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Tesla’s Q4 earnings: What to watch for

February 11, 2015, 5:07 AM UTC

Tesla Motors (TSLA), the tech-centric luxury electric automaker, will release its fourth-quarter and full-year earnings report after markets close today. Here are the key numbers (and stock-sensitive words) to watch for.

Deliveries: Tesla’s original annual delivery goal for 2014 was 35,000 vehicles, up from nearly 22,500 vehicles delivered in 2013.

The company revised that number down to 33,000 in November because a shortfall in production during the third quarter meant fewer cars were available for delivery by the end of the year. Production fell in the third quarter because the assembly line at the company’s Fremont, Calif. factory was retooled and expanded to handle both the Model S sedan and the impending Model X sport-utility vehicle.

As long as the delivery numbers come in around 32,000 it should be viewed as positive, says Carter Driscoll, senior analyst at boutique investment bank MLV & Co. If the numbers come in at 31,000 or below, the stock will react negatively.

Production: Tesla still expects to have produced 35,000 vehicles in 2014. That production number could be view as a double-edged sword, says Karl Brauer, senior analyst at Kelley Blue Book.

If Tesla hits that target, it means the company has effectively ramped up production, in part by reducing the number of Model S options—a goal it outlined last quarter. However, if it makes more cars than it delivers, it signals potential issues with how efficiently it distributes the Model S to customers.

Model X: The first deliveries of the falcon-winged SUV were set for early 2014. The company has pushed back the delivery date several times in the past year. The latest guidance, outlined in Tesla’s third-quarter earnings report, has Model X deliveries beginning in the third quarter of 2015.

“If there’s another slip, it would greatly dampen my optimism in the near term for Tesla,” says Brauer, who added that based on demand for SUVs, the Model X has the potential to reach a wider audience than the Model S.

Analyst forecasts of global sales in 2015 will be highly dependent on when the Model X is introduced and at what volumes.

China: Last month at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, Tesla CEO Elon Musk said sales in China were weaker than expected due in part to a “communications issues we need to fix, most importantly over charging.” Musk said there’s a misconception that charging is difficult in China and that the company has to work to correct that.

In the fourth-quarter earnings conference call scheduled for Wednesday, expect Musk to elaborate a bit on the problems in China, what’s been done to fix them and if sales growth in areas like Europe and North America have made up the difference.

“Dealing with China is always complex, it’s never straightforward and simple,” Brauer says. “So, for Tesla it will come to two things: its ability to leverage the potential demand there and smooth out the import-export process to effectively deliver cars to consumers.”

Financials: Tesla reports both non-GAAP and GAAP numbers. And if you were to focus on the non-GAAP accounting numbers then Tesla would be profitable. It’s not. Tesla is viewed by many investors as profit-growth potential company. So, revenue growth matters, expenses, cash on hand, and importantly, gross margins are the numbers to look at now.

In the third quarter, Tesla’s gross margin was 22.6 percent on a GAAP basis, which excludes any benefits from the sale of Zero-Emission Vehicle credits. In 2013, the company improved its gross margins by improving efficiency and increasing sales volume. Did the company manage to further improve in 2014?

Capex: Tesla’s capital expenditure budget has grown 2.5 times from $141 million in the first quarter of 2014 to a projected $350 million in the fourth quarter. If Tesla did indeed invest $350 million in the fourth quarter, the company’s capex budget will exceed $950 million for 2014.

Will Tesla continue to ramp up its spending? Look for Tesla to issue guidance on its capex budget for the quarter and 2015.

Untapped markets: Scott Shepard, a research analyst with Boulder, Colorado-based Navigant Research, will be watching for mention of untapped markets such as South Korea. The country is not a huge plug-in EV market, but it is a large vehicle market and no automaker has yet to really open it up, Shepard says.

GM, BMW and Kia all have sold PEVs there and Nissan is entering into the market this year. Shepard wonders: Will Tesla follow?

Learn more of the latest news about Tesla from Fortune’s video team:

Gigafactory progress and partnerships: It was just four months ago that Musk joined Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval to officially announce that Tesla would build a massive factory capable of producing 500,000 lithium-ion battery packs per year in an industrial park outside Reno. Work at the site in the Tahoe-Regional Industrial Center began before the agreement was even reached. Since then, it’s only accelerated.

Tesla will likely provide a standard update on the project. It might be a quarter or two early, but watch out for partner announcements on the gigafactory. Tesla has previously said it will likely partner with several suppliers, particularly with raw materials.