Why Investors Are Being So Patient With Elon Musk

4 minute read

Like Apple under Steve Jobs and Amazon under Jeff Bezos, Tesla Motors has an image deeply entangled with that of its founder. Only with Tesla, which on Wednesday reported a $293 million loss for the second quarter of 2016, success still lies in an often-delayed future. And so Musk is even more crucial to what Tesla is, because that future must be filtered through his vision.

That makes the quarterly calls where Musk discusses Tesla’s earnings as important to investors as the earnings numbers themselves. And Wednesday’s call was no exception. Tesla closed the books on a wild quarter that featured a $2.6 billion bid to buy Solar City, a high-profile and fatal crash of a Tesla in autopilot mode, and production problems that Musk described this way: “Man, it was hell.”

But analysts were focused instead on what lies ahead. The clearest evidence of that came from the first question, which didn’t concern the $35,000 Model 3 due next year or even solar panels, but came rather from left field: Was Tesla going to merge with SpaceX, where Musk also serves as CEO? Musk, who earlier ruled out this idea on Twitter, politely said that the “little cooperation” between the companies didn’t justify a merger.

The question highlights an issue facing Tesla and Musk alike. People understand that Elon Musk has a bold vision, but they have a harder time understanding how he’ll achieve it. Musk has tried to spell things out, most explicitly in the Master Plan, Part Deux he posted two weeks ago. And yet the how-will-he-get-there conundrum not only persists, it stands at the heart of the debate raging between the bulls and bears.

That debate is no closer to being resolved. During Wednesday’s call, Tesla’s stock seesawed between a gain and a decline in after-hours trading, ending up essentially unchanged from the official closing price of $225.79 a share. That pattern echoes what’s been playing out in Tesla’s stock for some time. Since August 2014, shares in the automaker have risen as high as $280 and fallen as low as $150, and yet today sit unchanged from two years ago.

Investors have essentially chosen to give Musk a pass this quarter, even though Tesla’s loss of $1.06 a share was 54 cents worse than Wall Street had expected. Tesla offered some silver linings around that disappointment. Gross margins were improving and could be as high as 25% or 30% in the final weeks of 2016. Tesla is also producing 2,000 Model X and Model S vehicles a week and aims to steadily increase that figure to 2,400 by the fourth quarter.

But the company is also spending heavily to prepare for the production of the Model 3, a more affordable model that could deliver enough volume to make its car operations profitable. On the call, Musk said that unit volumes of its cars could triple or even quadruple from current levels by the end of next year as the Model 3 ships. Meanwhile, mini-SUVs and small buses built on the Model X platform will move toward production as well.

That sounds enticing for patient investors. But Tesla has a history of not meeting its ambitious targets. Asked about the July 1, 2017 production date for the Model 3, Musk said, “I don’t expect us to be at full production on July 1, but I have to drive all suppliers and internal efforts to that date, knowing that some will fall short.” In other words, July 1 is a soft target, an internal yardstick for suppliers to meet or else. Not so much a date when antsy consumers can expect to start receiving their orders.

Musk also held court on a variety of topics, such as autonomous driving (“What we have under development is going to blow people away. It blows my mind, and I see it all the time.”), the machinery that manufactures Teslas (“When it looks more like an alien dreadnought, that’s when you know you’ve won.”), energy-storage sales (“I think it’s really going to go ballistic.”), and the pesky media (“Tesla can’t sneeze without there being a national headline.”)

If the Tesla sneeze-watch is relentless, it’s because Tesla sits at the center of two emerging industries, clean energy and self-driving cars, often propelling both forward. Should the company fail to deliver on its promises or run out of money trying, it would hurt investment in both initiatives. It’s hardly new that Musk’s vision is taking more time and money than expected to achieve, but there’s some encouragement to be found in his refusal to compromise on that vision.

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