Tesla was easily one of the star companies of the economic expansion that ran from 2009 to early 2020, growing from a tiny startup into a serious automotive competitor. That makes the company’s upcoming earnings report, scheduled for Wednesday, particularly notable: It will be Tesla’s first since the start of the coronavirus-induced economic downturn that began in March.
That means there’s more on the line than a single quarter’s results. CEO Elon Musk and other executives will also need to explain how they plan to handle the challenges of the coronavirus economy.
After the threat of the coronavirus became clear in the U.S., Tesla’s shares sank sharply to as low as $361.80 on March 18. But they’ve since recovered dramatically, more than doubling since then to near $800, suggesting investor optimism.
Here are four key themes to watch for.
The shutdown of Tesla factories in both China and California threaten the key element of Tesla’s recent string of success: the steadily improving profitability of its vehicle production. Tesla announced earlier this month that it had delivered 88,400 vehicles during the first quarter, beating analysts’ predictions. But analysts still expect a loss of 34¢ per share excluding for one-time costs, or $1.24 per share by conventional accounting standards. That would end two consecutive quarters of profitability for the company.
A more positive outcome is possible, though. Analysts at Barclays, for one, argue that Tesla could beat investor expectations if it has continued to make production more cost efficient, reduce warranty costs, and win pricing concessions from suppliers.
One sign that profits will meet or beat Wall Street’s lowered expectations is that Tesla recently rescheduled its “Battery Day” event from April to mid-May. Tesla will likely use the event to announce plans to reduce battery production costs, which would boost its profits over the long term. Its postponement, according to Barclays, suggests that Tesla doesn’t need to use the event to offset negative first-quarter results.
The most pressing issue Tesla could provide insight into on Wednesday is its plan for restarting production. Tesla’s factory in Fremont, Calif., which produces cars for North America and Europe, has been closed since March 23. That shutdown will almost certainly limit the number of cars Tesla can sell in the second quarter, or even beyond.
The company had planned to reopen the Fremont factory as early as April 29. But on Monday, Alameda County, where the factory is located, along with other California counties, announced it would extend its shelter-in-place orders through the end of May, and Tesla said it will comply with that order.
It’s unclear what if any steps Tesla could take to work around those restrictions, since Fremont is its only factory producing cars for sale in North America. Construction of a car factory in Germany has been slowed by the coronavirus and other challenges. A factory in Shanghai has now reopened, and Wednesday’s call may include details about its production, but vehicles produced there are intended for sale in China and may not be economically feasible to ship elsewhere.
If there’s any silver lining, it’s that Tesla’s larger competitors are facing the same crunch. In a report on the broader auto industry on Monday, analysts at Barclays argued that overall North American vehicle production, including the likes of Ford and GM, will decline about 70% in the second quarter because of the coronavirus-related supply chain and factory disruptions.
If the supply of vehicles is in question, though, consumer demand for them is as uncertain. Unemployment in major Tesla markets including the U.S. and Europe have skyrocketed owing to coronavirus shutdowns. Most Wall Street analysts have already accepted that Tesla will fail to deliver the 500,000 cars in 2020 that it had promised in January. Wedbush Securities, for instance, now says annual car deliveries will be between 400,000 and 425,000.
Tesla itself may announce revised expectations for full-year deliveries on Wednesday. On the other hand, it may also hold off on announcing new numbers, or withdraw annual delivery guidance completely, given the immense uncertainty about the weeks and months ahead.
It may seem out of step during a recession, but Tesla’s continued growth relies on a steady flow of new products and technical innovations. The company’s current market value of $145 billion dollars implies investor faith that it will become an even larger company than Ford or GM, now valued at a combined $50 billion.
Tesla has many products at various stages of development. The most important is the Model Y, a lower-priced small SUV that Tesla began delivering to U.S. customers in mid-March. Musk has said he believes the Model Y will be an even bigger seller than the Model 3, Tesla’s mass-market sedan, so any data supporting that would be a huge win for Tesla, especially given the pandemic.
Tesla executives may also provide news about other important products. The company has recently updated its self-driving software, but there is no clear timeline for when the feature will be completed, which would have a direct impact on profits. And the Cybertruck, a futuristic pickup announced last November, is not expected to start production until late 2021. But given the enthusiasm that greeted it, any updates would likely rally Tesla investors.
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