Tesla Q1 earnings: The wheels are churning, the pebbles are flying, but TSLA is going nowhere

April 26, 2021, 10:07 PM UTC

Tesla’s Q1 report was widely lauded on Wall Street for beating expectations. Those expectations must have been mighty low. The numbers it released at precisely 4:09 PM on April 9 aren’t nearly what you’d expect from the colossus that by this writer’s math, needs to be worth over $1.4 trillion, and would need to earn almost as much as Microsoft delivered in 2020, to truly reward its investors. For Q1, it looks more like Tesla’s spinning its wheels than racing towards the glorious victories it much clinch to justify the sumptuous valuation awarded by its enthusiasts.

True to form, investors mainly yawned when the the lackluster Q1 results went public. In the aftermarket on April 26, prior to the conference call, its stock stood at $727, almost exactly where it closed the previous day.

The most striking problem: Tesla appears to be posting GAAP earnings of close to zero in its main business of making, selling and leasing electric cars. Its auto revenues actually fell in Q1 from Q4 of 2020, retreating 3.3% or $312 million to $9.002 billion. Of that figure, $518 million flowed from the sales of regulatory credits. Their contribution exceeded their contribution in Q4 by $117 million or almost one-third. So without the sales of emission awards to its rivals, Tesla’s sales would have fallen even more, by $429 million.

Its battery, energy generation, and services segments also suffered a slight decline in revenues to $1.39 billion. It is encouraging that despite softening sales overall that Tesla managed to lift gross profits and margins in autos, even after the regulatory credits. The reason: Its production costs fell faster than the drop in profits. In the press release, Tesla emphasized underlined that high point, stating that “reducing the average cost per vehicle is essential to our mission.” So on the cost side, Tesla is making progress.

Despite that plus, Tesla’s not showing nearly rapid enough gains in the top line growth or profitability needed to fulfill the Tesla Story. The best evidence is its pre-tax profits, excluding regulatory credits. As Musk has acknowledged, those benefits––most now coming from Europe––will quickly fade, and won’t be a significant contributor to earnings in in the years, or ever quarters, ahead.

For Q1, net profits before taxes were $533 million. After the soon-to-be ephemeral credits of $518 million, Tesla earned just $15 million. We don’t know exactly what it made on the EVs that account for 87% of its sales, because it doesn’t break out the operating costs for cars versus its other franchises. If batteries and services are absorbing a bigger share of expenses than their revenues, then EVs could be earning somewhat more than $15 million. We just don’t know.

But the trend isn’t encouraging. Tesla actually earned a lot more pre-tax in Q3 of last year than in the most recent quarter, $158 million versus $15 million. Put simply, Tesla is making close to nothing on a standard, GAAP basis in its basic business.

It’s an understatement to say that Tesla boosters will want a return of 10% or more over the next seven years to hold the stock. After all, just look at the zig-zagging price chart. This is one risky bet.

To get there, it’s market cap would need to double to the $1.4 trillion I mentioned earlier, and even at a premium PE of 30, the GAAP pre-tax income required would approach $60 billion, probably making it one of the half-dozen most profitable enterprises on the planet. The wheels are churning, the pebbles are flying, the rut is deepening, and for making money, one of the most justly lauded, revolutionary machines in history is going nowhere.

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