Here we go again.
On Wednesday, Tesla Inc (NASDAQ:TSLA) chief executive Elon Musk made some bold promises about near-term production and near-term profitability. Specifically, the celebrity CEO believes sustained quarterly income for the loss-laden carmaker will soon become a reality. But that promise is largely predicated on a pace of Model 3 production that’s still well above the current pace.
At a different time and with a different history, such an outlook would have catapulted Tesla stock higher. Having heard these promises before, though — with most of them ending up unmet — it should come as no surprise TSLA shares didn’t charge higher in after-hours trading.
It’s a problem. Tesla stock is a name that has historically largely moved in response to traders’ hopes. Now they’ve learned that can’t really afford to get their hopes up.
Tesla Earnings Recap
By Tesla standards, the fourth quarter results and the discussion packaged along with them were relatively typical. The company ended up losing a little less than expected and generating a little more revenue than expected. But Tesla is still miles away from an actual (or even an operating) profit.
The specifics: For the quarter ending December, Tesla turned $3.29 billion worth of revenue into an operating loss of $3.04 per share of Tesla stock.
The top line was well above the year-earlier total of $2.28 billion in sales, mostly thanks to a rise in auto sales, though solar and energy storage sales were also up. But, the operating loss widened from the $2.92 per share loss booked in the fourth quarter of 2016. Analysts were expecting a loss of $3.12 per share of TSLA, and revenue of $3.28 billion.
That wasn’t the eye-popping part of the report though. In the shareholder letter detailing last quarter’s results, Elon Musk commented:
“At some point in 2018, we expect to begin generating positive quarterly operating income on a sustained basis. With the planned ramp of both Model 3 and our energy storage products, our rate of revenue growth this year is poised to significantly exceed last year’s growth rate… We continue to target weekly Model 3 production rates of 2,500 by the end of Q1 and 5,000 by the end of Q2.”
For perspective, Tesla delivered 1,542 Model 3 cars during the quarter.
It all sounds compelling enough. Trouble is, investors have heard this bullish chatter too many times in the past to trust in the present.
Heard it All Before
To be crystal clear, most CEOs put on a bullish game face, spreading optimism appropriately. Optimism isn’t the issue with Musk.
The issue with Musk is a long history of overpromising and under-delivering, so much so that the market now assumes there’s little to no truth in his most recent round of expectations.
There are certainly good reasons for current and would-be owners of Tesla stock to entertain those doubts:
- In early 2016, Musk predicted non-GAAP profitability for the year, GAAP profitability for the fourth quarter of the year, and positive cash flow for the full year. It didn’t happen.
- In July of last year Musk suggested to Tesla stock owners that the company would be able to crank out 20,000 Model 3 vehicles per week by the end of the year. The company shipped only 1,542 for the whole quarter.
- In October of 2016, Musk said he didn’t foresee Tesla or SolarCity needing to raise more cash, either through the sale of shares or the issuance of debt. It was a true statement, but only for a short while. In August of last year, the company issued $1.8 billion in new debt.
You get the idea. And this is only a small sampling of cases where Musk has made investors think one thing and then given them another. Even most die-hard Tesla fans know the saga has been littered with shortcomings.
Bottom Line for Tesla Stock
A devastating blow to TSLA stock? Amazingly enough, no.
Though shares weren’t outright crushed in response to Wednesday’s report and subsequent earnings call, the lack of bullish response to the news is a subtle sign that traders have grown weary of the never-ending “next time” shtick.
It matters. The bulk of Tesla stock’s gains to date have been rooted in the assumption that the bullish “next time” expectations would be met. Now, that’s changing.
And it is worth noting that the earnings report comes on the heels of Musk;s SpaceX launching his own Tesla Roadster into space — an event that may have driven some — possibly misplaced — optimism on its own.
Yes, there’s certainly the distinct possibility that Tesla manages to reach a Model 3 production pace of 5000 per week by mid-year. There’s also the distinct possibility that Tesla turns profitable in 2018, as Musk described.
But ‘possibilities’ are anything but likelihoods for Tesla at this point. And the market is finally catching on.
As of this writing, James Brumley did not hold a position in any of the aforementioned securities. You can follow him on Twitter, at @jbrumley.