Depending on who you ask, Tesla is either on its way to becoming a huge force in the auto industry, or it's a financial disaster waiting to happen. The electric automaker just made a strong case that, for now, the momentum is favoring the bulls.
Tesla's earnings reports are often the occasion for volatility, and this quarter was no different. Even so, the company caught Wall Street by surprise, selling more vehicles than expected and posting its first profit in three years. Buttressed by the news, Tesla's stock rose 5% in after-hours trading.
How good were the numbers? Revenue rose 145% to $2.3 billion in the quarter, with Tesla selling 24,821 vehicles, more than double the number from a year ago. That figure is close to half the 50,000 goal the company had set for the last six months of 2016. It also suggests that Tesla could meet or beat its goal of selling between 80,000 and 90,000 vehicles this year, a target that, not long ago, skeptics argued was too bold.
The strength of those sales, along with a push to cut costs, pushed Tesla to a profit of 71 cents a share. Wall Street had been expecting a loss of 54 cents a share. Many analysts had been grappling with a change in accounting Tesla made to better conform to standard accounting practices. Nonetheless, few expected a blowout quarter.
Only a few months ago, things were looking dicier for the automaker. Production problems had been plaguing the Model X, Tesla's SUV. A fatal crash involving a Tesla in autonomous driving mode invited disparaging headlines. And the company had just made a controversial $2.6 billion bid for SolarCity, a residential solar power firm in Elon Musk's private keiretsu.
Investors were trying to remain patient to give Musk time to deliver on his vision, but the SolarCity deal became a sore point. Musk issued a memo, leaked to Bloomberg, that said this past quarter would be Tesla's “last chance” to show investors it could be profitable before the merger. A shareholder vote on the deal is scheduled for Nov. 17.
If Tesla workers heeded Musk's clarion call last quarter, he nonetheless sent mixed messages on SolarCity this week. First, he said he felt “pretty good” about that firm's ability to generate cash in the coming quarter, and perhaps next year. When an analyst described SolarCity as a cash cow, however, Musk corrected him: “I think you could say 'cash vacuum.'”
Right now, investors aren't inclined to balk at such off-the-cuff Muskisms. At one point in the call, Musk reminded shareholders to take his prognostications with a grain of salt, because he tends to speculate with “my best guess, which is different from a promise.” Few CEOs would dare say this kind of thing on an earnings call. But because Tesla beat expectations on so many fronts, Musk seems to have filled up a reservoir of good will with its shareholders.
So ambitious are Tesla's many goals, though, that even this blockbuster quarter doesn't pull the firm out of the woods. The company is ramping up production of its Model 3, a $35,000 sedan that is one of Musk's boldest bets yet. The project will drink up most of Tesla's $1 billion of capital expenditures in the current quarter — more than half its $1.8 billion cap-ex budget for the entire year.
Initial demand for the Tesla 3 is high — so high that, as Musk pointed out on Wednesday's earnings call, Tesla has done no marketing beyond a webcast announcing the car, and still enough orders have come in to justify an entire year of Tesla 3's scheduled production.
“When somebody comes into a store to buy a Model 3, we say, 'Why don't you buy a Model S or X?' So, we anti-sell the 3” Musk said. “Still, a lot of people ordered the 3. But, whatever.”
Still, an area of concern with the Model 3 is that, with its lower price, it could drag down profit margins. A Goldman Sachs analyst asked Wednesday whether economies of scale could push down production costs of the new model enough to preserve Tesla's margins. Musk's answer: “Model 3 efficiency as a whole is a quantum change of productivity. Really crazy.”
“I'm a little bit hazy on quantifying 'crazy,'” the analyst replied. “Is there any rule of thumb you can point to?” Musk said that the Model 3's production cost, roughly approximated, should be “about half” that of the Model S, an earlier and higher-priced sedan.
If Musk is right, the Tesla bears may have an even rougher year ahead. Tesla has moved beyond the bad press it weathered a few months ago, so much so that the company is pushing ahead on it controversial Autopilot technology, which Musk believes will make its cars even safer. “At some point, it will be morally wrong not to allow autonomous driving,” he said.
When that time comes, Tesla will be positioned to play in the car-sharing market pioneered by Uber. Tesla cars are gathering more data on vehicles, in all kinds of weather conditions, than any company. It's a data trove that Uber's self-driving experiment in Pittsburgh can only dream of.
If you think that Musk isn't taking the potential of the car-sharing market seriously, here are his thoughts when he was asked about Uber on the earnings call. “Sometimes it's been characterized as Tesla vs. Uber,” he said. “It's not Tesla vs. Uber. It's the people vs. Uber.”
There you have it. Elon Musk believes he's on the side of the people. And for now, the market is on the side of Tesla. As always, however, there remains the risk that all of this may be more prognostication than promise.