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The Tesla Inc (TSLA) Stock Factor Everyone Ignores: The Economy

Can the economy continue fueling TSLA stock to new highs?

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It’s difficult to make sense of Tesla Inc (NASDAQ:TSLA). AutoNation CEO Mike Jackson said that Tesla is “either one of the great Ponzi schemes of all time or it’s gonna work out.” Will Ebiefung of SmarterAnalyst noted the contradictions in TSLA stock — its valuation is stratospheric, but so is its short interest, which stands at nearly 40%.

With Tesla shares up more than 45% in 2017, those bears are clearly holding on tight through a lot of pain. But how long can TSLA keep defying gravity?

While people typically break down Tesla by running up and down every one of its latest updates, discussing the Model 3 in a bubble or evaluating how much in losses the company will take from its solar business, one thing tends to fly in under the radar:

The economy.

Let’s go under the hood and look at the health of the broader economy, and what kind of impact that could have on TSLA stock looking forward.

Tesla and the Macroeconomy: The Glass Is Half-Empty

Tesla’s continuing need for cash adds a degree of financial fragility. In late 2008, Tesla almost went bankrupt, but was saved at the last minute when Daimler invested $50 million. A recession could be deadly for the upstart automaker.

U.S. GDP growth recently disappointed; the economy grew at a mere 0.7% annual rate in the first quarter of 2017, the slowest in three years.

Could this mean trouble for Tesla? High-end car sales are cyclical, and the price of the Model S, Tesla’s cheapest, clocks in at $68,000. Consumer cyclicals do well during expansions, rising faster than the broad market, but during downturns they get hit harder. The United States economy has grown for several years now, and this expansion is the third longest since they began tracking GDP.

How much longer can this go on before there is another recession? Well, if GDP growth falls below zero for two quarters, the economy is in a recession.

Source: BEA

Figure 1: Weak economic growth in the first quarter of 2017

Also, maturity spreads have fallen in recent months, and this signals weakening inflation expectations, which could point to a weakening economy. Inflation tends to pick up when the economy is growing fast, and falls when the economy slacks, although there are some exceptions (such as 1970s stagflation or a surge in productivity like the 1990s).

The Conference Board’s Consumer Confidence Index, based on survey data, fell from 124.9 in March to 120.3 in April. And Citi’s Economic Surprise Index has fallen in recent months. The Economic Surprise Index measures the difference between expectations and reported economic data, which in recent months has mostly disappointed.

This is the glass-half-empty view for TSLA stock investors. Any hiccups in the economy could have a fatal impact, since Tesla is a cyclical stock, highly leveraged, priced for perfection and burning cash.

Tesla and the Macroeconomy: The Glass Is Half-Full

Tesla investors can take comfort in the glass-half-full view of the economy.

Although GDP may have indeed grown at the slowest level in three years, we need to keep this in perspective. GDP in the first quarter of 2016 was only one tenth of a percentage point higher. Forbes columnist Tim Worstall thinks this might be due to measurement error.

CNBC commentator Michael Santoli thinks concerns over the yield curve are overblown; this might just mean that growth is unlikely to accelerate further.

And while the Conference Board’s Consumer Confidence Index fell, it fell from a very high level. March’s reading of the index was the highest in 16 years.

Also, U.S. home sales surged to the highest level in 10 years.

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