outcome is a few large customers and less cars on the road. While this may be of lesser concern if we were analyzing Diamler or Toyota, this point is particularly pertinent to Tesla as most of the intrinsic value of Tesla is attributable to the long term (2025+) as this is when the Street expects them to be highly profitable and cash flow generative.
Structural Issues – EV Profitability / Attractiveness
A cost teardown of an average internal combustion engine (“ICE”) vehicle and an EV reveal a clear differentiation – EVs today cost materially more to produce than comparable ICE cars.
As you can see above despite an EV not requiring certain components (transmission etc.) the incremental cost of only the electrified powertrain and EV infrastructure outweighs nearly the total componentry cost of an ICE vehicle. Battery cells which are the primary cost are steadily falling due to technological advancements however the crossover point for EV vs. ICE powertrain costs remains many years out as estimated below:
Battery pack costs remain make or break for the feasibility of the EV industry over the next few years. Given how critical this is as the primary cost input for Tesla, let’s consider the drivers of battery costs and impact upon profitability.
The main costs of each battery cell are within the precursor metals of the cathode rather than the anode so it makes sense to focus on the chemistry of the cathode. For the sake of simplicity we won’t dive into the nuances of cathode chemistry but if interested I would highly recommend reading the following links to properly understand the COGS conundrum facing Tesla: here , here , here , here , and here. The key takeaway is that cathode powders are expensive. Tesla needs cathode metals to get drastically cheaper to reach their sky high promises on battery costs, gross margins and mileage but they have been getting exponentially more expensive. Two components that are especially sensitive to price volatility and have been rapidly driving up battery costs are lithium and cobalt.
The supply dynamics of these metals is not as attractive as say, graphite, the core anode base metal that is one of the most abundant resources on the world. Cobalt deposit finds are not common and currently c. 60% of global production comes from the Democratic Republic of Congo, a volatile and unstable country. Cobalt is primarily produced as a byproduct of copper and nickel production. Therefore due to limited growth in these metals, supply constraints for Cobalt are likely to persist. Lithium supply is not as precarious but has also faced constraints which have triggered sharp price hikes due to the production oligopoly (SQM, FMC, Albemarle) not expanding supply fast enough. Supply-demand imbalances will be exacerbated rapidly once major auto OEMs start producing EVs in meaningful volumes. Therefore many manufacturers have been jostling to secure off take agreements with limited success so far. Given the uncertainty around commodity prices it is difficult to see how Tesla is going to reach its gross margin targets in a rising input cost environment. While the much vaunted Gigafactory gives them a scale advantage in cell production, they are still beholden to the same resource risk as everyone else. A resource risk that is currently eroding their gross margins at the time they need cash flow the most.
Another headwind facing EV adoption has been the muted oil price environment since 2014. Many EV supporters have noted the upfront premium of EVs is recovered over time due to the lower operating costs compared to ICE vehicles however as oil prices have dropped significantly from >$100/bbl this “breakeven” point for the consumer has been pushed further out.
While EVs are clearly a fantastic product, Tesla itself is testament to the low barriers to entry in the auto OEM industry as a swathe of pure play EV startups have followed in Tesla’s footsteps. Today there are no credible threats but beyond the primary restriction of capital, the hurdles to step into Tesla’s turf appear to be manageable.
For a long period of time Tesla has been Elon’s very own Field of Dreams as for anything he has built, people have come. However pre-2018 Tesla is a different proposition to what investors hope for future Tesla as it transitions from the niche of high end performance vehicles to a mass market brand. Demand dynamics will be different moving forward.
Tesla generated immense hype when launching pre-sales for the Model 3, garnering nearly 400,000 deposits of $1,000 each in April 2016. This is even more impressive when taking into account that all customers had seen so far was a silhouette of the car and some loose details such as the $35,000 base price. The deposits are c. 500k now according to Elon and he must be applauded as this move provided the best source of working cap financing Tesla will ever receive, with potential future customers giving them a $500m interest free loan. However, while parting with $1,000 is a notable commitment, the conversion rate of deposits into actual purchases is unknown at this stage and it is worth noting that they are fully refundable. Three factors likely to impede conversion are: (i) Model 3’s aren’t really going to cost $35k as initially advertised; (ii) Fading US EV tax credits; and (iii) People are having to wait longer than they expected.
Model 3 ASP: Higher priced cars have fatter margins, and this is critically important for EVs to spread the high electrical powertrain costs over a higher base. Given Tesla’s volatile gross margins on the $100k+ Model S and X it is very difficult to see how they make money on a $35,000 Model 3. The company knows this and has so far been “skimming” Model 3 demand by upselling customers or focusing on those customers who are willing to liberally option their vehicles to improve short term cash flow. The problem with skimming is that it exhausts the most lucrative segment of demand at an early juncture. Also it is questionable whether Tesla will ever really sell many cars at the $35k advertised base price which that leads to the question, if customers realise their Model 3 will cost 20%+ more than initially expected, will they convert their deposits?
Fading EV Tax credits: As Tesla continues to sell cars it moves closer to the 200,000 domestic unit cap – once it hits the cap the $7,500 per unit subsidy provided to customers by Uncle Sam starts to roll off within two quarters to $0. They will hit this cap in 2018 and then be in a position of relative weakness to both comparable ICE models as well as competing OEM EVs. Everyone else (except for General Motors who will also hit the cap sooner rather than later) will have a material pricing advantage and it is at this mass market price point where demand is most sensitive to price. The GOP tax bill tabled in 2017 proposed to repeal the incentive and if the bill is passed in this form then it would level the EV playing field but problematically place the whole industry at a disadvantage to ICE models as manufacturers will have to absorb higher EV powertrain costs or consumers will likely choose better value ICE models.
As a side note, even though the next few are completely focused on Model 3 deliveries it is worth keeping an eye on sequential numbers for Model X/S shipments. Recent numbers have not been trending well as they have fallen quarter-on-quarter. The company has stated Model 3 production is the focus and while this may be true, another explanation could be flat lining or fading demand for these higher priced models. If this is the case, product mix deterioration will be yet another hindrance to Tesla’s path to profitability.
All the above factors are short term however the real threat on the horizon is the eventual arrival of competitors on the EV scene. Nearly all OEMs have announced significant EV pipeline programs with targets for a specific number of models to be fully electrified by 2025. This will start to commoditise the value proposition of Tesla.
Recession: While it is impossible to forecast recessions it is worth acknowledging we are currently in the ninth year of the business cycle post-GFC. This likely means we are in the late stages of the economic cycle and risk of a recession is particular heightened in the next three years. The auto industry is somewhat cyclical in nature with a drop in US discretionary spending likely to hinder Tesla demand. Also, asset markets generally price a recession in earlier and fall 6-12 months ahead of an underlying recession, which triggers a tightening of capital markets. For these reasons, a US recession over the medium term represents a potential catalyst for the Tesla short thesis.
Tesla’s balance sheet is a constant point of discussion as people debate if (when?) they will need to return to capital markets to keep the company going. Tesla has, to date, been reliant on open and accommodative capital markets as they have expanded their balance sheet in order to hit operational milestones. To state the obvious, capital is not free. Every time Tesla raises capital they need to generate a higher return than the cost of that capital to create value. They have not been doing this so far due to their malinvestment (remember those really pricey Kuka robots?) that has not yet resulted in corresponding cash flows, instead probably causing a likely low through cycle ROIC (assuming they do manage to get to operating profitability one day).
Every dollar of debt Tesla adds creates a servicing burden while every dollar of equity raised dilutes shareholders (however equity raising done at current lofty valuation makes this less painful) and therefore further raisings will likely be anathema to existing shareholders. However, the contrary may be much more painful… a scenario under which capital markets are not open. While it is unlikely capital markets will freeze, the loose financing conditions of the past 5 years are unlikely to continue given the cycle is now in a tightening phase. Herein lies a key risk and catalyst for the short thesis, if there is deterioration in financial markets and capital markets become costly or inaccessible to a junk-rated borrower such as Tesla it will wreak havoc on the valuation. Tesla in its current state is a black hole for cash completely reliant on external funding.
This is before considering the questionable accounting policies utilized by Tesla as they pro-forma their way to a better picture of financial health than may be true. Ignoring GAAP boundaries Tesla has utilized some creative accounting in a concerning way when reporting certain metrics. An example of this is ignoring obligations attached to lease car revenue – Tesla provides a resale value guarantee which would represent a real liability in the future if the resale market for second hand Tesla’s were to ever turn (as would likely occur in a recession or if Tesla’s became more mainstream). Also the company is carrying a rapidly growing deferred capex obligation that is equivalent to debt, only adding to the financing burden facing the company.
Any valuation of Tesla will ultimately hinge on their ability to achieve strong profitability (multiples) or cash flow (intrinsic value). Tesla is in an early stage of its corporate life cycle hence benchmarking to comps will not be a useful exercise however it is still a valuable lens to understand required profitability and cash flows to support the current valuation.
As a car manufacturer to become a $100bn company Tesla will need to be a global mass market manufacturer across price points and models like VW or BMW.
When analyzing the above, remember that Tesla (due to the cost economics of EVs) will struggle to make any money at the gross margin level on their entry level base $35k Model 3. This is despite the most premium full range brands in the world (BMW/Diamler) having ASPs of c. $45k. To hit their valuation they not only need to move down market to the masses in a meaningful manner, but they need to improve per unit COGS enough so they are able to drive high gross margins to cover their overhead costs and deliver healthy EBIT margins.
As shown above best in class large scale operators Diamler and BMW post EBIT margins of 8 – 11%, much higher than other large OEMs such as Ford that operate at mid-single digits in the best case. This is primarily due to different gross margin profiles as Ford has a GM margin of 10% compared to the more premium operators who are able to achieve high teen GM margins. Tesla, has communicated its long term GM target to be 25%. This would suggest it can reach a similar EBIT margin of major players however this masks a few critical misinterpretations of Tesla’s GM. In the recent quarter Tesla was able to achieve a GM margin of “slightly above 25%” on Model S and Model X – this should be cause for concern for investors. While on the surface this appears to show it can reach best in class profitability similar to other OEMs once ramped, this GM profitability is on very expensive cars that will definitely be delivering higher margins than lower priced models that Tesla will be shipping in the future (Model 3/Y). Also Tesla gross margin benefits from their direct to consumer model where they capture the 10-15% markup that dealerships usually apply under a traditional OEM distribution model. However this markup obviously does not come without associated costs and Tesla’s service centers around the world generate real costs (remember Tesla has had some major recalls in its history) that are captured in SG&A that other OEMs do not have to consider. Also unlike many other OEMs, Tesla does not expense its R&D despite it being a recurring annual cost. If considering service and R&D expenditures within the gross margin for Tesla then it suddenly becomes much more difficult to see Tesla’s path to achieving an operating margin than can match/outstrip the BMWs of the world. It appears at current valuation levels the market is giving them credit for being able to reach a 10%+ operating margin not only on Model S/X but on the Model 3, Model Y, Semi and future models they are likely to roll out.
Car manufacturers (and investors) also have to consider the capital intensity of the industry. In steady state, it appears that OEMs spend 5-8% of their sales on capex. Tesla’s revenue/PPE should scale over time to reach peer levels however that would assume they invest with similar capital discipline to their peers, by only incurring capex that will deliver sufficient ROIC. An issue of investing in Tesla today is that in an already capital intensive industry, they have a much higher capital requirement than their peers. Tesla’s requirement for greenfield facilities, more service centers (a capital contribution instead made by dealers under a traditional model), more superchargers (investments that do not deliver matching cash flows), and an inflated overhead cost structure mean that Tesla’s cash needs are unlike any other OEM. This combined with their high WC funding needs as they grow highlights the validity of concerns held by investors that Tesla will continue to dilute them through equity issuance’s.
While Tesla is constantly navigating funding needs and solutions quarter by quarter it is worth noting that their field of competitors (who are on the precipice of entering the EV space) remain well capitalized and have deep cash reserves to invest. In a capital intensive business that is exposed to the consumer cycle, peers clearly see the benefit of retaining financial flexibility.
When considering Tesla’s valuation a more high level approach can be employed given the early stage of their corporate life and uncertainty around long term growth – we can consider a scenario whereby Tesla becomes a global mass market OEM with premium pricing and best in class margins. If Tesla is able to ship 2m units (BMW and Diamler shipped 2.4m and 2.2m respectively in 2016) at a $50k ASP then they should be able to reach $100bn in revenue within their auto business. If they achieve operating margins matching best in class operators of 10% then they should generate $10bn in EBIT. Assuming a 10x EV/EBIT then Tesla could feasibly be a $100bn enterprise in the future, justifying the current Enterprise Value of $60bn+. For the various reasons discussed previously, including the profitability profile and cash needs of Tesla, this optimistic scenario playing out is unlikely.
Key man risk: Tesla’s greatest blessing of having a superstar leader in Elon Musk also has represents key man risk as Elon has been stunningly successful in various fields and has made no secret of his dream to colonise Mars. A scenario under which he one day leaves Tesla for SpaceX or another grand venture is not completely implausible
Staff departures: Management departures are commonly cited by experienced short investors as a red flag. If that’s the case then Tesla is definitely worth a closer look as their C-Suite is a revolving door. It would take too long to detail all the departures but thankfully reputed short seller Jim Chanos has collated a list here. Senior personnel across many units (engineering / autopilot / finance) have consistently departed, many likely leaving behind lucrative stock packages which begs the question – why walk away from a bunch of Tesla stock or options as an insider?
Governance: Tesla is a one man band and Elon makes all the calls. If you believe in him as a visionary / executive then this shouldn’t deter you, as many companies with high profile founders have gone as far as deploying dual class shareholding structures to retain control (FB/SNAP/GOOG). Of course this kind of reliance on an individual becomes a corporate governance concern when there are strategic missteps and outside investors are not able to have their interests protected. An example of questionable governance at Tesla was the $2.8bn acquisition of SolarCity, the solar energy company run by Elon’s first cousins Lyndon and Peter Rive. The multi-billion dollar takeout of a company with questionable strategic fit, in which Elon was the chairman and largest shareholder, should have been cause for concern and the market reacted as Tesla’s shares slid 11% on announcement. The strategic rationale of combining two entities with limited synergies (yes it creates a complete energy company from generation to use, but what exact revenue and cost synergies was Tesla planning to extract to justify the 25% premium?) was never that convincing and two years on we are yet to see the industrial logic of the acquisition play out even though it is still early days. The timing was worrisome too, as Tesla bought a company that was bleeding cash losses at a time when Tesla was cash flow negative itself and raising equity to fund further losses.
More recently, institutional investors have become increasingly concerned about the Board of Directors. Activist firm CtW has been publicly questioning the independence of non-executive directors as they completely lack manufacturing or relevant auto experience but are instead individuals with close ties to Elon. The board has barely changed since floating in 2010.
The bull case
Tesla didn’t reach its stratospheric valuation for no reason, as investors have offered various reasons to explain why Tesla will one day be a $100bn+ company. These generally revolve around one of four key competitive advantages:
- Energy dominance: Tesla isn’t a car company, they are an energy company. They are a renewable energy production (Solar panels), storage (Powerwall) and usage (Tesla cars) company. Admittedly, Tesla does all of these things. However none of their non-car businesses provide a meaningful contribution to their revenue today or for the foreseeable future. Also, does Tesla have a competitive advantage in the crowded field of electricity generation and storage?
- Battery technology: “No EV cars will be able to compete with Tesla because they have the best battery tech in the industry”. Tesla today has a meaningful edge in battery tech / chemistry however it is worth noting that batteries will eventually become a low cost commodity and that much of the discussed battery manufacturing IP resides with their JV partner for the gigafactory, Panasonic. A partner which is expected to partner with other OEMs such as Toyota in the near future.
- EV Infrastructure: Tesla’s network of superchargers will become the backbone of EV infrastructure across the country (potentially world) as it doesn’t make sense to duplicate and EV users will be drawn to the installed network. The vast majority of driving by many users is done within a single urban area that may easily be covered by the range of EVs so the utility to the masses of this advantage is questionable. To date Model X/S customers have used superchargers free of charge but this is set to change as Model 3 users will be charged per use. This investment again is likely to represent a very low rate of return on capital for the company while Tesla also runs the risk of stranded capital if there is a substantial shift in technology
- Autonomous driving: Tesla due to its data advantage and head start will be the dominant autonomous vehicle player. As discussed before, Tesla does have a data advantage but whether they will parlay this to become the leading autonomous player is debatable. At this stage it is difficult to predict however all OEMs likely face headwinds from the structural shift to autonomous. If Tesla does emerge as a dominant provider of autonomous technology itself then it may go on to justify an extremely high valuation.
Tesla makes fantastic cars. If they can retain a battery chemistry and technology edge then their cars may always offer better value for money and performance than comparable vehicles while their network infrastructure could become the backbone of EV transportation across the world. Manufacturing problems are temporary and the smart people at Tesla will eventually solve the difficulties of large scale auto manufacturing. Over time they will build a closed loop of Tesla energy as homes generates power from Tesla solar cells, store energy off grid in a Tesla Powerwall battery and are transported by a driverless Tesla car. This will entrench the Tesla brand halo and over time Tesla becomes the dominant energy and transportation company. While this bull thesis and its various parts are all plausible, the likelihood of this case is questionable and one investors need to weigh when considering to go long or short the stock.
A common maxim of equity investing is “do not short based on valuation”. Tesla is overvalued however the market could easily drive Tesla’s valuation north of $100bn within the next few months if enough hype was generated as fundamentals are clearly not the driving force behind price action currently. At some point fundamentals will matter, but in the near term that does not appear to be the case. There are various catalysts to the downside however the following would likely see a substantial change in the Tesla narrative/price action: (i) Capital raises (whether it is equity or debt, it will spell bad news for existing equity holders; (ii) Model 3 failures – Production issues mean delivery targets fail to be met and cash burn issues are exacerbated; (iii) Model X/S fading demand – higher margin models sequential deliveries have started to fall further pressuring cash flow; (iv) Demand issues – Model 3 conversions from deposits do not meet expectations; and (v) US Recession (premium car demand would be hampered).
Tesla’s ability to operate as a going concern is reliant on capital markets being open. Under a scenario in which risks materialize, the company may realise that this is not always the case.
For the multitude of reasons discussed throughout this post, Tesla represents a compelling short. Despite having a fantastic product, the business model is not investable at a $60bn+ enterprise valuation with the share price currently at $319 having substantial room to fall. Shorting a high beta name such as Tesla should also act as an especially defensive holding through the next downturn.
Disclosure: Short Tesla (NASDAQ:TSLA)