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Elon Musk has sold nearly 12 million shares of Tesla in the past six weeks—and he may have cashed out at the top

December 16, 2021, 1:00 AM UTC

It was the middle of a Saturday afternoon in early November, and Elon Musk was where else, but on Twitter.

The Tesla CEO had a question for his tens of millions of followers: Would they support Musk, the world’s richest man, selling 10% of his stock in the electric-car maker? Musk made it clear in a follow up to the original poll that he would “abide by the results, whichever way it goes,” before adding that his compensation only comes by way of stock—making the only way for him to actually have to pay taxes is to sell some shares. So, over the rest of the weekend, hordes of tweeters logged into their accounts to weigh in on Musk’s proposition, and, on Sunday, a verdict was reached: Sell.

And sell Musk has.

Over the five-and-a-half weeks since the Twitter poll, the outspoken, often outlandish, and meme market favorite Musk has sold nearly 12 million shares of his electric vehicle company for a total of $12.7 billion, according to data from InsiderScore/Verity that was provided to Fortune. However, with shares now down more than 20% from their all-time highs, investors may still be trying to piece together what has happened since Musk began selling. Here’s what has gone down so far:

So why is Musk selling?

For a large part of the shares Musk has sold—54.8% to be exact—the rationale is not all that dramatic.

In 2012, Tesla’s board approved a compensation plan for Musk that included options on 22.8 million shares, according to CNBC. Set to expire in August 2022, the options carry a strike price of $6.24 per share, meaning when Musk exercises one of the options contracts, he pays $6.24 for a share. Tesla’s stock has sat well north of $1,000 for much of 2021, though—a canyon of a divide that was bound to make Musk’s tax bill that much more hefty. (CNBC has estimated that Musk would be staring down a tax bill around $15 billion.)

And so, the Tesla CEO has deployed a strategy that, according to InsiderScore/Verity director of research Ben Silverman, is not all that unusual in corporate America’s C-suites: Exercise the options and flip some of the shares to cover the taxes that are due.

None of it should have really been that much of a surprise to Tesla followers, anyway. In September, Musk told Kara Swisher at the 2021 Code Conference that “a huge block of options will sell” in the fourth quarter. “Really those are not that interesting,” Silverman says of the shares. “It’s behavior that executives and directors do quite often.”

So far, the shares Musk has sold to cover the option exercises’ tax implications have raised $6.9 billion, according to InsiderScore/Verity data. InsiderScore/Verity data show that the Tesla CEO has kept about 8.4 million shares from the options that were exercised, versus selling 6.5 million of them.

What about the other half?

The intrigue about Musk’s share sales, for Silverman, is with the other 45.2% of the nearly 12 million shares Musk has sold.

Offloaded in a four-day stretch that began Nov. 9, the more than 5 million shares carried an important distinction from those sold as part of the options being exercised: The resulting proceeds, which totaled $5.7 billion, went directly to Musk, says Silverman, who added that “the timing was very opportunitistic.”

Indeed, around the same time that Musk tweeted about selling a 10% position in the company, Tesla shares had been at a record high. However, across Wall Street, investors were starting to rethink how they viewed certain stocks that are more vulnerable to higher interest rates. Inflation was (and still is) on the rise, and concern was settling in that the Federal Reserve was bound to accelerate its bond tapering timeline in laying the groundwork for multiple interest rate hikes in 2022—a suspicion that was confirmed Wednesday.

All of which, according to Ingalls & Snyder senior portfolio strategist Tim Ghriskey, has punished higher-valuation stocks. Of which “Tesla might be the poster child,” Ghriskey says.

Musk was not alone in selling at the top, of course. A recent analysis from The Wall Street Journal found that 48 top executives—including Musk, Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg, and Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella—have collected more than $200 million each from stock sales in 2021, which was almost four-times the average number of executives between 2016 and 2020. Insiders at S&P 500 companies have more broadly sold an all-time high $63.5 billion of shares through November, marking a 50% spike from 2020, The Journal reported.

How has the stock reacted?

Even though the majority of Musk’s sales have been more of a tax formality than a reflection on where the Tesla CEO sees the stock heading, investors have followed Musk’s lead with little hesitation. Since Musk began selling, Tesla shares have plunged. On Nov. 5, the day before Musk issued his Twitter poll, Tesla shares closed trading at $1,222.09. It has since fallen 20.1% to $975.99, as of Wednesday’s close.

Musk is certainly not done selling yet, either. The Tesla CEO may be unlikely to make any more opportunistic sales in the immediate future, Silverman says. But he still holds more than 10.5 million of the options today, which are likely to be exercised and sold off in various bunches before Jan. 1, Silverman adds. And until they are and Musk is done selling, investors should probably be bracing for the stock’s wild ride to continue for a little while longer.

“We would expect the stock to remain under pressure until he is done selling,” Ingalls & Snyder’s Ghriskey tells Fortune. “It seems to us that it’s been a pretty aggressive sale here. He’s really flooded the market with shares, and that’s why the stock has corrected so much.”

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