Was Tesla Motors cooking its books to look like it has more cash?
The Securities and Exchange Commission seems to think Tesla might have been.
In September, the SEC called out the electric car company for “individually tailored” measurements in its August earnings report. The company used an accounting trick that logs in revenue before it’s certainly in the company’s pockets, according to correspondence between Tesla and the commission released to the public in November.
The commission called for Tesla (TSLA) to make changes to its controversial unofficial measure of revenue, its non-GAAP (Generally Accepted Accounting Principles) figures. Non-GAAP figures are often presented alongside GAAP figures in company earning reports, and have often been used to make profits look better.
So what’s the problem with Tesla’s non-GAAP figures? As pointed out by Fortune’s Shawn Tully, Tesla began providing guarantees on vehicles leased through its banking partners, which promised that when the lease expired—typically after three years—the bank had the option of selling the electric car back to Tesla at a predetermined price. The guarantee also promised that should the lessor decide to sell the used car elsewhere but receive less than Tesla’s pre-determined price, Tesla would cover the shortfall. If the customer buys the car when the lease ends, then Tesla would no longer be on the hook for the guarantee.
That’s because Tesla assumes the value of the electric car is unlikely to fall below that pre-determined price, even over the course of three years. But it’s also a risky bet for investors—if the rates for a used Tesla drops, the company would be on the hook for a loss. So under GAAP rules, Tesla would have had to classify the sale price of the car as a liability upon booking the sale. Tesla would recognize the revenue from the car in fixed increments over the lease period, which would ideally end with the end-customer buying the car.
Tesla’s non-GAAP figures though, effectively ignored the possibility that its used cars could be sold for less than it predicted, even three years down the road.
Tesla “will revise its disclosures in future earnings releases to remove any presentation of non-GAAP measures that adds back the deferred revenue and related costs for cars sold with resale value guarantees and where the Company collected the purchase price in cash,” Tesla’s lawyers wrote in response to the SEC in October.
In recent months, Tesla has undergone an aggressive push to show investors that it can be profitable. The cash-strapped company helmed by Elon Musk has been trying to prove that it is worthy of the additional funding it will need for the merger with its sister company, SolarCity. In the third quarter, the company succeeded and managed to wow investors with its first profitable quarter since 2013. Those figures did not include adjustments made for resale value guarantees or vehicles leased through banking partners.
Tesla also ended its resale value guarantee on new vehicles in July.
Shares of Tesla fell 3.3% in trading Tuesday.