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Tesla’s Q4 results come with a surprising revelation

January 29, 2021, 12:00 AM UTC

Elon Musk just claimed that, no kidding, Tesla’s really worth its nearly-trillion dollar valuation. His Q4 earnings report, however, shows that right now, Tesla would still be booking losses if it weren’t for a boom in a profit center far removed from its core of cars and batteries: Selling CO2 regulatory credits. Put simply, Musk’s not showing the firepower to get there. If he doesn’t hit the accelerator on profits, and get Tesla speeding like the forthcoming Model S Plaid that he lauded as the first commercial zero-to-sixty speedster ever, his investor/fans could soon lose faith.

On Tesla’s earnings call after the bell on January 28, CEO Musk countered critics and short-sellers who’ve been claiming and wagering for years that his electric-vehicle colossus is wildly overvalued. In his opening remarks, Musk gave his “back of the envelope math for justifying” Tesla’s market cap, hovering around $880 billion the earlier in the week. Musk predicted that the shift to Full Self-Driving vehicles (FSD) would produce “a doubling again” of future revenues from the $50 to $60 billion he’s projecting from selling his regular lineup of models S, 3, X, Y, and hits to come, and that the extra $50-billion plus would be “all gross margin.” “Put on 20 multiple,” he concluded, “and that’s $1 trillion, which “justifies [today’s] valuation just from cars and FSD.”

The fourth quarter results, however, aren’t showing anything like the pace of progress needed to get to $1 trillion-plus, or even sustain Tesla’s current market cap of well over $800 billion. The reason: Tesla isn’t turning generally robustly-rising revenues into profits. Instead, it’s relying on those sales of regulatory credits to competitors that need them to avoid fines in jurisdictions such as California and the E.U.

In Q4, Tesla announced that for the year, it posted pre-tax GAAP income of $1.154 billion, in what looks like a big improvement from last year’s deficit of $665 million.

Dig into the numbers, however, and you’ll find that all of that “progress” and then some comes from hawking the credits. In 2020, that line item furnished $1.58 billion in revenues, which we can reasonably assume is virtually all pre-tax profit. That’s almost triple the $594 million total from CO2 sales 2019. Hence, without the income from those credits, the profits from Tesla’s basic car and battery businesses would have advanced from a negative $1.259 billion to a still loss-making $426 million. Tesla didn’t turn the corner in Q4: It would have posted a pre-tax deficit of $22 million sans the bounty from rivals buying its credits.

It’s uncertain how long how Tesla will be pocketing the big CO2 sales that this year, accounted for its much ballyhooed swing from loss to profit. On the earnings call, CFO Zach Kirkhorn explained that “Regulatory sales are an extremely difficult area to forecast. 2020 sales were higher than our expectations.” He went on to stress that “It’s possible for a handful of quarters that they remain strong, and possibly not.” But he foresees that after that interim period, regulatory sales “in the long-term will not be a material part of our business.”

The almost three-fold jump in those revenues sprung mainly from a deal Tesla forged with in Europe with Fiat Chrysler. Starting last year, the E.U. lowered the emissions requirements per car, averaged across the yearly number sold, for European automakers by around 30%. But it also allowed manufacturers that are over-the-limit to form “pools” with competitors that win extra credits for emissions-per-auto that are under the threshold. So as an all-EV enterprise, Tesla is loaded with those credits. Its pooling with Fiat Chrysler is reportedly producing around $1.2 billion a year in regulatory revenue, accounting for the bulk of Tesla’s total in 2020.

But the Fiat Chrysler windfall will fade soon, though the timetable is uncertain. In January, it merged with Group PSA of France to form Stellantis. PSA as a major EV manufacturer was already in compliance with the new E.U. regs. Well before its union with PSA, Fiat Chrysler had announced that its own move into electric vehicles would drastically reduce its need for credits in 2021, and render it independent in 2022. The merger is accelerating the shift of Fiat Chrysler models to EVs, since PSA specializes in electrified drivetrains and platforms. It appears that Tesla will recoup part of the lost revenue from Fiat Chrysler from Honda, which need the credits and recently joined the pool. The new deal reportedly calls for Honda to pay Tesla around $100 million annually.

Tesla could get a boost if the Biden Administration increases the regulatory credits championed under Obama-Biden. The Trump regime curbed those credits, but the surge from the E.U. overwhelmed the slowdown in the U.S., enabling Tesla to multiply its overall regulatory sales, and this year, turn a profit. More U.S. federal credits would help, but once again, Tesla doesn’t expect the category to be a significant contributor after the next few quarters.

Tesla will soon need to do what it’s not doing now, generate earnings from cars and batteries. And those profits must prove to investors that Tesla is indeed the wonder that can go from zero to sixty faster than any vehicle in history.