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Trying to make sense of Tesla’s unbelievable run

February 5, 2020, 6:00 PM UTC

On Aug. 7, 2018, Tesla founder Elon Musk tweeted, “Am considering taking Tesla private at $420. Funding secured.”

This was a new wrinkle in corporate governance because the real-life Tony Stark’s social media post came without warning or even consultation with his board. The previous day’s closing price for the stock was $342, so Musk’s newly stated private market valuation for the company was a 23% premium to its current value.

Many scoffed at the time that the company would be worth such a lofty price, which would have valued Tesla at close to $76 billion in terms of market capitalization. The stock price quickly shot up to $380 on the day of Musk’s tweet, but from there the price went into a free fall. From the day Musk made his infamous tweet through early June 2019, the stock price cratered nearly 53%.

At this point, many were leaving the company for dead. But it wasn’t just the financial media and short-sellers who were making dire statements about the electric-car company. Musk himself wrote the following to his own employees after the company was forced to raise $2.7 billion from investors in May 2019: “This is a lot of money, but actually only gives us about 10 months at the Q1 burn rate to achieve breakeven.”

Musk has had a contentious relationship with short-sellers in the past. He tweeted in the spring of 2018, “Short-sellers are value destroyers. Should definitely be illegal.” Well the shorts were out for blood during the rout in Tesla’s stock price. In fact, the percentage of shares outstanding being sold short on May 31, 2019, was nearly 25%. This means one-quarter of investors in the company’s stock were betting against it at that time.

Unfortunately for those short-sellers, the massacre in the stock price didn’t last. Almost without warning, Tesla’s stock price was shot out of the cannon. Since June 3, 2019, when it bottomed, the stock is up more than 400%. It’s up over 185% in the past three months, 100% in the past month, and 55% in the past five days!

The share price was up 10% this past Thursday, 20% this week on Monday, and another 14% on Tuesday (and that’s after falling more than 8% toward the end of the day). The share price has gone parabolic.

By the close of the market on Tuesday afternoon, Tesla’s market cap was more than $161 billion. The company has added $130 billion to its market value in just eight months. General Motors and Ford have a combined market capitalization of $80 billion.

Lessons from this move

I wish I could put a bow on this and share some worthwhile lessons investors could use going forward following this unbelievable rise in Tesla’s shares.

In moves like these, the lessons often remain unclear. By the time this piece is published, I wouldn’t be surprised if Tesla’s shares are either up or down by double digits. The higher the volatility of price moves in an asset, the higher the volatility of investor emotions.

There are millions of investors every day making buy and sell decisions, all with competing opinions, goals, time horizons, and financial resources. But occasionally when these competing opinions come together to form a group, individuals take their cues from the crowd and do things they wouldn’t normally do on their own accord.

The markets often straddle a fine line between the wisdom of the crowds and the madness of the crowds depending on the collective mood of investors.

My only advice to investors looking to handicap what comes next for Tesla’s share price would be to remain humble. Over the long haul, stock prices tend to reflect the underlying fundamentals of the company. But over the short-to-intermediate term, stock prices are driven by trends, emotions, and expectations.

A company like Tesla that is led by an enigmatic CEO, with a wonderful story and an innovative product, can make it difficult to set reasonable expectations. When a new technology is involved, investor opinions can vary widely between pessimism and optimism about what the future may hold for the company.

This is how a company like Tesla can see its share price get chopped in half and then rally more than 400% all within the span of two years. The rise in Tesla’s stock feels crazy, and it’s tempting to pick a side predicting further appreciation or an abrupt end to massive advance.

The short term is never easy to predict when it comes to the markets but even more so when such strong emotions are in play. Someone will time this stock move perfectly, but it will mostly be by chance. No one can predict how far crazy market moves will go or when they’ll come to an end. As professor Meir Statman once wrote, “The market may be crazy, but that doesn’t make you a psychologist.”

Ben Carlson, CFA, is the director of institutional asset management at Ritholtz Wealth Management. He does not have a position in Tesla.

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