Photograph by Bloomberg via Getty Images
By Alex Taylor III
August 15, 2014

Everything is coming up roses for Tesla (TSLA). The electric car company is enjoying an almost-unimaginable run of good fortune and is still being hotly pursued by investors.

Consider:

  • At a time when the overall stock market is idling with the parking brake on, Tesla shares are on a tear. Since the beginning of the year, they have risen 80%. Currently at $262, the stock is selling at close to its all-time high and has a market cap of $32 billion.
  • States are falling all over themselves to be chosen as the site for Tesla’s proposed $5 billion Gigafactory to produce lithium ion batteries. California is competing with Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas, and the bidding for the factory, which could employ up to 6,500 people, is said to be up to $500 million.
  • Tesla has an order backlog of $226 million. At the production run rate of 1000 cars a week expected at the end of 2014, that translates to a 30-week backlog.
  • Tesla says it enjoys sales per square foot at its showrooms that are double that of Apple (AAPL). The tech company is currently considered the industry leader.

 

The valuation that all this good news is creating for Tesla is truly astonishing. A Tesla watcher named Zoltan Ban, writing in Seeking Alpha, figures that Tesla is already priced as if it sells several hundred thousand cars a year when in reality it will sell only about 35,000 in 2014. Another way of looking at this: At current prices, each car the company sells this year is valued at $1 million.

In other words, investors are paying far more for Tesla’s future promises than today’s performance by other luxury car manufacturers. Daimler, the manufacturer of Mercedes-Benz, sold more than 2.5 million vehicles last year and has a market cap of about $85 billion. So, although it sells 70 times more vehicles than Tesla, its market cap is less than three times greater.

Usually sober-minded analysts, accustomed to the auto industry’s slow growth, seem to shed their inhibitions when it comes to Tesla. Rod Lache of Deutsche Bank has attached a $310 price target on the stock. Not to be out-done, Adam Jonas of Morgan Stanley established a $320 price target and calls Tesla it the “most important car company in the world”.

Fuel for this latest burst of Tesla mania came from none other than Chairman and CEO Elon Musk in comments he made during an analyst call on July 31. The big news wasn’t that Tesla reported higher production for the second quarter and beat earnings estimates again.

Musk said he expects to be producing cars at a 100,000-a-year rate by the end of 2015.

Selling that many cars would make Tesla larger than the U.S. arms of luxury makers like Lincoln and Porsche, both of which have more diverse product portfolios, long-established dealer networks, and refined strategies for marketing and advertising. Half the sales would come from the aging Model S sedan and the other half the new Model X seven-seat crossover that goes into production early next year.

This is not to take anything away from Tesla, which has demonstrated that it can create and manufacture a complex and sophisticated product with demonstrated customer appeal. But its own internal forecasts, as well as the swelling of its share price, are based on the expectation that the future will unspool in an orderly fashion identical to the recent past. That’s a dangerous assumption to make – for several reasons:

  • Tesla is a car for rich people. With an average price of $85,000, it is safe to say that few Tesla owners are buying one to save money on fuel, and the car’s range limitations mean that a Tesla is never the only car in an owner’s garage. At some point, these same people will stop viewing Tesla as the flavor of the month, its order backlog will shrink, and Tesla will have to scrap for sales like other manufacturers.
  • The bigger Tesla gets, the more complex its operations become. Since it sells directly to customers and eschews franchised dealers, it will have to develop a network of service centers to handle repairs on the cars it sells. Its unusually generous warranty, which obligates it to buy back used cars for 50% of their original base price after three years, could create a second channel of used Teslas. “Tesla will be eating a lot of three-year-old cars that aren’t as sexy or rare as they were a year ago,” wrote one Seeking Alpha blogger. ‘To me, it sounds like a potential mess.”
  • Battery power may turn out to be a transition technology. Cost reductions have been slow in coming, and Tesla needs a 30% improvement in order to build the $35,000 Model 3 it has promised for 2017. Toyota’s recent move was eye-opening. It is allowing a battery-supply deal with Tesla to expire and instead will redouble its work on hydrogen fuel cells. The cost of fuel cells is coming down faster than batteries and fuel cell proponents believe drivers will prefer a relatively rapid refuel with hydrogen to waiting hours to recharge their batteries.
  • Outside events can intrude. Consumer Reports, which raved about the Model S, reported a few “quirks” recently that included door handles that failed to activate and a center touch screen that went blank, blocking access to most of the car’s functions. Edmunds.com has had trouble with its Model S too. More reports like that will dent Tesla’s heretofore shining reputation.
  • None of these potential clouds appear to darken the sunny view from Tesla headquarters in Palo Alto. Tesla is sticking with its middle term goal of building 500,000 cars a year by 2020. Much will depend on the ability of the Model X to maintain the current momentum – and mystique. Tesla has steeply ramped up spending on capital expenditures and R&D to make sure the launch, already a year behind schedule, is a success.

 

Morgan Stanley’s Jonas believes the Model X will sell more based on features like its upgraded infotainment system unique “falcon-wing” back-seat doors than fuel economy and he will be disappointed if the Model X doesn’t win every major car of the year award. He isn’t alone. So will Elon Musk and a whole lot of Tesla investors who pray that the momentum behind this amazing stock keeps building.

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