Posts tagged ‘TSLA’

Our Double Standard on White Collar Fraud

Nobody really liked Jeff Skilling of Enron and he sits in jail for 20 years.  We think Elizabeth Holmes is attractive and cool so that despite the fact that she committed serial fraud in lying about her company's technology and financials (far more baldly and egregiously than Skilling) and actually put people at risk through faulty medical testing, she got only a slap on the wrist.

And then there is Elon Musk.

I am not sure how I got in the role of fact-checking Elon Musk, but given the company's stated results to date and announced operating plans and strategies, there is simply no way for the Tesla to be profitable and cash flow positive in Q3, barring some deus ex machina like a massive energy credit or California subsidy windfall.  It's possible I could go in there and shut down R&D and model 3 production and milk the Model S and X for cash and might make this be true, but that is certainly not their announced business plan.  On their current path Tesla has to continue to burn cash through the rest of this year.  I am not even sure that if you stated their gross margin the same way that other automakers state their numbers that even it would be positive right now -- there is an argument to be made they are still losing money at the margin on every car they produce**.  I would add that in this point of their ramp, if you want to see Tesla the huge success that is baked into its current stock valuation, you don't want Tesla to be cash flow positive in the third quarter, you want it continuing to invest.   Amazon rules the world because it deferred profitability for years in favor of growth.

Tesla pretty much never ever lives up to Musk's promises, at least for the dates he promises them.  That is probably OK with things like deliveries of new products -- people understand he is pushing technology and new products can be delayed and they forgive entrepreneurs for being -- shall we say -- overly enthusiastic about such things.   But on financial stuff like this his statements are bordering on fraud.  But he'll never get called on it, because we like him in a way we didn't like Skilling.

I will add that if Musk wants to get snippy about the media's guesses about his company's prospects, and thinks we are all getting it wrong, he could sure be a lot more transparent about Tesla's financials and plans.  Go watch an Exxon-Mobil analyst presentation and compare it to Musk's quarterly arm-waving.  Also, one final memo to Musk:  responding to your critics on Twitter emulating Trump's style is not recommended.  Though it might be interesting to compare the irrational populist wave behind Trump with the populist wave behind Tesla.  Though the two Venn diagrams of supporters probably do not overlap much, the whole relationship feels similar to me.

Disclosure:  I have been short TSLA in the past but right now have no position.  To be honest, I am going to let Musk urge his fanboys to pump the stock a bit further before I short again.  The fanboy effect makes TSLA a dangerous short, as TSLA stock holders will defy reality for far longer than will holders of say GE or XOM.

 

** gross margin at TSLA is interesting because TSLA has no dealer network, something I like them for.  GM discounts its cars to their dealers (10% or so?) but in turn they offload a bunch of selling and support costs to the dealers.  In their gross margin, TSLA banks in their gross margin the extra 10% from not having to discount their cars but in turn does not charge gross margin for a lot of the extra sales and support costs they have to take on -- instead they drop these costs into SG&A overhead. The situation with gross margin is even more complicated because Tesla not only has to build out and operate its own warranty service, sales, and delivery network to replace traditional dealers, it is also building out its own fueling service to replace gas stations.  Here is one guy who thinks Tesla gross margin is really negative.  I have zero idea who he is but for the last year his predictions about Tesla have been a lot more reliable than Musk's statements.

Why Tesla Agreed to Pay Elon Musk So Much

Tesla agreed to give Elon Musk what is potentially the richest executive compensation package ever.  I will give my (*gasp*) cynical reason why I think they did this.  I can show you in one chart (Tesla Model 3 production, from Bloomberg):

I would argue that Elon Musk is the only one in the world who can run a company with so many spectacular failures to meet commitments and still have investors and customers coming back and begging for more.  A relatively large percentage of Teslas get delivered with manufacturing defects and their customers sing their praises (even while circulating delivery defect checklists).  Tesla keeps publishing Model 3 production hockey sticks (apparently with a straight face) and consistently miss (each quarter pushing back the forecast one quarter) and investors line up to buy more stock.  Tesla runs one of the least transparent major public companies in this country (so much so that people like Bloomberg have to spend enormous efforts just to estimate what is going on there) and no one is fazed.  Competitors like Volvo and Volkswagon and Toyota and even GM have started to push their EV technology past Tesla and actually sell more EV's than does Tesla (with the gap widening) and investors still treat Tesla like it has a 10-year unassailable lead on competition.

All because Elon Musk can stand up at a venue like SXSW, wave his hands, spin big visions, and the stock goes up $3 billion the next day.   Exxon-Mobil has a long history of meeting promises, reveals its capital spending plans in great detail, but misses on earnings by a few cents and loses $40 billion in market cap.  GE lost over half its market value when investors got uncomfortable with their lack of transparency and their failures to meet commitments.   Not so at Tesla, in large part because Elon Musk is PT Barnum reincarnated, or given the SpaceX business, he is Delos D. Harriman made real.

Disclosure:  I don't currently have any position in TSLA but over the last 2 years I have sold short when it reaches around $350 (e.g. after Elon Musk speaks) and buy to cover around $305 (e.g. when actual operational or financial data is released).  Sort of the mirror image of BTFD.

Elon Musk as Orren Boyle

First, two disclosures

  1. I am short TSLA
  2. I love the Model S.  I would love to own one.

At some level, the quality of the product is irrelevant.  They key questions are:  Does TSLA really justify a $60 billion valuation and does TSLA really deserve billions of dollars in taxpayer subsidies.

As to the first question, I will leave it up to you to research.  This is a good case for the short position.   I still think the SolarCity purchase was an absurd business decision and borderline corrupt.  The problem with shorts, especially in emotionally driven near-religion stocks like TSLA, is how long you have to hold on before the crash comes.

As for the second question, a guy who goes by the moniker of Montana Skeptic over at Seeking Alpha has been looking in to some of the larger Tesla subsidies, and the picture is not pretty.  Here is his analysis of the subsidy of the SolarCity plant in New York (SolarCity, another Musk company, was bailed out of near-bankruptcy and bought by Musk's Tesla, a smelly deal that put me on the road to shorting the company).  He tells a long, interesting story but the tl:dr is:

  • In the fall of 2014, New York State awarded SolarCity a sumptuous subsidy package: free use of the enormous Riverbend factory and $750 million of taxpayer money to refurbish and equip the factory.
  • The "Essential Purposes" of the subsidy deal were to enable manufacture and sale of Silevo's Triex technology, and then develop "next generation technology improving on the Triex product."
  • Governor Andrew Cuomo praised the deal as a visionary accomplishment "of critical importance to the United States economic competitiveness and energy independence."
  • In return for the subsidies, SolarCity promised to spend $5 billion in New York State over a 10-year period and to create 4,900 New York State jobs.
  • After the deal was signed, SolarCity's promises were noiselessly scaled back.
  • A promise that 1,460 of the jobs be "high-tech" disappeared. A promise to hire at least 900 people within two years of the factory opening shrank to 500.
  • And, SolarCity's promise to hire 2,000 solar panel installers throughout the state quietly disappeared in December 2015. It appears SolarCity knew then - two months before Elon Musk and Lyndon Rive say they had their first merger discussions - that its solar panel business was failing.
  • While SolarCity's obligations were shrinking, the factory opening was delayed. And delayed. And delayed some more. The opening is now almost two and one-half years late, with no date yet announced.
  • Meanwhile, SolarCity has abandoned the Silevo technology and taken a huge write-off on its Silevo investment.

This is the sort of reporting you almost never see in the press.  All these subsidies for business development made on promises of jobs addition.  My experience is that the resulting promises are never kept.  Why does no one ever follow these things up?

Postscript:  I have a quibble with the article on cases for shorting TSLA.  This is one part:

Until recently, TSLA has been the recipient of substantial subsidies, fawning praise and a “fanboy” following. In other words, it has received large financial benefits from various governments which were not available to its automotive peers. It’s been judged by a non-critical press, and any problems with product quality and/or delays in timelines have been readily accepted by its hardcore supporters. All of this has combined to build the quixotic narrative which justifies the sky-high valuations outlined above.

Apple has benefited from this effect for years with no sign that its cult following is diminishing.  Just wait for Apple fanboys who lose there head over whatever Apple announces for its anniversary iPhone later this year.  Prediction:  Apple will add a number of new features already found on Android phones and the press will fawn over its inventiveness and leadership.