Postmortem on SolarCity

Two years ago, I wrote about the acquisition of SolarCity by Tesla.  I thought this represented near-criminal self-dealing at the time and there has been little since to convince me otherwise.  As I wrote then:

This is honestly one of the weirdest acquisition proposals I have seen in a long time:  Elon Musk's Tesla offers to buy Elon Musk's Solar City.

This makes zero business sense to me.    This is from the press release:

We would be the world’s only vertically integrated energy company offering end-to-end clean energy products to our customers. This would start with the car that you drive and the energy that you use to charge it, and would extend to how everything else in your home or business is powered. With your Model S, Model X, or Model 3, your solar panel system, and your Powerwall all in place, you would be able to deploy and consume energy in the most efficient and sustainable way possible, lowering your costs and minimizing your dependence on fossil fuels and the grid.

I am sure there are probably some hippy-dippy green types that nod their head and say that this is an amazing idea, but any business person is going to say this is madness.  It makes no more sense than to say GM should buy an oil production company.  These companies reach customers through different channels, they have completely different sales models, and people buy their products at completely different times and have no need to integrate these two purchases.  It is possible there may be some overlap in customers (virtue-signalling rich people) but you could get at this by having some joint marketing agreements, you don't need an acquisition.  Besides, probably the last thing that people's solar panels will ever be used for is charging cars, since cars tend to charge in the garage at night when solar isn't producing.

One might argue that some of the technologies are the same, and I suppose some of the battery and electricity management tech overlaps.  But again, a simple sourcing agreement or a battery JV would likely be sufficient.

So what do these companies share?

I went on to discuss several possible reasons for the deal but settled on this one as the best explanation:

I have no inside information here, but this is the best hypothesis I can put together for this deal.  SolarCity has huge cash needs to continue to grow at the same time its operating margins are shrinking (or getting more negative).  They are having trouble finding investors to provide the cash.  But hey!  Our Chairman Elon Musk is also Chairman of this other company called Tesla whom investors line up to invest in.  Maybe Tesla can be our investor!

The reason I call this two drunks propping each other up is that Tesla also is also burning cash like crazy.  It is OK for now as long as it has access to the capital markets, but if it suddenly lost that, Tesla would survive less than 6 months on what it has on hand.  Remember, SolarCity was a golden child just 3 years ago, just like Tesla is today.  Or if you really don't believe that high-flying companies that depend on access to the capital markets can go belly up in the snap of a finger when they lose their luster with investors, I have one word for you:  Enron.

Essentially, I saw the SolarCity deal as a bailout of Musk's and his friends' and family's investments in SolarCity by Musk-controlled Tesla.  Nothing that has happened since has convinced me this is wrong.  The most prominent evidence has been the dog that never barks -- SolarCity, or Tesla Energy as it is called, is almost never mentioned in conference calls and investor communications by Tesla any more -- certainly the rooftop business is not.  The only thing that ever seems to get a mention are a few big standby battery installations in Australia.   Turns out there was a reason (via Seeking Alpha):

This was a dying business when Tesla bought it an insiders all knew it.

Disclosure:  I tend to short Tesla when it reaches the 350/360 level and cover when it drops into the 200's.

Update:  Here is a great timeline of the whole sorry history of the SolarCity acquisition by Tesla.  This paints an even worse picture than I was aware of.