Tesla Inc (NASDAQ:TSLA) CEO Elon Musk has an awfully active Twitter account. He used it earlier this month to gloat, tweeting: “Stormy weather in shortville …” He’s not wrong. TSLA stock has charged up from $180 in late 2016 to a new all-time high of $313 in April 2017.
The bulls have declared victory, suggesting Tesla shares are headed for $400, or even higher. Not surprisingly, bears continue to argue that TSLA is overvalued and heading for a massive fall.
While momentum clearly is on Tesla’s side, it’d be wise not to tune out the bear camp completely. There are still several good reasons why TSLA shares could suffer a serious decline from here.
So should you by TSLA stock? We’ll take a look at the pros and cons to decide.
Bloated Market Cap: Over the past month, Tesla stock hit a significant milestone. It passed, at least briefly, the market caps of both Ford Motor Company (NYSE:F) and General Motors Company (NYSE:GM).
Yes, I know Musk is a visionary and Tesla is working on a revolutionary future for the auto industry. Still, it’s worth taking a moment to consider Tesla’s long-term value. General Motors and Ford are both behemoth American companies that are top-tier world competitors. Tesla, by contrast, sells a minuscule number of vehicles and has never shown its business model to be capable of producing consistent profits or cash flow.
Ponzi Scheme? You often hear TSLA bears describing the company as some sort of accounting trick. However, that negative sentiment went much more mainstream last week.
Leading North American vehicle retailer AutoNation, Inc. (NYSE:AN) CEO Mike Jackson used some pointed language recently. He stated that Tesla: “is either one of the great Ponzi schemes of all time” or that it might turn out alright for investors.
From 2009 onward, Tesla’s free cash flow has grown increasingly negative. Apart from 2013, the company’s cash burn has worsened almost every year. Cash outflow has topped $1 billion each of the past three years. The bail-out of the cash-incinerating SolarCity will make Tesla’s cash generation situation even more perilous.
Recent Delivery Momentum May Slow: Tesla recently announced 25,000 deliveries for the previous quarter. That’s a record. It’s worth considering how Tesla pulled that off.
One TSLA stock analyst noted that Tesla changed its terminology. It used to discuss deliveries to “end-customers.” Now it simply says “customers.” Tesla also appears to have sold almost as many vehicles in Asia as North America this quarter; the company typically performs much more strongly in North America.
Put it all together, and it suggests that Tesla may have sold a bunch of vehicles to distributors rather than end customers. It’s fine if Tesla is setting up a distribution network; it could be a solid strategic move. But don’t expect a repeat of this quarter’s strong performance if that’s the case.
Probably Not a Ponzi Scheme: It’s not hard to find a mountain of articles suggesting Tesla is near insolvency.
In my view, the SolarCity acquisition was utterly indefensible and did much to fuel this bearish line of attack. However, there isn’t anything inherently wrong with operating consistently free cash flow negative during the growth stage of a business.
For many years, a bears ranted about Amazon.com, Inc. (NASDAQ:AMZN) and its flimsy balance sheet. The company made little to no cash from operations, to say nothing of earnings per share. If credit markets had frozen over at an inopportune company, Amazon could have been sunk. However, Amazon’s calculated risk paid off. It has reached the inflection point where its fiscal position is sound.
If Musk can deliver anything close to what he’s suggested, Tesla, Inc. will get to that point in a couple of years as well. If you believe in Musk, you want him to lever up now. It will produce better results for TSLA stock in the long run.
Tesla Isn’t as Unprofitable as People Suggest: A cursory reading of popular sources suggests that Tesla loses money on every vehicle it sells. See headlines such as “Tesla burns cash, loses more than $4,000 on every car sold.”
But this idea is based on an incomplete understanding of accounting.
Yes, Tesla loses money overall. However, this is due to a lack of scale. On each actual car that Tesla sells, it makes a gross profit. This profit is generally in the 20%-30% range. That’s plenty high if you are selling a large number of cars. As it is, Tesla isn’t selling enough vehicles to come all its other overhead costs. These costs, such as R&D, get spread across each unit sold. It isn’t selling enough — yet. Once again, if Musk can perform, this bearish point will look petty soon enough.
Big Lead in Its Niche: Yes, TSLA is trying different things, such as a more mass-market vehicle and the recently announced truck. Who knows if those will pan out? But within its core competency, its luxury electric self-driving vehicle, Tesla has a huge first-mover edge.
Other luxury car companies are making electric vehicles. And the other automakers are doing their best to come up with their own autonomous solutions. However, no other automaker has managed to assemble all the parts together so nicely in one package. That’s even before you get to the glitzy extras such as the Supercharger network.
Bears risk underestimating Tesla’s strengths when they smugly assume that competition will eventually bury Tesla.
Verdict on TSLA Stock
Tesla is extraordinarily expensive after its recent record-breaking run. There is no way to value it based on traditional metrics, which is why Piper Jaffray’s analyst was reduced to using “creative” techniques to justify the company’s value.
Simply put, if you own TSLA stock, you’re betting on Musk. If you think he can drive the company forward, Tesla shares could deliver, even from this starting price.
Tesla’s bears have griped about the company’s overvalution for years now without any success. The market punishes overly smug investors. However, the bears do have real concerns, so if you’re sitting on big profits, be careful here. Sentiment can turn quickly, and since Tesla consistently has to raise more money, its stock is especially vulnerable to changing emotions.
As of this writing, Ian Bezek did not hold a position in any of the aforementioned securities. You can reach him on Twitter at @irbezek.